Tuesday, January 05, 2016

U.S. in a Bind as Saudi Actions Test a Durable Alliance

By DAVID E. SANGER, NYT
JAN. 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday confronted the fundamental contradiction in its increasingly tense relationship with Saudi Arabia. It could not bring itself, at least in public, to condemn the execution of a dissident cleric who challenged the royal family, for fear of undermining the fragile Saudi leadership that it desperately needs in fighting the Islamic State and ending the conflict in Syria.

The United States has usually looked the other way or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists. In return, Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran.

For years it was oil that provided the glue for a relationship between two nations that share few common values.

But the political upheaval in the Middle East and the American perception that the Saudis are critical to stability in the region continue to hold together an increasingly fractious marriage. So when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the dissident cleric, on Saturday, beheading many of them in a style that most Americans associate with the Islamic State rather than a close American partner, the administration’s efforts to explain the relationship became more strained than ever.

In fact, the executions were the culmination of a series of events in the past few years that have led to clashes between the two nations.

“We haven’t been on the same page with the Saudis for a long time,” said Martin S. Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution and a former top aide to Secretary of State John Kerry. “And it starts with Mubarak.”

(More here.)

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