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Expectations were too high for Obama's Saudi visit

It is not enough to make statements of policy from across thousands of miles. In politics, face to face discussions matter

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

While the content of the two-hour meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and U.S. President Obama was in many regards quite ordinary, some critics were disappointed by the outcome of the meeting. Ultimately, there was an expectation that crucial decisions regarding Syria would be determined during Obama’s diplomatic visit to the kingdom.

The Saudis and the U.S. have taken different courses when it came to dealing with Syrian revolutionaries, and, according to some analysts, that difference had been one of the reasons of the apparent downfall of their close relationship.

The Americans had claimed that the way the Saudis are supporting the Syrians is counterproductive and empowers the more militant and radical forces. The Saudis claim that the Americans had a soft policy on Assad and were not doing enough to support his overthrow. The facts of course are more complicated.

But what we do know is that since the visit of Saudi’s minister of interior to the United States last February there has been a growing alignment in positions between the two countries vis-à-vis Syria.

The U.S. has shown more willingness to empower the revolutionaries and the Saudis have shown the Americans how to support the anti-Assad campaign without supporting the Islamic radicals. That was a big step and a marked change in policy. Consequently, I do not understand why then, there were expectations for further decisions to be taken during this meeting.

Obama and Saudi King (AFP)
Obama and Saudi King (AFP)

Iran driving a wedge in U.S-Saudi ties

When it comes to Iran, there are those who wanted to hear a stronger U.S. stance against our troublesome neighbor. But we only heard what we’ve already been hearing for a many months now: the U.S. will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities.

When it comes to Iran, there are those in who wanted to hear a stronger U.S. stance against our troublesome neighbor. But we only heard what we’ve already been hearing for a many months now: the U.S. will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities.

Abdullah Hamiddadin

Here again I am surprised by those taken back by that sentiment – what else would they have expected to hear? It is not in the interests of the United States, nor within its capacity, to take a harsher stance against Iran. And if you ask me, it is not in Saudi Arabia's interests either.

The recent Crimean crisis has amplified Russian incentives for supporting any adversary of the United States or its allies. The last thing we need is for the Russians to accelerate Iran’s course towards nuclear weapons.

Human rights

Activists were also hoping that this visit would include a discussion of Saudi Arabia's human rights record. Prior to the visit, President Obama had received a few open letters from academics and also members of Congress, urging him to discuss human rights with the Saudi monarch.

But that did not happen either. Maybe there wasn't enough time for that, as one American official put it. But here again I ask: why be surprised? Human rights for the U.S. has never been but a card it plays against other countries for political gains. And this visit was neither the time nor the place to pressure the Saudis.

For one, this is a visit to re-assert previously stated assurances. And when you want to assure someone, you don’t bring up human rights violations. Also, there are very few things they disagree on, so why bring up human rights?

But most importantly, the U.S. has lost its moral right to speak about human rights. It would have indeed been amusing to listen to President Obama speak of moral principles in light of recent NSA revelations.

One of the disappointments echoed by some activists was awarding Maha al-Muneef, the executive director of Saudi Arabia's National Family Safety Program, the U.S. Secretary of State's International Woman of Courage Award. She had been struggling for years to institutionalize the protection of women and children of domestic abuse and she succeeded to a very large extent.

Recognizing women activists

Some activists were hoping that Obama would recognize women outside the formal governmental system, such as those who were campaigning for the right for women to drive.

But it seems that the U.S. government had voted for the approach of changing from within the system and not from outside of it. I personally think she deserved the award. Some think that she is not an activist because she is employed by the government.

But I think we need to extend the meaning of the word. She definitely accomplished much of the activist goals. And anyone who knows the intricacies and complexities of government bureaucracy may want to think twice before saying that those who achieve mega institutional changes are anything less than an activist.

Some sources mentioned that the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians was mentioned in passing. I guess that this only speaks of the real weight of that issue. Peace is gradually changing from a security imperative to a humanitarian issue.

Ultimately the only purpose of this visit was to assert the kingdom’s role as a leading Gulf State and as an important ally for the United States. It was to personally reiterate what has been said again and again. But this time, by having the leaders of the two nations speak to each other about them.

It is not enough to make statements of policy from across thousands of miles. In politics, face to face discussions matter. In that regard, the visit accomplished its purposes.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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