The State Department downplayed the appearance of mounting geopolitical friction between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on Monday — a day after the former head of Saudi intelligence assailed the Obama administration’s shifting policies in the Middle East and accused Washington of waffling on Syria and Iran.
“The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a long and close strategic partnership,” said Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokesman. “One of the hallmarks of a good partnership is the ability to have quite frank conversations, even, maybe, when we disagree about these very important issues.”
Her comments marked the second time in as many months that the Obama administration has sought to paper over tensions with Riyadh, and were in response to harsh words from Prince Turki al-Faisal.
Prince Turki lambasted the administration during a speech Sunday in Monaco at the World Policy Conference, an annual event that brings together officials and analysts from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
He accused President Obama of reneging on promises and asserted that Washington’s attempt to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be in vain if Mr. Obama does not set clear guidelines for the process — and sticks to them.
“We’ve seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white,” Prince Turki said, according to a report by the New York Times. “When that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it.
“There is an issue of confidence,” the prince said, adding that while Mr. Obama has his problems, when a nation like the U.S. has strong allies “you should be able to give them the assurance that what you say is going to be what you do.”
While U.S. officials say that in private their alliance with Riyadh remains rock solid, there have for months been signs from Saudi Arabia of frustration with the Obama administration.
Initially, the rift appeared to stem from Riyadh’s desire for Washington to take a more aggressive role in backing groups fighting for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But tensions did not boil over until October, when it became evident that the Obama administration was eager to reach an initial nuclear deal with Iran, whether Riyadh supported it or not.
At the time, Saudi Arabia shocked the world by suddenly rejecting a coveted two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council. The move was apparently made to protest the conciliatory posture that several of the Security Council’s permanent members — including the United States — were taking toward nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Iran, a predominantly Shiite Islamic republic, stands as the main regional rival to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim kingdom.
There were also reports in October that current Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan had begun voicing frustrations to other world powers about the U.S.’ overall policy in the Middle East, with particular emphasis on Saudi irritation over the developments with Iran — as well as the White House’s policies toward Egypt, Bahrain and the Palestinians.
It was not, however, clear whether Saudi Arabia’s official posture toward Washington might truly be shifting.
Ms. Harf said Prince Turki is “not even a government official” in Saudi Arabia, suggesting that his comments were not representative of the official positions of the Saudi government.
“I don’t know how helpful it is for me to stand up here and go tit-for-tat with someone who’s not even a government official,” Ms. Harf told reporters at the State Department’s daily press briefing in Washington.
While Prince Turki does not have an official government position at the moment, he did serve as head of Saudi intelligence from 1979 through 2001 and later as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States from 2005 through 2007.
As a member of the Saudi royal family, he is also a brother of current Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
Asked during the press briefing whether such factors might suggested that Prince Turki has been chosen as a “messenger” from the royal family to deliver such criticisms of the Obama administration’s policy, Ms. Harf responded that she “wasn’t sniffing” at the prince’s remarks.
“I was merely stating the fact that he’s not currently in government at this moment,” she said.
She added: “I don’t want to venture, I guess, as to what his motivations are, and he is certainly entitled to his own opinion.”
Furthermore, Ms. Harf said, “all of the issues Turki al-Faisal raised” are already on the docket of things that U.S. officials “regularly discuss” with “Saud al-Faisal, with King Abdullah, [and] with other senior Saudi officials.”
“It’s not a secret that we talk about these issues with senior Saudi officials all the time,” she said.
“And when there are disagreements, we all talk about them openly. That’s what people that work together do.”
Ms. Harf also stressed that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia “share the same goals for the region, whether it’s Middle East peace, whether it’s preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, whether it’s ending the bloodshed in Syria.”