Several days later, according to news reports, the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, told an unidentified Western diplomat that the decision “was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.,” and that he’d also be scaling back cooperation with the CIA in the training of moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met in Europe this week with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, acknowledged the U.S.-Saudi differences in London on Monday. He insisted, however, that overall ties are solid and that the sides remain “on the same page.”
“We worked closely with Saudi Arabia on a range of regional, political and security issues, including Syria, Iran, Middle East peace, Egypt,” said Kerry. “We’re still working with them on those.”
Some experts countered that it’s too early to tell how much damage has been done to relations between the United States and one of its longest Arab allies.
They noted that some differences may prove to be irreparable, such as U.S. reluctance to be drawn more deeply into Syria. As a result, the Saudis could step up support for the most effective Sunni rebel groups, which are those linked to al Qaida.
“The Saudis will arm whoever the hell they please and that will deepen the sectarian dimension of the conflict,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior State Department official.
With the United States moving toward petroleum independence, the coming years could see even wider swings in the decades-old U.S.-Saudi relationship, he said.
“There is something going on here. It’s like a tectonic shift,” he said. “We have to make some adjustment to it.”
As for Europe, Merkel has said she wants the United States to agree to the no-spying accord before the end of the year. That could well be a difficult goal, with an Obama-ordered study of U.S. surveillance practices that is to be completed also by the end of the year already behind schedule because of the nearly three-week-long shutdown of the federal government.