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White House seeks to limit fallout from U.S.-Saudi tensions

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration sought on Wednesday to limit any damage to the long-standing U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia in a rift over America's role in the Middle East that has underscored growing strategic differences.

A spate of unusually public complaints from leading members of the Saudi ruling family has shed new light on the kingdom's frustration with the United States over its perceived inaction on Syria, its diplomatic engagement with Iran and its coldness toward the military government in Egypt.

While no one is expecting a rupture in a strategic relationship that has served for more than half a century as a pillar of U.S. policy in the region, some of the mutual interests that brought the two allies together have started to fray.

A Saudi warning that it is considering a "major shift" away from the United States caught the Obama administration by surprise but it did not set off alarm bells in Washington. The White House has shown an increased willingness to risk strains with allies in order to pursue U.S. goals of avoiding military intervention in Syria and seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia's chief rival.

U.S. officials have taken pains to avoid the impression that they are not taking the Saudi concerns seriously.

But they are also showing no signs of giving ground, despite the warning by the Saudi intelligence chief to European diplomats earlier this week that Riyadh was contemplating a shift away from the United States.

White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged disagreements with Saudi Arabia but said: "We work those out in a candid and forthright way as we maintain the basic foundation of a very important relationship."

"We're going to keep working with our Saudi partners because that relationship is very important economically and in national security ways," he told reporters.

Some current and former U.S. officials privately have likened the Saudi outburst - all but unprecedented for a kingdom that prefers to conduct diplomacy in the shadows - to a temper tantrum that will have little lasting effect on bilateral ties.

There has been no sign, for example, that the Saudis want to scale back or close U.S. military installations, including a base used to launch unmanned drones against Islamist militants in neighboring Yemen, a U.S. national security source said.

Washington and Riyadh have long been close partners in the fight against al Qaeda, and there is mutual benefit seen in the long-standing U.S. role as ultimate security guarantor for oil supplies flowing from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf exporters.

"I would not say it's a fundamental breach. There are too many ways we depend" on one another, said a former senior U.S. official who has extensive experience dealing with Saudi Arabia.

"It's a family spat (between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia). But it's a serious one."

INTERESTS DIVERGE

Still, some Washington-based analysts say views have become so divergent on issues like Syria, Iran and Egypt that it will be all but impossible for the United States and Saudi Arabia to ever return to being as closely aligned as they once were.

Saudi anger boiled over last week when it renounced a coveted seat on the U.N. Security Council, in protest at what it called international failures to resolve Syria's civil war and grant Palestinians a state.

Behind its concerns was a fear that its closest major ally had failed to respond robustly on Syria - both with threatened military strikes and the arming of anti-government rebels - and would give away too much in any negotiations with Iran.

Simon Henderson, an expert on the Gulf states at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Saudi message was that it regarded President Barack Obama and his administration as "tone deaf to Saudi interests."

Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is dismayed at the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian thaw because of what it sees as a threat to its own security if Tehran is given freer rein in the region.

The United States is also at odds with Saudi Arabia over Egypt, where Washington has curbed military aid after the overthrow of an elected Islamist government and Riyadh has pledged to replace any foreign assistance that is cut.

Prince Bandar, the kingdom's intelligence chief, has created the biggest diplomatic waves with his stark warning that Saudi Arabia would begin distancing itself from the United States.

Though questions have been raised in Washington whether Bandar was speaking for the Saudi leadership or just offering his personal opinion, diplomatic sources in the Gulf said the message from the prince - an outspoken former ambassador to Washington - reflected the views of King Abdullah.

The king once famously advised the United States to "cut off the head of the snake" by launching military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, according to a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

When Obama met Abdullah in 2009 on a visit to the Sunni Muslim kingdom, he had to sit through the monarch's lengthy monologue on Iran, Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite Muslim regional rival.

But the Saudis ended up helping Washington by filling the gap in global oil supplies created by Obama's drive for international sanctions that hit Iran's energy sector hard.

Some analysts now believe a shakeup of Obama's second-term national security team may have contributed to tensions by failing to name a high-level point person to deal with Saudi Arabia, and they suggest the president should now send an envoy to mend fences.

As Obama's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, now CIA director, often went beyond his brief to handle issues related to Saudi Arabia, where he was CIA station chief for six years.

"If they perceive that they don't have a go-to person at a senior echelon, that's a problem because they're such a key partner," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Warren Strobel; Editing by Eric Beech)

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