Why is President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia important now?

US President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One upon his departure from Joint Base Andrews in Washington, April 19, 2016. (Reuters)

US President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week for meetings with King Salman and other leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council appears first and foremost to be about reassurance in the context of alliance maintenance.

Last spring, the president hosted Gulf leaders at Camp David in order boost military cooperation and pursue reassurance as Washington put the finishing touches on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Since then, bilateral trust has been shaken again, with President Obama calling the Gulf states “free riders” in a controversial interview last month and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reportedly threatening to withdraw three-quarters of a trillion dollars in Saudi investments from the United States if Congress passes legislation that could strip the kingdom of its sovereign immunity in certain terrorism cases.

Regional flashpoints

American officials have also emphasized that the summit comes at a pivotal time in several regional conflicts, providing an opportunity for the US and GCC to harmonize their efforts toward certain regional flashpoints. Last week, the White House’s Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Rob Malley, noted that a big part of the summit’s agenda would be on trying to support peace talks in Syria and Yemen as well as supporting the Government of National Accord in Libya. Indeed, Akbar Shahid Ahmed of the Huffington Post reported that Libya was actually a big part of last year’s Camp David summit, with President Obama allegedly brokering an accord between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to use their influence with the warring Libyan factions to produce that unity government.

U.S President Barack Obama reaches out to shake hands with King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP)

U.S President Barack Obama reaches out to shake hands with King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP)

The summit also comes at a pivotal time for US-GCC cooperation against the threat of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. In recent weeks the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has begun providing air support for retaking territory from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Gulf jets or helicopters have already assisted such operations in the Yemeni provinces of Aden and Lahij, and Dubai-based Gulf News reported that al-Qaeda holdings in Abyan and Shabwa are in the crosshairs next.

Indeed, Reuters reported on Friday that American officials are considering a request from the United Arab Emirates to assist this important counterterrorism campaign. US officials have also expressed interest in exploring increased measures by Gulf states to combat terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, be it through stepped up intelligence sharing, training, airstrikes, or coordination against terrorist finance.

Bolstering defense

Another pivotal goal for the summit described by American officials is to bolster the GCC’s defense capabilities so that its members can deter potential attacks and “engage Iran from a position of strength.” Earlier this month in Manama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa insisted that considerable progress has been made in this regard since Camp David, but expert observers do not seem so sure. For example, the New York Times’s David Sanger reported from Manama that the leaders still had not reached any sort of common strategy for building up missile and cyber defenses against Iran.

Two other areas for military cooperation against Iran will likely also be in the spotlight at the Riyadh summit: jet sales and maritime cooperation. Kuwaiti and Qatari requests for advanced American jet fighters have been held up since long before last year’s summit, and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin, predicted that “there will be some decisions made” on at least Qatar’s request for 73 advanced F-15s in connection to the summit.

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (L) and U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain William Roebuck (R) greet US Secretary of State John Kerry. (Reuters)

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (L) and U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain William Roebuck (R) greet US Secretary of State John Kerry. (Reuters)

And during his remarks in Manama, Secretary Kerry noted four recent cases where “we have just intercepted dhows... carrying weapons” from Iran for Houthi militias in Yemen. Most of those interceptions have actually been by Western navies in the Gulf, so the parties will likely be discussing ways to implement America’s Camp David pledge to help modernize and train the GCC’s naval forces moving forward.

Finally, economic and governance issues are reportedly expected to comprise another key category of the US agenda for the talks, which may be timely in light two other recent developments. One highlights the past record of US economic and people-to-people partnership in the Gulf, which is the 10-year anniversary of the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement. That anniversary was highlighted by FM Khalifa during his press conference with Kerry.

The other development pertains to the future of US-GCC economic cooperation, which is Saudi Arabia’s much-touted intention to reveal to announce the social and economic blueprint of its National Transformation Program during the week after the summit. White House officials have indicated therefore that “economic challenges ... governance, inclusivity, and human rights” will all be on President Obama’s agenda as he seeks to find ways that America can help its Gulf partners meet “the aspirations of their people” and be more economically diversified and secure.

This article is part of Al Arabiya English’s Special Coverage on Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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