What awaits Obama in Saudi Arabia

Just like the 1945 meeting came at a time where a new global order was taking place, Friday's meeting comes at a time which is no less significant

Faisal J. Abbas
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All eyes are definitely going to be on Riyadh this week, where U.S. President Barack Obama will be meeting with the Saudi leadership on March 28.

There is no doubt about it; this highly-anticipated meeting comes at a time which is perhaps the most complicated in the 70-year history of the Saudi-U.S. “special relationship.”

Indeed, never since that landmark meeting between the late King Abdul Aziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt onboard the U.S. Navy Cruiser Quincy in 1945 did the relation between the two allies raise so many questions.

Just like the 1945 meeting came at time where a new global order was taking shape (with the end of the World War II) and this newly-formed Saudi-American alliance helped serve the interests of both countries whereby the U.S. secured a steady flow of imported oil and Saudi Arabia received security guarantees from the World’s new super power; Friday’s meeting comes at time which is no less significant not just for both countries, but for the whole region as well.

A list of regional issues

The Saudis are concerned with the way the Obama administration has handled/continues to handle a number of regional issues; namely, Iran, Syria and Egypt.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 29, 2010 reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 29, 2010 reuters

At the heart of the problem is the White House’s new fondness of Iran, a country which is ruled by a malicious regime that continues to be a source of constant trouble not just for Saudi Arabia, but to all other U.S. allies in the region.

What makes things more complicated is an enduring belief that President Obama, as popular and appealing as he once was, has got it all wrong when it comes to Iran.

Just like the 1945 meeting came at a time where a new global order was taking place, Friday's meeting comes at a time which is no less significant, not just for both countries but for the whole region as well.

Faisal J. Abbas

This view was further supported following a recent interview conducted with Bloomberg’s Jeffery Goldberg.

Answering a question on what he thought was more dangerous: Sunni extremism or Shiite extremist; President Obama, whilst stating that he wasn’t big on extremism generally, said that Iran was “strategic,” “not impulsive” and “they respond to costs and benefits.”

The best response to this comment came at the hands of renowned columnist Abdulrahman al-Rashed in a recent article, where he said that these attributes can also be said about people like Hitler, Saddam Hussain and Kim Jong Un.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how strategic or non-impulsive a government is if it hails to a number of violent extremists, which is the main difference lies between Sunni and Shiite extremists in the region.

“Shiite extremists are in positions of authority - in Khamenei’s regime in Tehran and Hezbollah’s in Beirut. On the other hand, Sunni extremists are in the opposition camp, like al-Qaeda. They are outcasts, living in caves,” wrote al-Rashed.

A history of hostility

President Obama needs to remember all the crimes committed by Iran against American citizens and interests, all the way from the 1979 hostage crisis to the 1983 attack on the U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon, to the kidnapped American colonel to the attack on the American compound in al-Khobar in 1996.

He also needs to remember that it was Saudi security forces that were fighting side-by-side with their American counterparts in the global war against terrorism. He also needs to remember that it was Iran that sought to destabilize Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussain and that it is Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that are fighting side-by-side with the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Iran also supports the turmoil in Lebanon and Bahrain and it is also Iran that still occupies three Emirati islands.

If Iranian misbehavior is manageable, then why don't you do something about it right now?

Faisal J. Abbas

As such, the U.S.’s vision of reducing all these issues to a mere negotiation over Iran’s nuclear ambition is certainly worrisome; particularly when one reads Obama’s take on such concerns.

“Let’s assume that Iran is not going to change. It’s a theocracy. It’s anti-Semitic. It is anti-Sunni. And the new leaders are just for show. Let’s assume all that. If we can ensure that they don’t have nuclear weapons, then we have at least prevented them from bullying their neighbors, or heaven forbid, using those weapons and the other misbehavior they’re engaging in is manageable,” Obama told Goldberg.

Allow me to interrupt here, Mr. President.

But if the Iranian misbehavior is “manageable,” then why don’t you do something about it right now? Why let your allies - who your administration claims has an unshakable commitment to – continue to suffer from this Iranian misbehavior?

Then, what if this charm offensive fails? You would have allowed Iran even more time to become even more malicious and create even more troubles for its neighbors.

As such, the Saudis will most likely tell President Obama that the path he has embarked on, when it comes to dealing with Iran, isn’t an advisable one and that this is the opinion not just of Riyadh alone, but of many of the U.S. allies in the region.

Syria, Qatar and Egypt

There are a number of other issues that are expected to be discussed; most notably, the ongoing crisis in Syria, which has just entered its fourth year.

The Saudis haven’t shied away in the past from criticizing the White House’s reluctance in holding the Assad regime accountable for its crimes against its own people; particularly following Washington’s 11th hour U-turn on a possible strike last summer in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

On a positive note, Obama arrives in Riyadh having just ordered the closure of Assad’s embassy in Washington DC and diplomatic staff back to Damascus; this could be read as a positive sign and that there is likely going to be a further U.S.-Saudi alignment on a final solution for Syria which takes place before the end of this year.

The Saudis are most likely also going to convey a legitimate Egyptian grievance over the Obama administration handling of the developing situation and Washington’s perceived support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now considered a terrorist group among most U.S. allies in the region.

This is a matter of high significance, particularly given that a new Egyptian-Saudi-UAE axis seems to have emerged; and one of the direct implications of this newly formed axis is the recent withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar over Doha’s insistence on supporting the Brotherhood, among other issues which will probably be elaborated on; however, as Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal pointed out recently, there is no U.S. mediation when it comes to the rift with Qatar, a matter which the Saudi official said will not be resolved so long as Doha doesn’t change its (foreign) policy).

Many other things have changed in the bilateral dynamics since the first meeting of 1945; Saudi Crown Prince Salman just returned from a high-profile visit which included Pakistan, India, China and Japan which signals a clear indication that Saudi Arabia is preparing to head East; whilst the United States is expecting to soon become a net exporter of energy thanks to innovation on the shale-gas front.

However, given that both parties realize that there is much good that their partnership can bring not just to the region, but to the whole world; the Riyadh summit could very well be monumental in its own way and forge a new long-lasting relationship that doesn’t only rely on interests, but on common beliefs and a commitment to the greater good.

This article was first published in Gulf News on March 22, 2014.

Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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