Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia: What awaits after the Iran deal?

Experts and former US officials that Al Arabiya English interviewed to assess the visit, highlight differences between Washington and its Gulf partners

Joyce Karam
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When Air Force One touches down in Riyadh on Wednesday taking US President Barack Obama on his fourth and possibly last visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a packed agenda will await. It is the first visit since the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. From regional stability to the fight against ISIS to containing Iran’s destabilizing influence, the two day visit which includes a larger summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could lay the ground to this administration’s legacy in a critical region.

Experts and former US officials that Al Arabiya English interviewed to assess the visit, highlight differences in communications and priorities between Washington and its Gulf partners, while emphasizing mutual interests and the need to sustain the relationship beyond the last seven months of the Obama presidency.

Enduring interests and frustrations

In the light of Obama’s recent comments made to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, calling some of his Gulf allies “free riders” and recommending they "find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace" with Iran, expect these sentiments to come up at the beginning of the discussions says Stephen Seche, executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Seche, also a former US ambassador to Yemen, anticipates that Obama will “explain with finesse what he meant with these comments, before moving to more substantive issues.” White House officials have lent a hand in offering some sort of explanation few days before the visit. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication at the White House, said in a call with reporters that the “free riders” comment was more of a plea “that we want everybody to play their part” while acknowledging the “enormous role (for US) to play in upholding our own security agreements.”

Kerry GCC ministers
Kerry GCC ministers

This plea is in particularly being requested in the fight against ISIS, where Obama is hoping to extract larger commitments from the GCC in the air bombardment targeting the group in Iraq and Syria. The White House also offered an explanation of the “share the neighborhood” comment, with Obama’s senior director at the National Security Council Robert Malley emphasizing that Washington “is not trading (Iran) for the GCC” but is looking for “different relationship between the GCC and Iran, one that is less prone to fuel proxy wars.”

Jon B. Alterman, a senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for strategic and international studies, tells Al Arabiya English that despite Obama’s comments, the visit “can't be too awkward because the two sides still need each other.” Alterman adds “there is not lot of love but lot of common interests” between the US and the GCC at the moment. The expert and former official diagnoses the problem as one “of lack of understanding, leading to enduring frustrations”.

Iran’s role and behavior are one area of divergence between the two sides, where the GCC and as UAE’s ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba has expressed in the Wall Street Journal, Tehran “has only doubled down on its posturing and provocations" after the deal. Alterman points out that the US recognizes the Iranian threat to the GCC, but “the question is how much of a threat is acceptable, and how can it be diminished”. He adds that the “GCC's instinct is to be tough on Iran while Obama’s Instinct, is to present the Iranians with a choice of having normal or hostile relations with the world.”

One year after the nuclear deal, Seche does not see the problem between the US and the GCC about the deal itself. “Iran’s behavior will be the critical part of summit not the nuclear deal per se rather what it was supposed to do, impede mischief from Iran and it hasn't.” The expert suspects the joint communique at the end of Obama’s two day visit “will focus on the strong partnership and countering Iran’s instability.”

The war in Syria has also been an area of clashing priorities between Obama and the GCC. The Obama administration prioritizes “fighting ISIS” while some in the GCC would like a parallel effort addressing Assad according to Seche.

Following through on Camp David

Seche sees in the Riyadh summit an important supplement to the Camp David meeting that took place in a similar format at the US compound last May. He says that “assurances given at the Camp David, such as fast tracking arms deliveries , more work on cyber and maritime security , ballistic missile defense and building a counterterrorism” will all be discussed at the summit.

Obama hosts working session of six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David in Maryland. (Reuters)
Obama hosts working session of six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David in Maryland. (Reuters)

Many areas of agreement despite differences will also come out of the meeting says Alterman: “In Iraq, on counterterrorism, technology and trade, agreeing is not hard.” Seche points out to Yemen as another area where Obama and the GCC can build on the “positive implementation of the ceasefire and the Kuwait talks to look beyond conflict and focus on stability.”

Obama’s visit offers an opportunity to institutionalize the GCC-US annual summits and build a robust security framework that encompasses the aftermath of the Iran deal. Alterman predicts that the leaders will look beyond their differences, and at the same time “be happy that it will be their last meeting.”

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

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