Why Obama could get a rough reception from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah
President Obama meets with King Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. The list of Saudi concerns is long, including Syria, Iran, the US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda, and more, analysts say.
To get an idea of the rough reception President Obama can expect when he meets with Saudi Arabia‚Äôs King Abdullah in Riyadh Friday, consider the disappointment and only lightly veiled disdain behind a recent comment from an influential member of the Saudi royal family.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôve seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white,‚ÄĚ Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence head and ambassador to the United States, told an international conference in Monaco last December.
Prince Turki‚Äôs comments were clearly referring to Mr. Obama‚Äôs decision last year not to strike Syria‚Äôs Bashar al-Assad even after the president‚Äôs ‚Äúred line‚ÄĚ on chemical weapons use was crossed. Also hinting that his concerns extend to Obama‚Äôs dealings with Iran, the prince added, ‚ÄúWhen that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it. There is an issue of confidence.‚ÄĚ
Obama will confront Saudi Arabia‚Äôs shaken confidence in the US when he sits down with the king. The list of Saudi concerns is long, regional analysts say, extending beyond Syria and Iran to the US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda. There are even qualms that America‚Äôs increasing energy independence will trigger a weakening of the US commitment to assuring the security of the Persian Gulf.
Behind each of these concerns, some say, is a growing worry about America‚Äôs commitment to the Middle East. At the core of every ‚Äúthreat‚ÄĚ Saudi Arabia perceives is ‚Äúa Saudi concern that the United States has not really backed stability, that it has failed in Egypt and in Syria, that it has failed in Iraq, that it may be leaving the region or giving it less priority,‚ÄĚ says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
A key Saudi concern is Iran ‚Äď and a perception that the US is so focused on reaching a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program that it is overlooking what Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries see as Shiite Iran‚Äôs hegemonic ambitions. These countries view Iran as trying to encircle its adversary Sunni Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia ‚Äúsees Iran as directly involved in covert action and in trying to encourage unrest in the region using its Al Quds Force,‚ÄĚ a secretive unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, ‚Äúand its intelligence‚ÄĚ to destabilize ‚Äúan important list of countries‚ÄĚ from the Gulf to the Red Sea, Mr. Cordesman says.
A ‚Äúconspiracy‚ÄĚ sweeping the region, he notes, is that the US will ‚Äúabandon the Arab Gulf and shift to Iran and the Shiites.‚ÄĚ Such thinking may be ‚Äúvery hard for us to understand,‚ÄĚ but it is indicative of the ambience Obama will enter as he visits Riyadh, Cordesman says.
Iran, Syria, and Egypt are all major concerns, but other regional analysts agree that worries about them are heightened by doubts about the role the US intends to play post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan in the Middle East.
‚ÄúThe underlying anxiety and the demand for Washington‚Äôs attention from the Gulf come from something bigger than any one policy issue,‚ÄĚ says Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution‚Äôs Saban Center for Middle East Policy. ‚ÄúIt comes from the fact that we are at a bit of a turning point in terms of America‚Äôs role in the region.‚ÄĚ
That turning point is not just the result of the drawdown from Afghanistan and the ‚Äúrelative diminution of American military presence‚ÄĚ that entails, she says. It is also the ‚Äúenergy revolution‚ÄĚ that will leave the US less dependent on Mideast oil and the still-rumbling ‚Äúpolitical earthquake‚ÄĚ in the region known as the Arab Awakening.
Some regional analysts have summed up Obama‚Äôs task in Riyadh as offering ‚Äúreassurance,‚ÄĚ but Ms. Cofman Wittes says the president‚Äôs job will be something beyond that ‚Äď more like explaining his ‚Äúvision‚ÄĚ of a continued but evolving American commitment to the region.
On Syria, for example, Obama must be able to offer ‚Äúsome clear alternative strategy [to US military involvement] to deal with the consequences of the Syrian war for American interests and for the security of America‚Äôs allies,‚ÄĚ she says.
On Iran, she says, Obama must explain to dubious ears ‚Äúthe strategy in the nuclear talks‚ÄĚ while ‚Äúreminding‚ÄĚ the Saudis that the US agrees ‚Äúthere are a whole host of other aspects of Iranian behavior in the region that the US finds obstreperous and destabilizing and problematic ‚Äď and that the US is still committed to confronting Iran on these‚ÄĚ other issues.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a question of alliance management,‚ÄĚ she says, ‚Äúbut it‚Äôs alliance management in the face of tremendous upheaval.‚ÄĚ
A key indication of the success of Obama‚Äôs Riyadh visit will be not so much a sense that the president was able to offer a set of American remedies to address the region‚Äôs turmoil, says Cordesman of CSIS, but that the longtime partners can overcome doubts and differences to work together on common interests.
‚ÄúThe problem on both sides is not that the Saudis have expectations that the US can do something decisive‚ÄĚ about the region‚Äôs many challenges, Cordesman says. ‚ÄúIt is whether you can move towards some form of cooperation, and particularly patient cooperation over time,‚ÄĚ he adds, ‚Äúbecause neither the US nor Saudi Arabia has any quick meaningful answers to any of the major problems in this region.‚ÄĚ