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US, Saudi alliance is due for new look

President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet today with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and the president’s critics have been sounding a warning: By parting with the Saudis on Egypt, Syria and Iran, they say, his administration is endangering a vital alliance. The truth is, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is overdue for a recalibration.

The United States and Saudi Arabia still have common interests – in fighting terrorism, for example – and Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth means it will hold disproportionate sway in Washington for years to come. But neither Obama nor his critics (nor, for that matter, Saudis themselves) should kid themselves. Saudi Arabia is not a natural ally of the U.S., and it probably never has been.

The current landscape puts in stark relief just how anomalous the relationship is. When the Saudis look around the region, they see rebellions that unseated autocrats, like them, in Tunisia and Egypt. The U.S. generally welcomed these developments. Meanwhile, the one uprising that Saudi’s Sunni royalty supports – in Syria, against Syria’s non-Sunni dictator – is failing, and the Saudis resent the U.S. for not intervening decisively.

On Iran, the Americans and Saudis stood together when the country’s government was led by the pugnacious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. President Hassan Rouhani’s election, however, created an opening for a diplomatic resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, splitting U.S. and Saudi interests.

By complaining that Obama turned his back on Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak after Egyptians rose up against him, Saudi leaders betray both an exaggerated sense of U.S. influence and an unwillingness to consider what democratic reforms they might make to avoid Mubarak’s fate.

For decades, Saudi rulers have been able to rely on their oil wealth both to pacify their population and smooth their relationship with the U.S. This tool, however, is not what it used to be. Increasing internal demand means the Saudis have less to sell abroad. And the U.S. has reduced its reliance on Saudi oil.

None of this is to argue that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have nothing in common. It is in U.S. interests for the Saudis to continue supplying oil to U.S. allies, and for the Saudis to use their spare production capacity to keep prices stable. For their part, the Saudis have to sell oil to someone, as oil revenue supports 80 percent of their budget.

The two countries also share a strong interest in combating terrorism, particularly by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the most serious terrorist threat to both. It benefits neither to scale back their close counterterrorism cooperation, which includes U.S. drone operations out of a base in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is one the region’s oldest, and has a storied past. Obama and Abdullah can be expected to celebrate that history at their meeting. The future of the partnership, however, will require a realistic accounting of their mutual and divergent goals.