Obama in Saudi Arabia: restoring the balance

Rarely has there been as much at stake as during the U.S. presidential trip to Saudi Arabia

Joyce Karam
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Rarely has there been as much at stake as during the U.S. presidential trip to Saudi Arabia. But in the midst of regional turbulence, shaken trust and broken communication, President Barack Obama will have his plate full while convening with King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz this week, in a conversation that will certainly shape the course of events in the Middle East over the next two years.

Unlike 2009’s “hastily arranged and badly prepared” visit as Kim Ghattas describes in her book “The Secretary,” months of planning and prior consultations have gone into this trip. In 2009, a young and a less experienced Obama presented his host with a laundry list of requests that Washington would like Riyadh to meet on the issue of normalizing relations with Israel. The king’s response baffled the new president. According to Ghattas, he told Obama: “Whoever advised you to ask me this wants to destroy the Saudi-American relationship.”


Assurances and communication

Five years since that first meeting, a more realistic Obama, and a completely different set of policy priorities from Egypt to Syria to Gulf Security and counterterrorism will dominate the Riyadh summit. Neither Saudi nor the United States can afford a botched visit. Its success is crucial in restoring balance to the Middle East, and global security, while its failure will only increase the wave of regional instability.

The visit’s success will hinge on Obama’s ability to assure the Saudi leadership regarding U.S. commitment to Gulf security

Joyce Karam

The visit’s success will hinge on Obama’s ability to assure the Saudi leadership regarding U.S. commitment to Gulf security and the seven-decade-old alliance between Riyadh and Washington. Lack of open and candid communication in the last two years, over the issue of Iranian nuclear talks, have contributed a great deal to the distrust between the two capitals. Riyadh was not notified about the secret back channel talks that Washington held with Iran through Oman, nor was it given a heads up about Obama’s historic call with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani on Sept. 28. The Saudi leadership is not against an Iranian-U.S. rapprochement and has a long positive history with Rowhani, but is rather concerned about what it sees as Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and meddling in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

A poor communication channel between Saudi Arabia and the United States will backfire on the mutual interest of the two countries. When Riyadh interprets U.S. actions as blindsiding the kingdom, it will look into other alternatives. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia decided to award France (and not the U.S.) the $3 billion contract to support the Lebanese Army last December, and has entered key discussions with Russia into supporting the Egyptian army if parts of U.S. aid continue to be withheld. Assuring the kingdom and keeping Saudi Arabia in the loop when it comes to Iranian nuclear talks is the least that Obama can offer in his meeting this week.

Meeting half-way on Syria and Egypt

In the last few months, there are increasingly more indications in Washington that the Obama administration has taken measures to meet Saudi Arabia half way on the conflict in Syria and the transition in Egypt.

On Syria, Washington is showing more readiness to support the moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime. Daniel Rubinstein, the new U.S. envoy to Syria, told me in an interview with al-Hayat last week that “unifying and strengthening the moderate opposition” will be a priority in the next few months. Saudi Arabia and the United States are pursuing new options in Syria, and have common interest in a more robust counterterrorism effort and changing the calculus of both Assad and Russia’s Putin. The visit of Interior Minister Mohammad Bin Nayef to Washington last month and the ongoing consultations with him are critical to U.S. efforts in Syria and to regional stability at large.

Egypt’s stability is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy and there are key differences with the U.S. on democratic principles and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh has recently designated the movement as a “terrorist organization” while Washington sees engaging it as a critical part of any successful transition. It is unlikely that the Obama visit will change those views, but the two leaders can agree on fostering Egypt’s stability and sustaining the defense aid to the country.

When Obama first came to office, a very senior Saudi official told me that he is “a gift from God,” that would help repair the U.S. image in the region and fix American-Islamic relations after the George W. Bush Presidency. The sense of disappointment in the relationship can be overcome with more engaging and pro-active policies that emphasize regional stability, non-nuclear proliferation and emboldening the moderates.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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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