Top U.S. military commander moves to ease souring relations with Saudis

After a series of high-profile disputes between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the nation’s top military official in the Middle East moved Monday to ease tensions in one of America’s most enduring, yet perplexing alliances.

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, began a series of one-on-one meetings with leading members of the House of Saud royal court, hoping to find common ground and clear up past grievances.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has sharply deteriorated in recent months over a range of security-related issues and a reshuffling of the diplomatic order in the Middle East, factors that have opened a gulf of suspicion between the two nations.

"The first thing we are trying to do is listen to what they are telling us,” said Votel, who dashed from one lavish palace to the next. “It's important to maintain confidence in the relationship."

A root cause of the friction has been the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival in the region. The war in Yemen, pitting Saudi-backed forces against Iranian-backed rebels, also emerged recently as another irritant.

This month, the Obama administration publicly ordered an “immediate review” of its support of the Saudi-led military coalition, which has carried out daily bombing runs in Yemen blamed for thousands of civilian deaths. 

That came just weeks after Congress passed a law that allows relatives of Sept. 11 victims to seek damages from Saudi Arabia over claims that government officials aided some of the hijackers.

There was also an effort in the Senate last month to block a $1.2-billion arms deal with the kingdom, raising questions about the future of the 73-year alliance between the two nations, long built on the U.S. demand for Saudi oil and the Saudi’s need for American weapons.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in tanks, attack helicopters, missiles and training, according to data compiled by the Center for International Policy.

Saudi mistrust of Washington grew out of last year’s landmark arms-control deal with Iran, brokered by the U.S. and other world powers, that curtailed Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Saudis complained that the deal legitimized Iran’s ability to continue nuclear research for peaceful purposes, while doing nothing to tackle its other bad behavior, such as promoting terrorism and developing ballistic missiles.

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-controlled Iran are the region’s archrivals and are willing to fight proxy wars, like the one in Yemen, to assert power and influence.

Saudis also took great umbrage when Obama, in an interview this year with the Atlantic Magazine, said that Saudi Arabia and Iran would have to learn to share the neighborhood. The Saudis saw this as part of Obama’s broader animus toward the desert kingdom, which he has frequently referred to as America’s “so-called ally.”

“The administration — the White House — is thoroughly fed up” with the Saudi government, said Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy who specializes in Arab Gulf states. And the feeling is mutual, he added.

“The Saudis want to see the back side of the Obama administration,” Henderson said. “They don’t mind too much whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, as long as it’s no longer Obama.”

Added to the precariousness of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is uncertainty over what may shape up as a succession struggle in the Saudi monarchy. King Salman is 80 years old. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammad ibn Nayif, is not in the best of health and is being aggressively overshadowed by the deputy crown prince and the king’s favorite son, Mohammad ibn Salman.

Prince Ibn Salman is only 31 years old and is extremely PR-savvy in what is traditionally an opaquely ruled royal kingdom. He is also considered less friendly to Washington, going so far as to lecture Obama last year over the failings of U.S. foreign policy. The ambitious young prince has been one of the movers behind Riyadh’s shift to its own more assertive foreign policy less reliant on the United States, and he was on the list of people Votel was meeting with Monday.

Votel met separately with   Ibn Salman and Ibn Nayif to discuss their security concerns in the gulf region.  

It was Ibn Mohammad who last December announced a 34-nation coalition to fight terrorism, seen as a challenge to U.S. dominance of that struggle. (Some of the “members” of the coalition later said they hadn’t even been consulted.) And he is a chief architect of Saudi’s 19-month-long involvement in Yemen, despite his own lack of military experience — something that may explain the ill-fated trajectory of the battle.

By most accounts, the Yemen fight against Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels is not going well for Saudi Arabia, leading to billions of dollars in costs, many soldiers’ deaths and international opprobrium over a Saudi bombing campaign that has included the documented use of cluster and incendiary munitions that are outlawed by many of the world's governments.

The U.S. military never formally joined the kingdom's offensive and instead opted to provide intelligence, munitions and midair refueling to the Saudi coalition, as well as advice to mitigate civilian casualties.

The White House pledged the support in part because it wanted Saudi Arabia to go along with the Iran  nuclear deal. But once that was implemented this year, it became difficult for the administration to ignore evidence that the Saudi-led air campaign had resulted in devastating bloodshed after hospitals, homes, schools, public facilities and open-air markets were bombarded.

The final straw for the White House came Oct. 8 when Saudi warplanes repeatedly struck a funeral for the father of a high-ranking minister in the Yemeni capital, Sana, killing more than 140 mourners, including children, local officials and pro-peace Yemenis, and injuring several hundred others.

The next day the National Security Council released a statement calling for the immediate review of cooperation.

“U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” said NSA spokesman Ned Price. “Even as we assist Saudi Arabia regarding the defense of their territorial integrity, we have and will continue to express our serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged.”

Fewer than five U.S. military personnel are now attached to the planning cell to coordinate U.S. support for the Yemeni conflict. The U.S. has also reduced refueling of Saudi fighter jets, limiting their ability to fly in Yemeni airspace.

“We have been uncomfortable with the … the prosecution of the war in terms of the civilian casualties,” a senior administration official said, speaking anonymously in keeping with protocol. “The strike on the funeral was really, really hard to swallow. We thought that that was particularly egregious.”

The Saudi-led coalition later said the attack on the funeral was the result of “bad information” supplied to it. 

Apparently blaming the Americans, Houthi rebels reacted by lobbing missiles at a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, and the U.S. Navy responded with a barrage of cruise missiles. The Obama administration insisted it would not be dragged into the Yemen war.

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