Mansour Almarzoqi Albogami an academic and researcher on Saudi politics at Sciences Po de Lyon, France has an article in Al Jazeera
that discusses a number of the reasons for the growing rift between the Saudis and the US. Albogami notes that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood posed a problem for Saudi Arabia since it was a rival that promised to install a democratic system but at the same time in accordance with Sharia law. The Saudis see their own government as one where Sharia law is enshrined but not democracy or the type of freedoms associated with liberal democracy. While American critics of the Mursi government condemned the aspects of the Mursi government that went counter to liberal ideas the Saudis worried about Sharia law being melded with a democratic system. If that idea caught on in Saudi Arabia, the regime would be doomed.
The Saudis shifted their discourse on legitimacy. It is not following Islam in general that makes a government legitimate but following the particular brand of Islamism found as predominant in Saudi Arabia, Salafism. The Saudis were pleased when the military under General Sisi toppled the Morsi government in July. The fact that Morsi had been democratically elected meant little. For the US on the other hand, the overthrow and consequent violent crackdown, repression of dissent and other features of the military-backed regime caused conflict with their professed ideals. The Saudis felt that the military should have been supported by the US. Interestingly enough this meant Saudi and Israeli points of view on support for the new regime coincided. The Saudis worried that the Mursi regime might seek a rapprochement with Iran and for that reason as well were glad to see him gone Now it seems that the US itself is also taking this route with a possible agreement on its nuclear program and perhaps lessening of sanctions.
However, the Saudis for decades have been building an anti-Iran front in the Middle East. Syria is regarded by the Saudis as a key gate for Iran to influence the Arab world. For some time the Saudis had been hoping to polarize the situation in Assad's Syria which was run mostly by elites from the Alawite Shia sect. In this case the Arab Spring uprisings were seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. There was a chance of supporting the Sunni majority to overthrow the government and end the Syria Iran alliance.
The Saudis were hoping the US would support the rebels or intervene powerfully enough to turn the tide against Assad. However, the US has been reluctant and cautious, worried about Islamic extremists. The Saudis were particularly unhappy that the US did not launch a missile strike against Assad.
Now the US is on the verge of a possible deal with Iran. If there is rapprochement and normalization of relations with Iran then the Saudis will have to share power in the region along with some other Gulf countries. Again, interestingly enough, Israeli and Saudi views coincide. Israel too is dead against any US accommodation with Iran. Part of the rationale for the huge defense spending of Israel much of it funded by the US is the threat of Iran. If relations with the US improve, the US will be less impressed with the Israeli narrative of an Iranian threat. Albogami thinks that the Saudis will adjust to the new realities and that the rift will not be permanent. It is in the interest of both countries that they cooperate.
US Secretary of State, John Kerry,
has played down the idea that there is a rift between the two countries. When he met recently with Saudi King Abdullah Kerry said: “There is no difference in our mutually agreed upon goal in Syria,” He also claimed that the US would not stand idly by as Assad used weapons against his own people. Prince Saud
also downplayed any rift:
“It is not strange to see concurrence and differences between any two serious friends who explore all issues, present their views and seek solutions through continuous dialogue at all levels with the aim to reach a common vision that would be reflected positively to solve or at least make breakthroughs of thorny issues.”
Yet many analysts and commentators see the recent rejection by the Saudis
of a seat on the UN Security Council as not just a criticism of UN inability to act decisively against Assad but of US policy as well:
By all counts, Saudi Arabia is not amused by U.S. policy toward Syria and Iran. In a public display of pique, Riyadh refused a seat on the UN Security Council and has, to judge from press reports, made its displeasure plain to anyone who will listen.