The cancellation of the UN General Assembly speech of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and the refusal of the kingdom to take up a seat on the Security Council signalled Riyadh’s growing anger with the US and the Council’s other four permanent members.
The Saudis accuse them individually and the Council as a whole of failing to launch decisive military action against the Syrian regime and take a tough line with Iran over its nuclear programme.
Saudi anger could jeopardise the convening on November 23-24 of the repeatedly postponed US-Russian sponsored conference designed to end the blood-letting in Syria and establish a transitional government.
The Western- and Arab-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition is under conflicting pressures: the West insists that the group must attend the gathering while its main financiers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are opposed. Dozens of Saudi and Qatari funded and armed fundamentalist groups fighting the Syrian government have flatly rejected the conference and have said the Coalition would betray their cause if it attends. Riyadh and Doha regard the military option as the sole certain means of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the Western powers, China and Russia favour a negotiated solution.
An umbrella body of expatriate and domestic opposition and rebel factions, the National Coalition is headed by Ahmed Jarba, a Syrian tribal figure with close ties to Saudi Arabia. In July, Jarba, who advocates arming the rebel Free Syrian Army, narrowly defeated the Qatari candidate for the Coalition’s presidency, ensuring Riyadh’s ascendancy. However, the Saudis have not been able to heal factional divisions or broaden the coalition’s appeal in Syria itself. The Coalition remains fractured and divided.
Riyadh was also upset by the tentative US effort to improve relations with Iran following Hassan Rouhani’s election as president. In mid-October the positive meeting of the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany and Iran stirred Saudi (and Israeli) concerns that Tehran might manage to do a deal with these powers that would leave Iran’s nuclear programme largely in tact and lift the punitive sanctions regime that has crippled the country’s economy.
The Sunni Saudis, who regard Shia Tehran as their main rival for Arab and Muslim leadership, reject rapprochement between the US and Iran. The Saudis recall that they were second best when Washington enjoyed close ties with Iran’s former ruler Reza Pahlavi.
Following his fall in 1979, the successor clerical regime attempted to export its radical “revolutionary ideology” to neighbouring Arab countries and the largely Sunni Muslim world.
This project was given an initial boost by the 1979-89 campaign to free Afghanistan from Soviet rule. Thousands of Sunni fighters were trained, funded and armed by the US and Saudi Arabia. They did not realise that these fighters, “jihadis,” would subsequently take part in insurgencies in Kashmir, Bosnia, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, lately, Syria.
The US warming to Iran coincided with the Obama administration's decision not to carry out military strikes on Syria in retaliation for the government's alleged use in August of chemical weapons against civilians. Riyadh had hoped that air strikes would give its fundamentalist allies an advantage in the stalemated fighting with government forces.
This did not happen and the US and the European powers have become increasingly wary of jihadis fighting in Syria due to the connection between al-Qaeda and the two main jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria which are the most effective on the field of battle.
Angry and disappointed Saudi Arabia's current intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, a former ambassador to Washington, said the kingdom, an ally since 1932, will distance itself from the US.
Saudi Arabia could do this in various ways. Riyadh could order the Syrian opposition to boycott the coming peace conference, ensuring its cancellation. The Saudis could step up weapons deliveries - particularly shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles - to Syrian fundamentalists despite US warnings that such weapons could end up in jihadi hands. Such actions could mean Riyadh would be censured as a spoiler of the effort to make peace in Syria.
The Saudis have also threatened to diversify arms purchases. This is not practical because most Saudi weapons are US manufactured and require US spare parts. The Saudis could sell US treasury bonds and eliminate extensive real estate holdings but such retaliatory actions could harm the kingdom as well as the US economy.
Therefore, the Saudis remain handcuffed by their close traditional ties to the US and, ultimately, dependent on the US. Since distancing is not really a serious option, it would be better cooperate.