The rejection of the United Nations for failing to match the Kingdom’s longstanding "support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means" and intimations of dissatisfaction with the non-democratic structure of the Security Council was imperious and utterly without irony. The Saudis, after all, are one of the most repressive and feudal ruling elites in the world, who have a long history of covert funding of extremist Islamist terrorist groups across the globe. The rejection that began as a slap at the United Nations evolved in the ensuing days into a barely concealed assault on the foreign policy of the Obama administration. Not since 9/11 have Saudis grabbed the world stage to vent their anger at America with the full throated passion we have seen this week.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan—for many years a running buddy of the Bushes and the newly crowned head of Saudi intelligence—has seen the full betrayal of everything that matters to the Saudis, as the current American administration has repeatedly acted against Saudi wishes. The Saudis have watched as the Obama administration betrayed long-time American ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and then turned its back on General Sisi after his coup against the Muslim Brotherhood. They have watched as Barack Obama vacillated in his support of Sunni fighters in Syria and then walked away from a military attack on the Assad regime. They are now watching as Barack Obama pursues the possibilities for rapprochement with Iran, in the wake of the election of Hassan Rouhani, an action that would mark a complete and utter betrayal of everything for which the half-century old Saudi-American alliance has stood.
Of course, there never was an alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia, at least not in the deeper sense of a coalition grounded in the pursuit of common interests. Ours has been a transactional political relationship that produced something that each side needed. We needed a stable and predictable supply of oil and a recycling of petrodollars. They needed the protection of U.S. military power to secure the interests of the Al Sa'ud regime against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
That was the relationship. Other issues—such as U.S. support of Israel and Saudi support of ultra-orthodox Islam—became points of tension along the way, but were never allowed to undermine the central rationale for the relationship.
Since the first oil embargo in 1973, the essential Saudi-American relationship has been predicated on 'you get our oil, we get your military,' as Jimmy Carter created the Rapid Deployment Force—the precursor to CENTCOM—to secure the Saudi oil fields and the Kingdom. Since that time, it has become standard fare to watch American presidents paying obeisance to one Saudi king or another.
It is oil—a geological coincidence—that had bought them everything. But somehow, Prince Bandar seems to have spent too many evenings watching Lawrence of Arabia, which celebrates the emergence of the Saudi nation, and not enough watching Syriana, which portends a post-apocolyptic vision, a world of declining oil reserves where growing rising popular anger turns Islamist terrorism against the Saudi homeland. The past weeks have been a rude introduction to a future of declining influence, where it is a race against time before the Al Sa'ud family century runs its course.
The endgame on Syria took the worst possible turn for the Saudis. The New York Times headline said it all. U.S. and Russia Reach Deal to Destroy Syria’s Chemical Arms. Syria was not at the table, to say nothing of the Saudis. Instead, the old Cold War adversaries sat down and worked things out. It was like the clock had been turned back a hundred years, to the early 20th century, with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov playing the roles of the British and French diplomats Sykes and George-Picot, who in 1916 secretly mapped out what would become the boundaries of the modern Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Oddly enough, when Vladimir Putin seized the moment to rebuild Russia's relevance in the world as he helped Barack Obama extract himself from a foreign policy mess of his own making, few back in the Washington, DC really had much to say about it. Unlike every other issue, where the pundits and politicians quickly go to the mattresses, criticism of the President was largely muted, even if it mean ceding some respectability to the ceaselessly self-promoting Russian. The relative quiet surrounding the Syria denouement did not reflect a return to the internationalist notion of decades past that partisan politics "ends at the water's edge," but rather sheer exhaustion and lack of any better ideas.
But it was Putin who really put Bandar in his place. Bandar had been lobbying the Russians for months to cut Assad loose. Last month, Bandar made his final play as he brandished both the carrot and the stick to induce Putin to turn on Russia's long-time ally. First, as reported in Al-Safir, Bandar offered an alliance between the Saudis and the Russians (not members of OPEC) with the prospect of controlling the world oil markets. Then he offered a barely veiled threat to the security of Russia's 2014 Sochi Olympics. Give me Assad's head on a platter, Bandar proposed, and “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us.”
For Bandar to sit across from Putin—whom he should have revered as a spymaster of the old school—and believe he could intimidate him was a dramatic misreading of Saudi power. Putin rejected Bandar's entreaties out of hand, and as to the Saudi's threats, Putin—whose career has been defined as much as anything by Russia's Chechen wars—responded, “We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism."
With a population that is one-sixth Muslim, and a country whose southern borders abut Muslim nations, the Russians are acutely aware of the threat posed to their nation from Muslim extremism. Mistaking a transactional relationship for an alliance, Bandar demonstrated that the Saudis have no common interests with the Russians, but instead confessed to what all presumed to be the case: As the paymasters of Islamic terror networks, the Saudis are the source of the very problems that are of the greatest concern to the Russian national security establishment. Putin's response mirrored the Bush Doctrine of a decade ago: "Any nation that supports terrorism we regard to be as a hostile regime."
Then, as if the world were piling on just when the Saudis were down, came this week's headline, "U.S. surges past Saudis to become world's top oil supplier." The PIRA Energy Group report pointed to the resulting security of global oil supplies for years to come, a factor that can only undermine Saudi power and leverage.
Even if the Arab Spring has not yet arrived in the Gulf, it is becoming apparent that the Saudi's world is changing. The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies are under increasing pressure, both from increasingly restive populations as well as the consequences of over-leveraging that has left many of those states unable to support their current spending levels at the current market price of oil.
This week, the Al Sa'ud monarchy has seen its world begin to unravel. World leaders are no longer bending to their will. They have seen their long-held grip over American foreign policy in the region weaken. They made their play against the Russians, and Putin did not blink. The Saudis—who are used to dealing from a position of strength and leverage—are now being confronted with their own weakness. And weakness is the trait that the Al Sa'ud despise most of all.