To the extent that this week's meetings of Persian Gulf leaders at the White House and Camp David were intended to help smooth over those divisions, an opportunity has slipped away. And the future looks even more complicated if the two countries head down different paths toward their perceived security.
"There's no question there have been differences. That's been true for some time," said Philip Gordon, who stepped down a month ago as the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the gulf region. "The relationship is not a sentimental one. We each have interests, and if we show we're willing to work with them on their core interests, they will show they're willing to do that with us."
The question is whether each is willing. In the 70 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been a complicated marriage of shared interests, clashing values and cynical accommodations. The common denominator was a desire for stability. But now the two sides define that differently.
For Mr. Obama, a diplomatic agreement with Iran curbing its nuclear program offers the strongest chance of keeping conflict in the region from escalating. For the Sunni-led Saudi government, the relaxation of sanctions in the proposed deal would simply give Iran, a predominantly Shiite state, billions of dollars to foment more instability around the region.
While the Americans and the Saudis are now cooperating to fight the Islamic State, Riyadh wants more action to force out the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Mr. Obama has been reluctant to intervene. Similarly, while Mr. Obama has portrayed the drive for greater democracy in the region as a force for good, the Saudis see the still simmering Arab Spring movement as a threat to their hold on power.
More from the New York Times:
Despite Displeasure With US, Saudis Face Long Dependency
King Salman Upends Status Quo in Region and the Royal Family
SaudiArabia Announces Cease-Fire in Yemen
In the midst of all that, the politics of energy have shifted along with the surge in oil production in North Dakota and Texas. No longer so dependent on foreign crude, the United States can flex muscles without worrying about the Saudis cutting its energy supply. Yet Washington still relies on Riyadh to keep the price of oil low to pressure Russia's energy-based economy in the standoff over Ukraine.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, said that differences were to be expected between two countries with varied interests but that those did not undermine the broader relationship. "We have a very robust agenda that we share with the Saudis," he said. "There have been disagreements under this administration and under the previous administration about certain policies and development in the Middle East, but I think on a set of core interests, we continue to have a common view about what we aim to achieve."
But experts said the United States had little desire to be drawn more deeply into the dangerous proxy war between Iran and the Sunni states playing out in places like Yemen. "The United States is not interested in overindulging in other issues that the gulf states are worried about," said Marwan Muasher, a Jordanian former foreign minister. "Are the gulf states going to go back from this meeting feeling reassured? I would say the answer is no."
Presidents have labored to stay close to Saudi Arabia for decades, but have sometimes run into turbulence. Ronald Reagan sold the Saudis sophisticated Awacs airplanes over the objections of Israel. George Bush sent 500,000 troops to defend Saudi Arabia and reverse Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. His son George W. Bush shared plans in advance with eager Saudis for his own invasion of Iraq.