Commentary

What to Expect from Obama's Saudi Arabia Visit

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia amidst great uncertainty and regional turmoil. Washington and Riyadh have not seen eye-to-eye on many pressing regional issues, including the rise (and fall) of the Muslim Brotherhood, negotiations with Iran and the civil war in Syria. Many observers urge for the visit to be used to overcome any lingering doubts about the strength of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. It remains to be seen, however, whether they can agree on a common vision for the region.

In the Saudi media, Obama’s visit, coming at the end of a high profile visit to Europe, is seen as a sign of the Kingdom’s growing status and importance in the region. Arab News’ Ghazanfar Ali Khan, for example, asserts that in order for the talks to succeed, the United States must come to terms with that reality: “Saudi Arabia’s growing importance in regional and international affairs, as well as its relations with the U.S., will come under the spotlight when U.S. President Barack Obama visits the Kingdom on Friday. The Kingdom is the last leg of the president’s six-day trip, which will include stops in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Vatican City....Ben Rhodes, U.S. deputy national security adviser for Strategic Communications, said the meeting will be ‘an important opportunity to invest in one of our most important relationships in the Middle East, certainly in the Gulf region, to address a very broad agenda in terms of our ongoing support for Gulf security and for the Syrian opposition.’”

But what, exactly, is expected to be on the agenda of the leaders? According to the Saudi Gazette editorial, the core issues will be the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program: “The White House was late to announce Obama’s stop in Riyadh, following his European tour, fueling speculation on the motives of the U.S. president’s second visit to the Kingdom since his election in 2009. At the Arab League summit in Kuwait on Tuesday, Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, deputy premier and minister of defense, accused the international community of ‘betraying’ Syrian rebels, outgunned in their war against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime....According to analysts, Saudi Arabia is also skeptical of the interim nuclear deal reached by world powers and Tehran in November, viewing it as a risky venture.”

Saudi leaders, argues Gulf News’ Joseph A. Kechichian, have felt slighted over the last two or three years and are likely to seek assurances from the United States that their alliance is still strong: “Barack Obama will probably hear an earful when he meets King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia on Friday. From Iran to Syria and from Egypt to the tacit U.S. support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh declared a terrorist organisation, the two men and their advisers will cover the gamut. Little will be left to chance, as the seasoned monarch will attempt to gauge what motivates Washington under this administration, and whether America’s traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia was no longer valid....Other concerns were also cited: neglect towards the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East and, more recently, a nonchalant acceptance of the Syrian killing fields while the world watched. These were not idle complaints but touched the core of American-Saudi strategic ties that, it was worth remembering, were substantial.”

In an op-ed for The National (UAE), Taimur Khan also raises some of the concerns that have made the Saudi leadership uneasy about their relationship with the United States: “With the status quo of five years ago upended, the Middle East in turmoil and America seeking a new posture in the region, Mr. Obama visits Saudi Arabia on Friday for the first time since 2009 to assuage deep-seated fears in Riyadh about Washington’s intentions....changing priorities for Washington in a time of budget cuts, surging domestic shale gas production and a desire to scale back its role in the region after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq has stoked Saudi fears that their relationship, based on security and help containing Iran in exchange for energy production, was coming to an end.”

It is in this context that several writers stress the point that the U.S.-Saudi relationship shouldn’t be seen from a dependence point of view, but rather as a relationship between friends or allies.  This is an argument that Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed made recently in an op-ed, highlighting the need for Washington to take into account Riyadh’s interests: “Obama’s policies have differed from Riyadh’s over several issues concerning Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is a brave man who has taken huge domestic and foreign decisions....Obama does not have the right to decide on behalf of the Saudis how to run their affairs and defend their existence. Even with these several disagreements, Saudi Arabia is aware that the relationship with Washington is a strategic, and not a tactical issue and that it must not be given up.”

Rob Sobhani is equally earnest in highlighting the importance of the relationship between the two countries, making a case for the need for a renewal of the 69 year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance: “It is important to take note of certain important realities in the region and on the global stage. The outcome of this meeting between the two leaders will determine whether the people of the world will see stability, progress and economic prosperity or chaos, instability and tension....the U.S. President has a unique opportunity to forge a long-term partnership with King Abdullah to solve some of the pressing problems facing humanity. The foundation of U.S.-Saudi ties was laid over 69 years ago between the father of King Abdullah and President Franklin Roosevelt. Today, King Abdullah offers the American President an opportunity to tackle global and regional challenges and set the stage for another six decades of friendship and cooperation.”

But questions still remain whether the two leaders will be able to see eye to eye on all these issues. Given the pace of the change in the region over the last three years, writes Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy, the chasm between the two has perhaps become too wide: “One big question, from a Saudi perspective, is the position of the United States government vis-à-vis Egypt under a possible presidency of Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in case he wins the next presidential elections before next summer. In other words, will the United States keep working in close relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt as before the departure of former president Mubarak from power, or will the United States replace Egypt by Iran under Rouhani once there is a final agreement on the Iranian nuclear program?”


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