After a drone attack took Saudi Arabia by surprise Sept. 14, crippling Saudi Aramco’s oil production, officials in Riyadh were probably hoping for a strong military response from the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the raid an “act of war” and US President Donald Trump was quick to unleash a series of tweets stating in clear language that America would defend its Middle Eastern ally. Pompeo was on the next plane to Riyadh to review the evidence and discuss the next steps, but after a slew of words condemning Iran, which denies involvement, Trump’s only action was more sanctions on Tehran.
America has a storied relationship with Saudi Arabia. In the early 1990s, it sent troops to defend the kingdom against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who invaded neighbouring Kuwait. Operation Desert Shield was exactly as its name implies: protect Saudi Arabia and most importantly, US oil interests. The two nations teamed up in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait and since then, even during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the pair have remained staunch allies, mostly to serve as a check on Iran.
“Now the Saudis are under direct assault like never before. And what is our response? Almost muted. You just can’ t let this pass without any response,” said Bilal Saab, analyst at the Middle East Institute. “What the hell are we doing in the Middle East if we’ re not going to protect the energy markets? I worry that the Iranians feel emboldened and what that could mean is more of these brazen attacks.”
The attack caused many to wonder if a US – Iran war would finally breakout after over a year of increased tensions and the offensive on Saudi Aramco provided what could have been the perfect opportunity. Diplomats in Riyadh painted a picture that the attack was not simply on Saudi Arabia, but on the entire global oil market. Surely the US, which never missed an opportunity to fight for oil, would be keen to retaliate. Furthermore, Trump boasted on numerous occasions about how close his relationship is with the royal family.
Yet it was not to be and governments across the region are now taken aback by the toned-down American response. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is stunned that there was not a military counterattack. Worse, it now questions the military equipment it purchases to the tune of billions of dollars a year from the US. Either it failed or the Saudi military did, but in either case, it leads to second thoughts about the capabilities of its defence systems.
Recently, it began to look for other sources of military technology, notably from Russia and China.
“They have good access to China and Russia,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst. “They’ll buy [weapons] from whoever. A new threat has come so you have to redesign your defensive architecture unless America comes in full blast to declaw Iran. Every valuable piece of infrastructure in the world is far more vulnerable than people thought.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the largest consumers of American-made defence weapons, but none were able to stop the fleet of drones that attack the oil refineries. Shihabi also noted that the offensive raises the possibility that other non-state actors could harness the same technology and use the attacks as a blueprint for striking the kingdom in future endeavours. Iran has a large number of proxies spread across the region in addition to Houthi rebels, which it supplies. Houthis have frequently launched rockets across the border from Yemen, but most have been intercepted by Riyadh’s defence systems.
Riyadh’s strongest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, decided not to respond to the attacks, following the US lead. The relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia was already strained due to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the rising number of civilian deaths in Yemen. The Emirates had begun to downscale its involvement in the civil war as a result. It is highly unlikely to take the initiative or even join Saudi Arabia in a joint attack without first guaranteeing international support.
“I haven’ t seen any widespread willingness to commit,” said a western diplomat specializing in the region. “It sends a message that you can engage in unprecedented aggression against a US ally and America will not respond.”
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is close to Iran which lies directly across the Persian Gulf. If it were to participate in an attack, it would place its tourism industry in jeopardy with any possible counterattack, something it would be foolish to do.
After almost two decades of war in the Middle East, American support for an attack on Iran is minuscule, especially without solid proof that it was responsible for the attack.
Saudi Arabia now finds itself in the unfamiliar position of being vulnerable. While wars have raged in neighbouring states for decades, the kingdom has been relatively peaceful. The absence of a stronger US reaction provides it a logical reason to question the continued alliance. After all, if its ally refuses to come to its aid then what is the point of the relationship?