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Written by Kelsey Aulakh

Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah on Monday in order to ease diplomatic strains over Syria and Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s growing resentment of the U.S. and the West culminated last month in their rejection of an offer to take one of 10 temporary seats on the U.N. Security Council, an unprecedented act in the international organization’s history. Although Saudi officials justified the maneuver as a desire to express disapproval with the Security Council’s “double-standards,” some have argued that it actually appeared to be more a method for expressing anger toward U.S. policy.

kerry abdullah nov.4th

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4th [Photo credit: The Associated Press]

Different views

There are two major points of tension in the U.S.-Saudi relationship today. First, Saudi Arabia has voiced concern over U.S. reluctance to give greater military support to Sunni-rebel opposition groups in Syria. Second, the majority-Sunni country perceives the Obama administration to be softening toward Shi’ite Iran – Saudi Arabia’s main regional adversary.

These two factors highlight a greater clash of ideals between the states. Saudi Arabia tends to view conflict in the Middle East in terms of Sunni vs. Shi’ite, and usually supports Sunni-Wahhabi movements, whereas the United States seems to be less picky in terms of the different groups it tries to assist.

Apart from these conflicting perceptions, there is also a more practical side to the changing relationship. The growth of natural gas usage through shale gas production in the United States, along with a 50% increase in U.S. oil production since 2008, suggest that the U.S. is moving toward a diminished dependence on oil from Riyadh and other OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) members.

Still an Asset

Some may maintain that these differences of opinion, combined with a decreased oil dependence, mean that the U.S. has little use for Saudi Arabia today. On the other hand, we should not forget that Saudi Arabia is still a key partner for the U.S., as Kerry’s recent visit only proves. The U.S. should continue working hard to maintain a good relationship with this long-standing ally.

Moreover, when it comes to counter-terrorism, the recent disagreements matter very little, if at all. Global Firepower(GFP), a research organization ranking countries in terms of military strength, puts Saudi Arabia as third only to Israel and Iran in the Middle East. Though our opinions regarding the nature of the counter-terrorism efforts may not be identical, there is always room for negotiation, and Saudi Arabia has considerable resources it is willing to use. The U.S. should use this opportunity.

Although the U.S. has come a long way in terms of oil independence, Bloomberg explains that OPEC is currently in control of 40% of global oil supplies. Robbie Diamond, of an organization called Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), notes that, “[d]espite the domestic oil boom, America’s oil security is only middle-of-the-road.” The U.S. is still a part of the global oil market, and as OPEC remains instrumental in influencing oil prices, any fluctuation in that regional market would affect the United States as well. We have an interest in the area’s stability.

The country is still an asset also because of its leading role in the Arab League. The League has been dubbed as an entity which may have the potential to undertake efforts to secure peace and stability in the region – perhaps, even enabling the U.S. to play a smaller role in the region. Saudi Arabia is one of the 7 initial founders of the League. This is yet another reason why the U.S. should continue to engage the country.

saudi MAP

Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region

Finally, it is important to illustrate the relevance of Saudi Arabia’s strategic location and demographics. The Global Competitiveness Forum highlights Saudi Arabia as one of the top ten most competitive economies in the world. It is located at the intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe making it an important commercial and trading hub. Further, 57% of the country is under the age of 25, and as the government is increasingly investing in education, the Saudis could soon have a highly skilled workforce. Ensuring our good relations with the country may financially pay off in the long run.

Fortunately, the Obama administration’s decision to send Secretary Kerry for talks implies that the U.S. knows it should take this upset ally’s concerns seriously. Let us hope that it is not too late for the U.S. to re-establish its desire to maintain a close relationship with the Saudi government.

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