Why Obama Won’t Give (or Get) Much in Saudi Arabia

As President Obama heads off to Riyadh this week—the last stop, on Friday, of a Europe-heavy itinerary—he should be a happy guy. Unlike his relationship with Vladimir Putin (or Lehman Brothers), the U.S.-Saudi relationship really is too big to fail.  Key linkages—billions in recent U.S. weapons sales, counter-terrorism cooperation, and all that oil—will keep Riyadh and Washington together for some time to come, whether each side, deep down, really likes it or not.

At the same time, he should be worried, too. Conflicting interests and views concerning Egypt, Syria, Iran and Palestine have created big rifts in the relationship. Unless the President is prepared to alter his approach to these issues—and be more careful about what he says to journalists about supposed Saudi difficulties with accepting “change”—the best he can do is contain the damage. Even this won’t be easy.

In recent years, the list of issues on which U.S. and Saudi leaders don’t agree has gotten pretty long. Riyadh opposed Mubarak’s fall; after an initial hesitation, we sounded like we welcomed it. They saw the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government as a threat; we were prepared to live with it. They fully supported the Egyptian military coup and backed it with billions; we waffled and conditioned our military assistance to Egypt. They backed the Khalifa family in Bahrain; initially we supported reform in their backyard. They remain worried that a Shi’a government close to Iran rules just across their border in Baghdad; we enabled it. Indeed, the Saudis see the Middle East as a struggle between good Sunnis and Bad Shi’a; we refuse to take sides.

Stripped to its essence, the diverging nature of U.S.-Saudi interests reflects a fundamental question. The Saudis wonder and worry about the broader U.S. commitment in the region, specifically our willingness to stand by our friends and our determination to oppose our adversaries. Not surprisingly, the Israelis worry about much the same thing. Long gone are the Bush 41 days when, according to the Saudis, Washington said what it meant and meant what it said.

The Saudis are hardly innocent bystanders in this new dysfunctional relationship, and of course they hardly reflect American values. Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state opposed to fundamental internal change. It harbors its own anti-American and anti-Semitic fundamentalist currents. And for far too long, Saudi money has funded extremist Islamic schools and movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. There’s also little doubt Riyadh would like to keep the U.S. dependent on hydrocarbons for years to come, a goal shared by several other major oil exporters.

Still, interests are interests, and clearly the Magic Kingdom—along with the other monarchies—Jordan, Morocco, even Bahrain (where the U.S. 5th Fleet drops anchor) represent rare continuity and stability in a region convulsed by turmoil. Does the U.S. Administration really want a new version of the so-called Arab Spring to spring up in Saudi Arabia—along with the disruption almost certain to follow in oil and financial markets, let alone the opportunities for Iranian mischief?

At the moment, the issue isn’t oil so much as it is Syria, Iran and Palestine. On each of these core issues, the Saudis see confusion and lack of resolve on America’s part. This only adds to the perception that Barack Obama has a view of the region in which the United States will play a less central role, leaving a vacuum for Iran, extremists of both Sunni and Shi’a varieties, and the migrating mess from an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian issue to fill.

Sadly for the Saudis, the President won’t be able to answer the mail satisfactorily on any of these issues. Forget his distraction with Ukraine or the fact that he cares more about his own political legacy – improving the fortunes of America’s middle class—than his Middle Eastern one. To deal with Saudi concerns on these issues, Obama would have to be risk-ready rather than risk averse; and he’s anything but.

In Syria, horrified that the President didn’t enforce his own red line on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the Saudis see a burgeoning civil war that is exporting radicalism, creating a base for al-Qaeda spinoffs in Syria and Iraq, and that is bucking up Hizballah and Iran. They want a more muscular U.S. policy—in effect Obama’s active help in getting rid of Assad, which despite all that has happened remains the policy of record. But the President, wary of militarizing the U.S. role in Syria and getting dragged into a proxy war with the mullahs—or with Putin, for that matter—simply won’t oblige.

On Iran—the Saudis’ biggest preoccupation—they see a risk-averse Washington determined to preempt an Israeli strike against Iran and reluctant to undertake U.S. military action, even en extremis, to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  But more than that, the Saudis worry that even apparent and temporary progress on the nuclear issue will lead the United States and Iran to a broader, if implicit, alignment at their expense.  In other words, to get—or appear to be getting—a deal on the nuclear portfolio, the Saudis worry that Obama will turn a blind eye to all of Iran’s regional mischief-making as a price. As Riyadh sees it, the mullahs are trying to encircle Saudi Arabia; and worse, they worry that Washington refuses to see this for highly narrow and self-interested reasons.

The Saudis have good reason for their worries.The fact is that Iran—unlike Saudi Arabia—is a serious regional power with ambitions to dominate the GulfThe fact is that Iran—unlike Saudi Arabia—is a serious regional power with ambitions to dominate the Gulf and stir up trouble among Bahraini and Saudi Shi’a.  It is doing so even now with its al-Quds force, and it is also doing so in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern flank. The President’s expressed view, again to journalists, seems to be that Iran is a rational actor with a return address—in other words, a place one can do business. Whatever concerns President Obama may have about Iran’s future regional ambitions, he’s worried even more about how to defuse the nuclear issue so as to avoid the need for a wrenching decision on his watch—either to abide it or destroy it. And that means talking to Iran—which the Saudis have referred to as a snake whose head needs to be cut off—not confronting it.

Finally, on Israel-Palestine, the Saudis, authors of what they believe to be the only real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue—the 2002 Arab peace initiative— have long been dismayed by America’s, and now Obama’s, unwillingness to get serious about the peace process. And let’s be clear what getting serious means to the Saudis: Pressuring Israel to accept a Palestinian state on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders with a capital in east Jerusalem, consistent with their 2002 plan.

But on this one too, Riyadh is likely to be disappointed. With all of the abrasive issues in play between Washington and Riyadh, it’s far better that there is some semblance of a peace process right now than not. Obama can tell King Abdallah that he’s trying, whereas his predecessor could not. But the Saudis will not be much propitiated by this line of argument. They know that Obama isn’t ready right now to fight with Israel over the peace process, especially with the midterm elections drawing nigh. And they should know, too, that the peace process as currently constituted still isn’t ready for prime time.

Still despite all their diverse troubles, the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship is likely to endure. Divorce isn’t an option. Couples therapy is unlikely to work. But mutual dependence will prove its mettle. The relationship will remain troubled but still at least clingingly functional in a region where that may be the new norm in America’s ties with all its Arab (and perhaps even its Israeli) allies.

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