Disagreement On Syria Adds To Chill In U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Saudi Arabia, a long time U.S. ally, has been openly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East and has sent unmistakable signals of its displeasure. The rift appears to be specifically over Syria, but the tensions have been building since the Arab Spring began.

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Secretary of State John Kerry heads to the Middle East this weekend. One key stop on his agenda: the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. There, Kerry will try to fix a public dispute over Syria, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: There's no doubt where the Saudis stand on Syria. You can hear it from the mosques, says Riyadh Mansour, a Syrian living in Riyadh. Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, must go.

RIYADH MANSOUR: During prayer, they will pray to God to relieve Syrians, to end their sufferings, to take Bashar al-Assad to hell - and all of his followers.

AMOS: More than a million Syrians live and work in Saudi Arabia. Mansour is part of a group that organizes private fundraisers to send humanitarian aid to his homeland. Raising money outside government channels is usually prohibited, but the rules have been relaxed for Syrians, says Ziad Moraly.

ZIAD MORALY: And it's not that difficult anymore.

AMOS: Do they object to collecting money for weapons?

MORALY: I do object. (Laughter) I don't collect. And if I know anybody who wants to give money for weapon, I can send him to the guy who is collecting money for the weapon.

AMOS: Sending aid and arms to Syria is popular with Saudis, says Assad al-Shamlan. He teaches at the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Institute.

ASSAD AL-SHAMLAN: There is a popular attitude which is even stronger than the one articulated by the government.

AMOS: That popular support is part of the context for the latest government rift with Washington; frustration that's been building since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, accelerated during the Arab Spring, and has come to a head over Syria, he says.

AL-SHAMLAN: There was no other alternative but to be vocal.

AMOS: Very vocal. Saudi officials rejected a prized seat on the U.N. Security Council over its failure to act on Syria. And the Saudis have threatened to scale back cooperation with the U.S.

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AMOS: The latest signal: a speech in Washington. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief, used unusually blunt language.

PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL: The dithering of leadership in the West...

AMOS: He charged the Obama administration had actually strengthen the Syrian president by abandoning threats of a military strike and teaming up with the Russians to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.

AL-FAISAL: ...designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people.

AMOS: Is this the end of a long-standing alliance? Jamal Khashoggi, an executive at Rotana TV - a private Saudi news channel - says it's a signal of extreme frustration.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI: All right, it's not a serious break. But it is over the particular issue that is Syria.

AMOS: The war has now spilled over every border in the region. Instability is spreading, he says, with a flood of refugees out of the country, and radical Islamists flooding in.

KHASHOGGI: Syria is becoming a hub of al-Qaida, and we don't like that.

AMOS: Young Saudis have joined the fight - hundreds, maybe thousands, says Khashoggi. And there are fears that hardened al-Qaida veterans will return to wage war on the kingdom.

KHASHOGGI: Sure, some of them will return to Saudi Arabia. It's dangerous for them to get their training and he will come back a hard-core zealot, radical Saudi, who will hunt us back.

AMOS: But at the heart of Saudi discontent, fears over their rival Iran, a major Syrian ally committed to the survival of the Assad regime. Greg Gause is a specialist in U.S.-Saudi relations who teaches at the University of Vermont.

GREG GAUSE: They are worried that the United States is backing away from what the Saudis see as their major goals right now, which are to contain and - if possible - role back Iranian influence in the region, and get rid of Bashar al-Assad as part of that program. And they see themselves as the only Arab state standing up to Iranian power.

AMOS: Washington's favorable comments about the new regime in Tehran is another worry for the Saudis, says Khashoggi.

KHASHOGGI: Yes, we are not happy that the Americans are talking to the Iranians and keeping us in the dark. They should keep us in the loop.

AMOS: It's just one more sign, he says, that Washington's interests are changing in the region.

KHASHOGGI: I think the Americans are losing interest in the Middle East. So I think we should develop in Saudi Arabia an independent approach to resolve our problems. And we cannot take United States for granted anymore.

AMOS: But even Khashoggi admits independence won't be easy. The U.S. is a long-term patron, an oil customer - the kingdom's major military contractor. In this turbulent region, the Saudis need American arms more than the U.S. needs Saudi oil.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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