Saudis only a bit player in US' twin priorities for the Middle East

Saudi Arabia's embassy in in Washington, DC.
Saudi Arabia's embassy in in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

Even though the diplomatic fallout between Saudi Arabia and Iran further complicates the geopolitics in the Middle East, it is unlikely to trigger any major adjustment of US posture there.

Observers in Washington say that they do not expect the Obama administration to intervene in the crisis beyond issuing calls for a diplomatic solution.

At the heart of the matter, they add, is that for America's key goals in the Middle East - implementing the Iran nuclear deal and containing the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group - Saudi Arabia is only a bit player.

It is not significantly involved in military operations against ISIS nor does it have any role in the Iran nuclear deal. In both cases, Iran is the more important player for the United States.

"On every security issue that matters, Iran is on the other side of Saudi Arabia. So (the Iran deal) is a problem for Saudi Arabia, but the Americans do not care because the Saudis don't matter that much to the Americans," said Mr Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group.

"The alliance is frayed and weak, and I suspect over the next five to 10 years, Iran will be a closer relationship for the US than Saudi Arabia will be."

Mr Nicholas Heras, research associate in the Middle East Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, echoed the sentiment, telling The Straits Times that while the US will not want to be seen taking the Iranian position, it cannot back Riyadh.

"Teheran retains dominant influence in Baghdad and strong influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, and there are thousands of US soldiers in Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq, implementing the counter-ISIS campaign. Should it choose, Teheran could activate Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias that have a lot of power on the ground in Iraq to attack US soldiers. There are very real, very deadly consequences for the US in the region from Teheran if it is seen as being too pro-Riyadh," he said.

Other experts have noted that a middle-of-the-road position might prompt further reckless behaviour by Saudi Arabia, as it becomes increasingly convinced that Washington is an unreliable ally. Already, there is talk that the Saudis are unhappy with the Obama administration - believing it has sacrificed its close relationship with Riyadh to enhance its ties with Teheran.

The dilemma has left the US with few options. For now, it is doing the minimum.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Saudis only a bit player in US' twin priorities for the Middle East'. Print Edition | Subscribe