Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss regional security, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
More specifically, the leaders will discuss "steps to counter Iran's destabilizing activities in the region," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last Thursday. As well as "ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship, including our joint security and counterterrorism efforts."
While the upcoming meeting will be the king’s first to Washington since ascending the throne in January, it comes at a time when Saudi Arabia faces an increasingly unstable neighborhood with conflicts in Yemen and Iraq encroaching on its territory.
Going into the meeting, both leaders are vested in ensuring its ultimate success, although for different reasons: For President Obama, who faces a nearly unified Republican Congress committed to opposing the JCPOA, almost at any cost, reassuring his guest that the agreement will contribute to a safer and more stable Middle East will be essential for his goal to turn the tide against his domestic opponents.
Iran deal and Yemen
With Senate Democrats increasingly lining up behind the president on the JCPOA, his Republican critics are not surprisingly vying to score political points on the outcome of the Obama-Salman meeting as they appear no longer able to muster the necessary votes for a veto against the Iran deal.
Presumably weary of wading into U.S. domestic politics, Salman will therefore most likely take the opportunity to publicly praise the JCPOA while at the same privately press Obama on securing support for his regional agenda; which includes continued U.S. military and intelligence support for the Saudi-led war against Yemen’s Houthi militias as part of an effort to capitalize on its apparent momentum triggered by a number of recent battle victories.
With that in mind, Riyadh is unlikely to let up on any military pressure on the Houthis until the dust settles between President Obama and his Republican opponents over the high-stakes JCPOA battle in Congress. In the meantime, a likely push for increased Saudi-U.S. cooperation against the Houthis could help change facts on the ground before eventually pressuring Hadi to begin negotiations with the Houthis for a political solution to the country’s crisis.
Syria and ISIS
From the onset of the Syrian uprising, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies sought to back anti-regime resistance fighters as part of an effort to roll back Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.
However, with the rise of extremist groups, including ISIS, who successfully outmaneuvered moderate factions, Saudi Arabia was quickly forced to revise its Syria strategy. Next, Riyadh found itself at odds with Washington over President Obama’s unwillingness to take military action against President Assad after he had used chemical weapons against his own people.
Saudi support for Syria is also a matter of principle for the Kingdom, which explains why finding a solution to the conflict may be close to the top of Salman’s agenda in Washington.
It is therefore likely that Salman will pressure Obama to reassess his Syria policy by arguing that a limited U.S.-military involvement is required to both defeat ISIS on the ground while helping stabilize the country in order to stem the massive migration of Syrians marching towards Europe.
Despite initial differences over competing Syria policies, the two leaders appear determined to repair relations at the upcoming White House meeting. In order to do so, Syria must be a centerpiece on the meeting agenda.
A watershed moment?
All considered, President Obama’s upcoming meeting could prove to be a watershed moment for the 80-year old U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance and the most important of its kind for the past decade.
Ahead of the upcoming meeting, President Obama could draw an important lesson from how his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, was able to successfully preserve the U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance by inviting King Abdullah to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in early 2002 as part of an effort repair the fallout triggered by the 9/11 attacks.
Understanding what was at stake, President Bush insisted that the two leaders should meet alone, without aids and note takers while taking the king for a lengthy walk of his property in order to brake the ice between them. It was arguably President Bush’ personal touch and both leaders’ political willingness to overcome the challenges at the time that not only helped salvage the strategic alliance, but their determination even brought the relationship to its next level.
Whether or not President Obama and King Salman will be able to reach new agreements remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that both leaders will do their outmost to tout the upcoming meeting as a success as they both need each other for their respective purposes.
Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.