BEIRUT—Speaking in front of an audience of policy experts, journalists, and diplomats, Carnegie Senior Associate Frederic Wehrey, an expert on U.S.-Gulf relations and a previous analyst at the RAND Corporation stressed that Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States is unlikely to dramatically shift. Despite the perception of a decline in America’s power interest in further involvement in the region, it remains the sole security guarantor for the Gulf monarchies.

Recent and dramatic developments in the Middle East have presented new challenges to the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, with regional commentators calling for more muscular and independent foreign policies to balance what they see as the United States’ unreliability. Frederic Wehrey addressed this development at a special event in Carnegie’s Middle East office in Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday February 5, 2014. Wehrey discussed Saudi Arabian efforts to back different political actors and engage with multiple great powers in order to diversify their options. However, he argued, these existing options all have drawbacks related to capacity, willpower, or political differences within the Gulf.

Wehrey explained this point by highlighting that existing relationships with other great powers are not a substitute for the United States. China, while being Saudi’s biggest oil importer, is a free rider in terms of Gulf security and is more interested in trade. Russia, on the other hand, has soured its relationship with the Gulf over its stance on Libya and Syria. In addition, regional political differences within the Gulf, attributed partly to the “historic distrust” of Saudi Arabia’s hegemony by its neighbors, have decreased regional cooperation and reform.

With this in mind, Wehrey concluded that the U.S. defense priority in the Gulf now is to build the capabilities of Gulf militaries, promote greater multilateralism, and ensure future access for U.S. forces. He argued that the prospect of the Gulf states’ evolving into a truly multilateral defense organization remains distant given political distrust and interoperability issues. Wehrey argued that the United States needs to exert greater pressure for graduated political reform in the Gulf, to ensure long-term stability and stave off future threats.

Regarding growing religious tension in the region, Wehrey rejected the idea that Iran is solely to blame for rising sectarianism in the region, instead also holding Saudi Arabia partly responsible for what he called the “longstanding political exclusion, economic marginalization, and elite manipulation of identities” towards the Shias of the region. He also stressed that Saudi backing of local actors in Syria is also inciting sectarianism. While a Saudi-Iranian détente and a resolution on the Syrian conflict will undoubtedly help in lowering the temperature, sectarianism remains locally rooted and the product of misgovernance.

Wehrey is the author of a new book on sectarianism in the Middle East entitled Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings. You can follow him on Twitter at @FWehrey.

This event is part of Carnegie’s Middle East public lecture series. Please visit for more analysis and up-to-date commentary on the Middle East.

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