Why King Salman’s visit to Washington matters now

Dr. John C. Hulsman
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“Darling, this thing is bigger than the both of us”

- Keith Richards to Mick Jagger, on the need to resolve their differences within the Rolling Stones


While Israelis are habitually seen as having the edge when it comes to understanding the ways of Washington, it seems to me that King Salman’s astute response to the nuclear deal with Iran has proven far more practically productive than the hapless petulance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whereas the Israeli Premier has foolishly spent his political capital futilely rallying American congressional opposition to the deal (and thus incurring the Obama administration’s enmity), the King’s administration has shown itself to be the better political risk analysts.

Rather than publicly indulging in a temper tantrum about the nuclear deal, Riyadh seems to have quietly (and tepidly) accepted the inevitable; that Congress will not stop the deal. As such, making the best of it has become the kingdom’s watchword. The reward for such a grown-up response will be the King handing the White House its bill for this valuable diplomatic support during his upcoming visit to Washington this week.

For much like Keith Richards’ insight about his fraught ties with Mick Jagger during the Rolling Stones heyday, Riyadh might have come to understand that it is fundamentally in its interests to move on from the nuclear deal, that U.S. -Saudi ties must transcend present tensions as almost nothing can be achieved without the two powers working together in rough concert. Diplomatically, the relationship is truly bigger than the both of them.

The particulars of the bill

There are likely to be three basic questions that are likely to be presented before the Obama White House. First, what the U.S, intends to offer the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in terms of military hardware, a promise the White House made last Spring. Specifically, the Saudis will seek upgrades for their F-15s, even though Israel worries this might lessen their military edge in the region. Look for the Saudis to also press this issue as a litmus test of how far the White House is prepared to go to retain Saudi favour, given possible congressional opposition to the upgrade.

Rather than publicly indulging in a temper tantrum about the nuclear deal, Riyadh seems to have quietly (and tepidly) accepted the inevitable; that Congress will not stop the deal

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Riyadh is also an enthusiastic supporter of establishing a GCC rapid reaction force to deal with unanticipated military crises that may emerge in the Gulf State region. Up until now, Washington has merely paid lip service to such a possibility. The Saudi visit will allow the King to probe and see if America will provide more enthusiastic diplomatic support in the near term.

Second, and beyond strategic concerns, look for the Saudis to seek broad America backing for their foreign policy. Since King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015, Saudi Arabia has departed to an extent from Riyadh’s traditional behind-the-scenes foreign policy, instead forthrightly championing measures that explicitly attempt to articulate and further specific Saudi national interests. In particular, the King is likely to press the Obama team to do more in Yemen.

Up until now, the U.S. has provided limited logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led coalition there. Recently, Riyadh has been pleased that the Pentagon has more than doubled the number of military advisers it has on the ground in Yemen, who provide the kingdom with targeting intelligence for Saudi air strikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi militias. Given the recent coalition advances in the country, look for the Saudis to press the Americans to do even more.

The elephant in the room

Curiously, I believe discussions about the elephant in the corner of the room—the Iran nuclear deal—will only amount to the Saudis’ third priority during the Washington visit. However, with King Salman’s September 4th trip occurring just days before the proposed congressional vote on the Iran deal, everyone will watch his presence. Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic posture has been to endorse the deal, all the while expressing concern over its details. This lukewarm but vital diplomatic support—as is often the case in the rough and tumble world of international relations—has come with strings attached.

The Saudis will be seeking concrete assurances from the White House regarding America persevering in establishing a toughened inspections regime over Iran’s nuclear sites, allowing for easier snapback sanctions to be put in place should Iran cheat on the terms of the accord. Rather, than wasting capital coming out against the compact, King Salman will use Saudi diplomatic leverage to make sure the impending deal is in practice as strong as it can be made.

Given both his shrewd reading of the American political facts on the ground over the Iran accord and Keith Richards’ insight that the Saudi-American relationship is truly bigger than the both of them, it is highly likely that King Salman’s diplomatic bill for his support for the administration will be honored. If it is, U.S. -Saudi relations will truly have been re-set.


Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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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