Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's richest and most powerful state, is once again at loggerheads with the United States, its longtime patron, oil customer, and weapons dealer. The current split opened with the US abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January and widened as President Barack Obama's administration haltingly embraced pro-democracy demands from the Arab street - a trend the kingdom staunchly opposes.Those differences are on display this week at the United Nations, where Saudi Arabia will join other Arab countries - and over 100 other UN members - in supporting the recognition of a Palestinian state in the world body, a move the United States has committed itself to opposing strenuously on behalf of its closest Middle East ally, Israel.
But Saudi Arabia and the United States have been at odds for much of the last decade, over not just Palestine but also terrorism, energy policy, and the Iraq war. The question is whether repeated strains in the relationship starting even before the 9/11 attacks are leading toward a substantive shift in the kingdom's attitude toward its main foreign protector for the past seven decades. This is a question of major strategic importance for the United States given the kingdom's role as the world's top oil producer in terms of capacity and its No. 4 ranking in foreign exchange holdings. The Saudis continue to hold out against demands from some other oil producers for payment in currency other than the US dollar, partly or totally. What would be the consequences if they agreed to a change in this policy? Is Obama willing to find out?
The United States and Saudi Arabia have always had trouble describing how they relate to each other. For decades, the core of the relationship was summed up in the cryptic description of "oil for security," meaning assured Saudi oil supplies at reasonable prices in return for assured U.S. security of the kingdom against its external enemies.
The deepening divide between the US and Saudi policies toward the spate of democratic uprisings in the Arab world became obvious in March over the fate of the Al Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain. Many Shiites, who constitute the vast majority of Bahraini nationals, took to the streets to demand reforms and eventually an end to the centuries-old ruling Sunni dynasty. As US diplomats pressed the Al Khalifa monarchy to make major reforms, the Saudis sent in troops, crushing the pro-democracy uprising.
Six months later, the US and Saudi Arabia are still at deep odds over Bahrain, while the Palestinian issue is back at the centre of their differences. It is worth remembering that Saudi King Abdullah became so furious with President George W Bush just before 9/11 that he wrote an angry letter warning that if Washington did not do something quickly to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Saudi Arabia intended to freeze its relations with Washington and go its own way.
While the prospect for a nasty US-Saudi exchange over the Palestine issue looms large, both sides have to calculate if they can afford a rift with the Middle East in political turmoil and Iran pushing full speed ahead with its nuclear program. A rift now would put in jeopardy six years of painstaking efforts to repair and repackage the two countries' post-9/11 ties.
The Saudi king has sent several subtle indicators of his mounting anger at Obama's announced intention to veto UN recognition of Palestine even as a nonvoting observer state.
Once again the Saudis find themselves staring at a test of their tangled relationship with Washington. Nonetheless, King Abdullah remains a man of occasional spur-of-the-moment decisions, a character trait that could still produce an unexpected turn in the unsettled US-Saudi relationship.