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A Quiet U.S.-Saudi Spat Spills Into The Open


Another diplomatic dispute spilled into the open this week, this between the U.S. and its longtime ally Saudi Arabia. The Saudis turned down a rotating seat at the U.N. Security Council after they'd lobbied for it for two years. In Riyadh, the Saudi chief of intelligence reportedly called in European diplomats to tell them he was done cooperating with the U.S. A high-profile Saudi prince accused President Obama of dithering on Syria policy at a speech in Washington, D.C. These are all unmistakable messages from a country that usually conducts foreign policy behind closed doors. We turn now to NPR's Deborah Amos, who's in the Saudi capital. Deb, thanks very much for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Is this really a split or just an argument that came out into the open?

AMOS: Let's have a little perspective. This is the 40th anniversary of the 1973 oil embargo that was led by Saudi Arabia, again, over objections to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Americans had to deal with a huge price rise at the pump: 35 cents a gallon to 55 cents. But even then, the dispute wasn't considered a split. Now, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have gotten past 9/11 after it was clear that many of those hijackers were Saudis. So, the alliance is larger than these individual events, but there's little doubt that the Saudis have been sending very clear messages to the Obama administration. The anger's been building for them. Washington's early support of the Arab Spring was choosing chaos over stability. There are still disputes over Egypt. There is the latest U.S. opening to Iran and finally it's also about Syria. The Saudis strongly object to U.S. policy. One Saudi prince called it dithering.

SIMON: Of course, the Obama administration is proud of what seems to be so far a successful program towards dismantling the chemical weapons that are in Syria. They're working with Russia and the U.N. to put a peace conference together in Geneva next month. What are the ground of Saudi objections?

AMOS: You know, the Saudis signed onto a U.S. military strike on Syria, and at some cost to them. This was an Arab country calling for the U.S. to bomb another Arab country. So, they felt they were exposed when the U.N. made this dramatic U-turn to diplomacy with this deal with the Russians. They are committed to getting rid of Bashar al-Assad and they believe that the U.S. has backed off from that objective. In fact, they see that the U.S. has extended Assad's rule. They'd given him time to get rid of the chemical weapons arsenal.

So, he's got time to build his hold on the country with the help of Iran and the Russians. The refugee crisis continues to grow; the plight of five million internally placed Syrians inside the country. They're facing another harsh winter without resources. Here, Syrian reports dominate the news coverage. Al Arabiya, the Saudi-backed satellite channel has reported on the ground inside Syria. So, Saudis get a full dose of the horrors of the battlefield in their living rooms every night.

SIMON: And what are the anxieties that the Saudis have over what seems to be for the moment some warming relations with Iran?

AMOS: Oh, that has very much raised concerned here. They see themselves as the last Arab country able to stand up to Iran. Egypt is out of the picture because of internal governance problems. So, the Saudis have been filling, for example, the oil gap. That's the losses from Iranian production due to international sanctions. With this warming, it is both surprising and troubling. And that's true not just here but across the Gulf. Will the U.S. warming with Iran come at the expense of Saudi Arabia? That's what they ask here. This relationship between the United States and Saudi was never based on agreement on all issues, but sometimes the contradictions just become too much, as it has with Syria, first and foremost. And there's also this shadowy suspicion about what's going to happen with Iran.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Riyadh. Thanks so much for being with us, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.