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U.S.-Saudi relations under King Salman: What to expect next?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit with a high-ranking American delegation to Riyadh shouldn’t only be read as a part of the protocol necessary in the passing from one King to another.

One should note that the U.S. delegation consisted of 30 of America’s political elite, with the bulk of them representing Washington’s foreign policy and national security bureaucracy of the last two decades.

Joining the president were his Republican opponent from 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and several veterans of Republican administrations, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice, and two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Stephen J. Hadley.

Also accompanying Obama in Riyadh were senior figures from his own administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry; John O. Brennan, the director of the CIA; and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command.

Several Democratic members of Congress were part of the delegation, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot L. Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York. Most important may be former Secretary of State Jim Baker who the Saudi’s deeply respect.

This showing of mutual respect with all the pomp and circumstance is an important indicator of how close the two countries really are


The composition was bipartisan and featured America’s political “royalty” who have worked - or are working - with Saudi Arabia across a number of key issues over the years with King Abdullah.

What should also be noted is that receiving the American delegation was the who’s who of the current Saudi monarchy: King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Premier; Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Crown Prince, Second Deputy Premier, Minister of Interior; Prince Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Governor of Riyadh Region, President of Royal Protocol Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Tubaishi, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, and other al-Saud royals and officials. An official reception ceremony was held for President Obama, where the national anthem of the two countries were played.

This showing of mutual respect with all the pomp and circumstance is an important indicator of how close the two countries really are. The fact that the delegations mixed and were serious, yet friendly, illustrates the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship.

Naturally, the United States and Saudi Arabia have shared important moments, specifically over the War for Kuwait in 1990-1991, as well as cooperating in the defense and energy sectors. Their allegiance to each other on counter-terrorism has been well-developed since 2001 with coordination to fight al-Qaeda and now against ISIS.

That over the past five months, five senior Saudi princes have visited Washington is testimony to the strategic relationship. However, as we all know, there have been political disputes focusing on results from the Arab Spring in Egypt and the American occupation of Iraq.

In addition, the Saudis are upset with the fact that Syrian President Bashar Assad is still in power and Obama is dead-set on reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. With the American “royal” visit, one hopes there is a new opportunity to “retune” the geo-political relationship between America and the Kingdom with the smooth ascension of King Salman.

There are three high-level areas where America and Saudi Arabia must discuss their political relations: Yemen, Syria and Iran.

Clearly, Yemen needs immediate triage from the U.S. and the Kingdom. An Arab official told me a few months ago that King Abdullah had requested that America launch airstrikes on the Houthis. Washington turned the King down on the request.

Now with the chaos in Yemen and in Saana in particular, it may very well be time for the U.S. and the Kingdom to coordinate a response to Yemen’s political and security earthquake to ensure that the fight against AQAP and ISIL (yes, ISIL) in Yemen are defeated. In addition, given that the Houthis are supported by Iran, now is the time for joint action against them by these two long-time allies.

Syria under Assad continues to be a deadly nuisance. With discussions heading seemingly to Moscow, Washington and Riyadh can use pressure on the Kremlin, from their point of view, to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to convince the Syrian dictator to step aside or step down. In Moscow, a Russian reporter told me that there is still a nice dacha for Assad to move to when the Syrian president is ready. Simultaneously, America and Saudi Arabia can announce serious training programs for Syrian rebels while preparing Jordanian special operation forces, who are closely allied with both countries, to launch a ground offensive in Syria. However, the Saudis remember well the Obama administration’s last minute stand-down from the ‘red line’ calling for American airstrikes in Syria. Now, both countries realize what is at stake and only in alliance can a post-Assad government become a reality.

Behind Yemen and Syria lurks Iran. From the Saudi point of view, it is America that needs to discuss its relations on this hot-button issue.

Tied, of course, to the three above issues is energy and security relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Overall, the paying of American respect to the Saudis is significant and compulsory. Saudi King Salman has a vision for Saudi Arabia that is based on his years as Riyadh governor and then as Defense Minister. His national security team is top-rate and each of these senior princes has an excellent and truthful relationship with their American counterparts. The real tests will begin now concerning the U.S.-Saudi relationship. There will be lots of agreement and coordination but discussions need to continue to avoid any speed bumps, most notably Iran.
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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, UAE. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik

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