The relationship between the world's only hyper-power – the United States – and its most important energy superpower – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) – is changing. Why is this happening and what might it mean? There are a number of specific factors which might be significant drivers in shaping the future of one of the world's most important international alliances.
With a presidential election coming up in November, there is certainly potential for the result to have an impact on the relationship between the US and KSA. Personal relationships between the commander-in-chief, the king and members of each side's inner circles are, of course, an important part of how the foreign policies of any state play out.
A good example of this can be seen in the disproportionate influence that the then Saudi Ambassador in Washington had during the presidency of George W Bush. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan –known as "Bandar Bush" because his relationship to the American dynasty was so close – was thought to have played a highly influential role in shaping America's path to war in Iraq in 2003.
Of the two front runners to become the next US president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also the most likely to offer continuity in the relationship. After all, her strong ties with the Saudi regime are not confined to her formal roles, but are also demonstrable through donations to the Clinton Foundation.
The impact of a "President Donald Trump", who is now virtually assured the Republican nomination, is less clear. His general racism and particular hostility to Muslims are surely going to be impediments to friendly relations with the Saudi monarchy, which sees itself as the hereditary Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and thus symbolic leader of the world's 1 billion followers of Islam. He has also openly derided America's current relationship with the KSA as unfair: "They're not paying us a fair price. We're losing our shirt."
However, given that thus far Trump's statements on foreign policy have been mostly "populist pandering masquerading as a strategy" and – unless something very dramatic happens – Trump's occupancy of the White House looks virtually impossible to happen, it is both difficult to assess the impact on the relationship with the Saudis of a Trump presidency and also probably pointless to speculate about it.
Perhaps the factor that has had the most detrimental impact on US-KSA relations during the presidency of Barak Obama has been the so-called Iran-nuclear deal that was signed last year. While much of the media coverage focused on Israeli resistance to the deal, at least as much hostility emanated from Riyadh, where Iran is seen as a regional rival. For the KSA, the deal was problematic because it offered Tehran a way of wriggling loose from the containment conditions which it had endured since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (though they had grown much stricter in the 2000s).
According to the Saudi narrative, Iran represents a threat to the status quo, particularly though its influence within Shia communities, both in the kingdom itself and its neighbouring states. Along these lines, the KSA has identified Iranian influence as a cause of problems in Yemen, Bahrain and its own restive Eastern Province.
Moreover, though the KSA is in receipt of significant support from the US for, inter alia, its ongoing war in Yemen, it also looks upon the potential for a thaw in US-Iran relations as a strategic threat. Iran is, after all, a major rival in terms of oil production and – even under the current theocratic regime –can make a reasonable claim to embody a more democratic heritage than Saudi Arabia, making it potentially closer to the US culturally in the longer term as well.
The global energy market is a turbulent place at the best of times. Hydrocarbons (oil and gas) are the source of Saudi Arabia's vast wealth; despite being a relatively recent discovery, the impact of their use has been a remarkable transformation of human civilisation. However, while they are immensely versatile, hydrocarbons are also both extremely damaging to the environment and finite.
It is these two facts that account for a recent acceleration in efforts to diversify sources of energy production. In particular, there has been a significant increase (though not significant enough for the climate) in the consumption of energy from renewable sources over the past decade and a half, a trend that is apparently set to continue.
The most immediate threat to Saudi interests, though, has been a diversification of how to obtain fossil fuels. In particular, oil produced by new technologies such as fracking, have already changed the nature of the global energy market noticeably, and could even make North America energy independent by 2020.
In such a context, Saudi oil production would not suddenly become worthless – it is still the foremost energy producer on the planet – but it would mean that the kingdom could no longer occupy the role of lynchpin within global energy markets.
How the disastrous ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen play out will obviously have a major bearing on the nature of the US-KSA relationship. While, as noted above, the US and KSA are apparently locked in step over Yemen, there is a greater chance of friction between the two the longer the conflict drags on, particularly as US interests come under increasing stress.
Nevertheless, it is in Syria where there is most obvious tension between Washington and Riyadh. The apparent willingness of the US to accommodate the Assad regime has enraged the Saudis who have, in turn, been accused of scuppering negotiation efforts and preparing to increase their own military involvement in the conflict.
Overall, it is unlikely that any final agreement can be found without the, at least tacit, agreement of Iran and Russia. For the KSA, whether Assad himself remains in power or not, that would be roughly equivalent to guaranteeing the continuity of a regime that it has been engaged with in proxy conflicts for decades.
There have been several actions by the Saudi government mentioned here, and in a previous article, which suggest that the kingdom may be seeking to steer a different course, with a greater emphasis on independence from the US. These include the potential for pursuing its own agenda in Syria, pressing on with the war in Yemen — even as it grows less palatable for the US — and seeking greater stability at home through energy diversification, the partial privatisation of the giant oil business Aramco and building its own weapons industry.
However, another interesting aspect that has come into play recently is the kingdom's move to consolidate its relationship with Egypt and – indirectly – bring itself into line with the normalisation of relations with Israel. These potentially very significant steps came about through a circuitous route via a maritime border agreement and the largely unremarkable Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
In this agreement, the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – whose 2013 military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was supported strongly by Riyadh – ceded the two islands to the kingdom following a visit by King Salman to Cairo. One outcome of this deal is that it will make possible a grand vision to build a bridge across the Red Sea, linking the two countries.
Another, far more significant outcome for the long term is that not only was Israel informed of the islands' transfer by Egypt, but also, as part of the deal, the Saudis stipulated that they would respect the terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace deal. Although Israel is also currently enduring a political rift with the Obama administration, the governments in Tel Aviv and Riyadh have been rumoured to be growing closer behind the scenes for some time; this is the most important and public step on the path to formalising the connection.
It was not all that long ago that Washington was apparently alarmed by the prospect of a potential regime collapse in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Certainly, these are turbulent times and there are numerous reasons why the royal family's grip on the kingdom may be less secure than it appears. However, if the Americans are really concerned about "losing Saudi Arabia", it might be rooted in something a little less dramatic.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.