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Obama visit to Saudi affirms strategic alignment

Aside from oil, the U.S. will always need Riyadh’s political, economic and strategic role in the region

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

Published: Updated:

U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week highlighted the perennial topic of relations between the two countries, with observers discussing real and imagined disputes and the seemingly diverging paths of the old allies.

Most of the talk focused on the partial disengagement of the United States from the Middle East toward East Asia, Europe and South America, arguing essentially that there would be a reduced focus on issues in this region. But it seems abundantly clear now that while tactics may differ, the strategic vision and intent of the two nations remain intact.

Saudi stands firm

Saudi leaders are known for taking rational and wise decisions, ultimately aimed at seeking harmony. It has been no different recently, except for a change in political thinking. The kingdom has taken a leading and decisive role during a critical time.

This was established by the position the country took on the June 30 Egyptian revolution and the Syrian uprising. Saudi Arabia also made its intentions clear in the Arab world, and globally, by rejecting a seat on the “ineffective” U.N. Security Council last year.

Saudi leaders are known for taking rational and wise decisions, ultimately aimed at seeking harmony. It has been no different recently, except for a change in political thinking. The kingdom has taken a leading and decisive role during a critical time.

Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi

The world is changing and so are the global centers of power. Politics is the art and science of holding on to power in the face of competing interests and constantly shifting alliances. Saudi Arabia has therefore understandably taken the realistic decision to seek warmer relations with new regional powers.

An important element of this has always been to ensure a united front among the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly in light of the current tensions created by Iran’s hegemonic aspirations in the region.

There is no doubt, of course, that the GCC has seen better days. This regional institution, that had maintained such success in the face of previous challenges, has clearly been shaken by changes, including several revolutions and toppled regimes. Qatar’s position on issues has weakened the GCC, and it has now become imperative for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to develop a united political position.

Everyone knows that Iran’s ambitions were featured prominently in the talks between Washington and Riyadh, including the concerns of the Gulf nations.

While Washington has made comforting reassurances that it would not accept a “bad deal” with Iran, Riyadh has made it clear that the issue is not only about Iran’s nuclear program, but also its interference in Gulf affairs.

In particular, Iran’s attempts to impose its political agenda on Arab countries by using whatever underhanded means necessary and consequently jeopardizing the region’s future.

Shifting priorities of the U.S.

While Obama’s visit has confirmed the strategic relations between the two countries, differences remain. This has changed the accord the two countries once had in jointly determining how to deal with regional and international issues.
Now Riyadh has taken the leading role here, which has been caused by the shifting priorities of the United States and its indecisive administration.

When Saudi Arabia went public about its support for the Syrian revolutionaries and sought to gain international backing for the moderate opposition, Washington created problems and dissatisfaction with its confusion on how to deal with the issue.

It issued contradictory statements in the wake of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on its people and it still opposes arming the opposition, claiming that it fears the weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists.

Political differences are healthy and can ensure a relationship based on mutual respect. In the end, though, what matters is whether there are still shared strategic objectives.

Aside from oil, the U.S. will always need Riyadh’s political, economic and strategic role in the region. For instance, the discourse in the U.S. has changed on Egypt because of Saudi influence and persuasive arguments.

Obama’s visit has not magically dealt with unresolved issues but it has reaffirmed that the two nations are aligned strategically. The two countries still share common interests, and these will ultimately ensure they deepen and develop their alliance.

This article was first published in Arab News on April 2, 2014.

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Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

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