Obama’s anticipated march to Saudi Arabia

There is little doubt that Washington and Riyadh are not seeing eye to eye on key issues in the Middle East, namely Syria and Iran. The next six months are critical given the ongoing violence in Syria with no end in sight combined with the continued negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran moving towards a possible Comprehensive Nuclear Treaty sometime during Summer 2014. A U.S.-Saudi summit reportedly announced for next month hopes to mend ties at this critical and timely juncture and to reassure both the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that their policy objectives will, hopefully, mesh nicely. It is interesting to note that the announcement comes days after the failure of the Geneva II discussions.

Without rehashing much of the details of the deteriorating bilateral relationship over the past months, significant and high-ranking members of Saudi Arabia’s elites voiced their disgust over policy with the United States in protest over American inaction over Syria’s multi-dimensional civil war and making peaceful overtures to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Riyadh’s religio-political enemy.

Public accusations

Royal family members are publically accusing the Americans of working behind the kingdom’s back especially when news leaked out that U.S. State Department officials were meeting with Iranian counterparts in Oman. They wanted the Americans to intervene aggressively in Syria long ago—not now with increasingly lethal assistance and humanitarian aid to the Free Syria Army—which is way overdue. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal stated in December 2013: “How can you build trust when you keep secrets from what are supposed to be your closest allies?”

What the Saudis will be looking for are guarantees that their policy views will be heard and accepted as part of a grand strategy for the region

Dr. Theodore Karasik

King Abdullah wants to hear directly from the American president his version of American policy in the region, for example, backing down from airstrikes against the Syrian regime as well as the “love-fest” between Washington and Tehran, and what Washington exactly plans to do in the coming months in terms of these two precarious issues. The issues raised at the summit are sensitive, and given the growing anti-American sentiment in the kingdom, the high-ranking meeting is coming at a critical time. According to a senior Arab official, the summit “…is about a deteriorating relationship.” Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mohammad bin Nawaf, wrote in a December editorial in the New York Times. “This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs. This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs.”

Imperative summit

The above comments makes Obama’s summit with King Abdullah more imperative than ever. The trip will be the American president’s first to Saudi Arabia since 2009, his first year in office. Too many in Riyadh and the Arab world, this is seen as an American insult. In March 2014, the Interim Agreement will be in full swing with negotiations continuing in on the heels of the mid-February New York talks. Syria will likely still be wracked by bloodshed and with the spreading violence into Lebanon—especially in light of the cooperation between al-Nusra and ISIS against Hezbollah targets in the strategic Mediterranean state. Other issues abound too; elections in Iraq and Egypt, plus the future menace of violent extremists. Of course, the two countries may not see eye to eye on the former but they certainly are cooperating on the latter. Clearly, Saudi Arabia wants to know what the Obama administration is planning strategically and tactically through the middle of summer on both fronts, in a face to face manner.

Overall, what the Saudis will be looking for are guarantees that their policy views will be heard and accepted as part of a grand strategy for the region regarding the Syrian and Iranian files. As I have argued countless times, Riyadh wants to be part of the process: their neighborhood is aflame and the Saudi royals do not want to see a special, new “grand bargain” emerge that casts aside al-Saud’s geopolitical policy interests. Riyadh also sees that the kingdom is now dealing with Obama “as a lame duck” president; an American leader who can do as he sees fit. King Abdullah wants to send a strong message to Obama that the Americans and the Saudis need their own “re-set” as 2014 progresses; regardless of the “lame duck” status. Unmistakably, the kingdom is thinking forward to Obama’s successor and what Washington’s policy may be by 2016. This March summit is not just about security issues now but also in the years to come—and that are why the meeting is so extremely important. Finally, the kingdom itself, under King Abdullah’s rule, needs to hear Obama put forth a solid, coherent strategic information policy that is open-minded, fair, balanced, and takes Saudi interests to heart. This type of relationship—the one that existed for many years between the two countries—needs to return. In March 2014, the American president and his aides will have to have their mouths prepared to say the correct strategic messaging, concepts and ideas so Saudi Arabia feels like a true partner, and not a side-show.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
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