Days after Saudi Arabia surprised the international community with its last-minute decision to reject a rotating UN Security Council seat, there were signs of a growing rift between the oil-rich Gulf monarchy and its key ally, the US.
At a weekend meeting with European diplomats, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief said the kingdom would make a “major shift” in its relations with the United States in protest over Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran, according to media reports.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Prince Bandar bin Sultan invited a Western diplomat to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah over the weekend to voice Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.
It was not immediately clear if Prince Bandar’s reported statements had the full backing of King Abdullah.
In an interview with Reuters, a source close to Saudi policy said Prince Bandar had also told European diplomats that Washington had failed to act effectively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government revolt in 2011.
“The shift away from the US is a major one,” the Saudi source told Reuters. “Saudi doesn’t want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent.”
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies since the kingdom was declared in 1932, giving Riyadh a powerful military protector and Washington secure oil supplies.
The prince’s initiative follows a surprise Saudi decision on Friday to reject a coveted two-year term on the UN Security Council in protest at “double standards” at the United Nations.
Prince Bandar, who was Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years, is seen as a foreign policy hawk, especially on Iran. The Sunni Muslim kingdom’s rivalry with Shiite Iran, an ally of Syria, has amplified sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
A son of the late defence minister and crown prince, Prince Sultan, and a protégé of the late King Fahd, he fell from favour with King Abdullah after clashing on foreign policy in 2005.
But he was called in from the cold last year with a mandate to bring down President Bashar al-Assad, diplomats in the Gulf say. Over the past year he has led Saudi efforts to bring arms and other aid to Syrian rebels while his cousin, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, worked the diplomatic corridors.
‘All options on the table’
“Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the US,” the Saudi source told Reuters. “This happens after the US failed to take any effective action on Syria and Palestine.”
The source declined to provide more details of Bandar’s talks with the diplomats, which took place in the past few days.
But he suggested that the planned change in ties between the energy superpower and its traditional US ally would have wide-ranging consequences, including on arms purchases and oil sales.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, ploughs much of its earnings back into US assets. Most of the Saudi central bank’s net foreign assets of $690 billion are thought to be denominated in dollars, much of them in US Treasury bonds.
“All options are on the table now, and for sure there will be some impact,” the Saudi source said.
He said there would be no further coordination with the United States over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed and financed rebel groups fighting Assad.
The kingdom has informed the United States of its actions in Syria, and diplomats say it has respected US requests not to supply the groups with advanced weaponry that the West fears could fall into the hands of al Qaeda-aligned groups.
Saudi anger peaked after Washington refrained from military strikes in response to a poison gas attack in Damascus in August. The US decided to hold back after Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.
Saudi Arabia is also concerned about signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, something Riyadh fears may lead to a “grand bargain” on the Iranian nuclear programme that would leave it at a disadvantage.