King Salman’s first visit to Washington since his ascension marks an important moment to renew the decades-old strategic partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In the wake of the reaching of the P5 +1 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, this visit comes at a critical period in both states relations with one another.
While the partnership between these two countries has helped underwrite global security and stability and the stability of international energy markets, Washington’s perceived draw back from the region at a time of regional tensions with Iran, the surge of ISIS, a war in Yemen, and a civil war in Syria has created both uncertainty and tension at a time when both states need one another to secure the future of the Middle East and their respective interests.
A renewal of trust and cooperation after
The upcoming meeting between President Obama and King Salman as well is a crucial moment to build on the achievements made at the GCC summit at Camp David earlier this spring. Importantly, as well, in his last fifteen months, this White House meeting is an opportunity for Obama to build a stronger personal working relationship with the new Saudi King. With the number of critical issues both states are confronting, a renewal of trust is needed.
This is an opportunity for the President to assure King Salman that Washington is as committed to fighting ISIS as bringing an end to President Assad’s reign of terrorAndrew Bowen
However, it would be a mistake though to assume rhetorical commitments made at Camp David and a meeting at the White House alone would revive this new partnership and ensure that its on better footing since the nuclear agreement was reached. Better cooperation is needed between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to solidify the commitments made at Camp David.
At the same time, in this changing energy landscape and the volatility of global energy prices, Washington and Riyadh have an important opportunity to build deeper and more diversified economic ties. The U.S.-Saudi investment Forum being held in Washington this week is an important avenue to further renew this partnership.
Delivering an important message
While the meeting between President Obama and King Salman isn’t expected to be one marked by significant new commitments made by Washington, President Obama has the opportunity to deliver an important message. Despite the reaching of an Iranian nuclear agreement, it would be premature to see such an agreement as a shift from the U.S.'s partnership with Saudi Arabia. Washington's decades old relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a pillar of the U.S.'s long-term relationship with the region and that engagement with Iran will be conducted cautiously and judiciously and in consultation with Washington’s regional partners despite how the negotiations were previously conducted.
President Obama also has an opportunity to more substantively discuss how the U.S. plans to build off of the commitments made at Camp David.
Importantly, the President has an opportunity to detail his vision for the U.S.’s long-term position both in terms of security and economic commitments in the region after a nuclear agreement. The perceived growing U.S. energy independence and the rhetorical “tilt to Asia” has led many to speculate that the U.S. will not be in a position in the coming decades to support its Gulf allies and its regional partners as they face growing challenges and potentially future Iranian aggression. Washington’s response to Syria and its slow response to ISIS’ surge are indicative of this.
Strengthening security cooperation
The most pressing issues that will feature on the agenda of the leaders’ upcoming meeting will be: Iran, Yemen, Syria, and ISIS. While Riyadh has publicly supported the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement, this meeting is an opportunity to further discuss how Washington and Riyadh can work together to ensure that Iran’s aggressive behavior is contained after the nuclear agreement and the associated lifting of sanctions. President Obama has the opportunity to assure King Salman that he’s not purely giving Ayatollah Khamenei a $160 billion dollar check to wage war on Saudi and U.S. interests in the region.
Instead, Washington would be prepared to ensure the security of the Gulf States, the continued security of the Arabian Gulf, and will work with Saudi Arabia in countering Iran’s expansionary behavior in the region. President Obama may also seek to discourage his Saudi counterpart from pursuing a nuclear program.
President Obama and King Salman will have an opportunity to discuss the current operation in Yemen and the Saudi efforts to secure Yemen’s long-term security, including the potential campaign to retake Sana’a and efforts to secure a peace settlement. This meeting is an opportunity both to assure Riyadh of Washington’s commitment to the operation and to bridge differences over the nature of the operation.
Finally, this meeting is an opportunity to discuss Syria, an issue Riyadh views as Washington not taking that seriously. President Obama has an opportunity to use this meeting to assure King Salman that his administration will more seriously pursue a political settlement of Syria’s civil war and provide more substantive support to Syria’s opposition.
This is an opportunity for the President to assure King Salman that Washington is as committed to fighting ISIS as bringing an end to President Assad’s reign of terror.
While Washington may view ISIS and Syria as related but distinct issues that can be addressed separately, Riyadh views these issues as inseparable and both have significant impact on Riyadh’s long-term security. Washington also can do more to assure Riyadh that they won’t seek a solution to the Syrian civil war, which favors Iran.
A note of caution
While this meeting is the beginning of a renewed U.S.-Saudi partnership, the coming months as both leaders grapple with regional challenges and the changing regional environment post-the nuclear deal will be the real indicator to see whether this renewal leads to more substantive cooperation.
President Obama will need to substantively translate his words into actions. At the same time, both Washington and Riyadh will need to find more common ground on issues where they have differences in order for this partnership to further deepen. Entering the last fifteen months of his presidency, Obama has a new moment to chart a new course.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of center for national interest in Washington DC