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A King from the East approaches

This year marks two U.S.-Saudi 70th anniversaries

Dr. John Duke Anthony

Published: Updated:

King Salman’s visit to Washington comes at a unique time in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which is fundamentally strong. It is, however, characterized by a lack of adequate mutual understanding – there are different motives and goals, misattributions of intent, and stress on its underpinnings.

It is human nature to accept the positive aspects of a situation as a given and to focus – in some cases obsess – on the negative. So the following is warranted: the relationship will not only endure, it is more likely to strengthen than weaken over time.

The disagreements and trends outlined below will not significantly disrupt it. Even if the meeting between King Salman and President Barack Obama contains moments that a freewheeling media may contend are contentious, the fact that they are meeting at all is a sign of the relationship’s strength. For example, the United States and Britain meet to resolve differences; the Koreas do not. Of these two relationships, one is strong and vital, the other is at best dysfunctional.

Undeniably, the media, members of Congress and lobbyists of all stripes will and have already begun to parrot and highlight elements of mistrust and misapprehension in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This is in many ways to be expected. Jousting between friends, allies, partners and adversaries is part of the essence of two non-identical countries being regional and international leaders.

The Iran deal has caused significant angst in the United States and Saudi Arabia. In both countries, it has surfaced differences that had seemingly been submerged in the interests of political and geostrategic expediency.

King Salman arrives in Washington in 2015 not without leverage in discussing how Saudis understand geography, and that their interests in the Iran deal are more significant than those of the United States

Dr. John Duke Anthony

Significant numbers of Americans continue to second-guess Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fighting Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and similar extremist groups. Significant numbers of Saudis continue to question the efficacy of U.S. policies vis-à-vis its invasion and occupation of Iraq, not to mention Washington’s contributions to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The nature, extent and consequences of U.S. commitment to Israel understandably remain a point of contention. At the same time, some have questioned one of the traditional underpinnings of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, namely Riyadh’s role as the “swing” if not dominant international oil producer. Underlying these and other issues is Saudi concern about succession after Obama, and U.S. concern about succession after King Salman.

Yemen

One of the strongest aspects of the U.S.-Saudi relationship currently is cooperation in the defense and security fields. This is now at its zenith. For the first time, both countries are jointly prosecuting two conflicts simultaneously.

Riyadh’s superior knowledge and understanding of the internecine dynamics of Yemen’s governmental structures and systems of political dynamics, as well as with its Special Forces’ expertise, is unparalleled. This is combined with U.S. military equipment, expertise, and logistic and intelligence support. The efforts of both sides are proving essential to the campaign to restore Yemen's legitimate government.

Simultaneously, the Saudi air force’s support and participation in the international coalition against ISIS constitute an invaluable military contribution. Neither the Yemen nor the anti-ISIS campaigns are likely to achieve their political aims in the near future.

That is because they are marked by a reliance on airpower more suited to limited operations aimed at inducing a political outcome, rather than the tactics employed by the Houthis and ISIS, neither of which has shown any inclination toward surrender. As such, the campaigns may be approaching the point where airpower will have run the length of its utility.

King Salman and his American interlocutors, Obama included, cannot help but acknowledge that the Saudi air force has performed well over Yemen. However, both remain aware that reliance upon airpower alone against a determined enemy is unlikely to prevail. As NATO learned in Kosovo, airpower has its limits. The king and the president can be expected to discuss how the Saudi-led coalition, together with U.S. assistance, can help bring operations in Yemen to a satisfactory conclusion.

Syria, Iraq

Obama can be expected to seek support from King Salman regarding Iraq and Syria. Likewise, the king can count on meeting a U.S. president willing to listen and benefit from what he and his officialdom have to offer in this regard.

No one outside the White House can claim to know exactly what questions will be put to the king or vice versa. Even so, it is fair to assume that Obama will seek to learn to what extent Riyadh would be willing to support this or that Syrian opposition movement, and the efforts of the Iraqi government against ISIS. Obama will be understood if, in his quest to prevent an open Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq, he were to view cooperation of the strongest Sunni state as an important if not vital key.

Defense sales, purchases

In the big scheme of things, whether a significant weapons sale is a result of the meeting ought to be insignificant. In this regard, and contrary to popular media-anchored belief, the dynamics of arms sales are not synonymous with the success or failure of Washington pitching the purchase of its weapons to a client.

Americans ought to be aware, though the evidence is that the number who know is very low, that whenever a country asks to buy U.S. defense equipment, Washington is required by law to enter into a prolonged review as to whether the item in question ought to be released for purchase by other countries.

In the United States, albeit not in other countries, such a review includes an analysis of the effect that a proposed sale of armaments to another country might have on Israel’s qualitative military edge toward all 22 Arab states combined.

Yet this meeting could still see announcement of the sale of the U.S.-manufactured Theater High Altitude Air Defense system to enhance the kingdom’s Patriot Air Defense System. A joint declaration on missile defense, an increasingly preferred avenue for joint U.S.-Gulf defense cooperation, is also possible.

Iran nuclear deal

The success or failure of the meeting is unlikely to turn on arms purchases and sales, but rather the Iran nuclear deal. Riyadh and its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have questions about the deal. However, due to an extraordinary number of meetings, visits and briefings in the past year, the questions are far fewer of late. The GCC is on record as supporting the deal.

Even so, just as the U.S. executive branch of government has to contend with a public that is relatively ill-informed on international issues of importance to its perceived interests, the same is true for Saudi Arabia and many another countries. Hence, just as many in the American private sector claim the Obama administration has done less than it could to reach an agreement likely to advance regional and global peace, security and prosperity, so too is there a similar element at work within Saudi Arabia and the other GCC societies.

Obama and his staff will have to explain how the deal will enhance Gulf peace and security.

A grace note in underscoring the extent of common understanding and interests would be for both to highlight that this year marks two U.S.-Saudi 70th anniversaries.

First meet

In one, on Feb. 14, 1945, Saudi King Abdulaziz and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. In so doing, they signalled their strong national and personal bonds that have well-served their peoples – and arguably the world too – ever since.

Regarding the second event, the two countries’ leaders stood side by side as their foreign ministers co-founded in the United States the world’s highest political body, the United Nations, also in 1945.

King Salman arrives in Washington in 2015 not without leverage in discussing how Saudis understand geography, and that their interests in the Iran deal are more significant than those of the United States. Nor will he be without a voluminous file of evidence of Iran’s persistent meddling in what he and his fellow Arab heads of state regard as quintessential Arab affairs.

The king’s foreign minister, the exceptionally politically savvy Adel al-Jubeir, was until recently ambassador in Washington. More than many others, he is well placed to indicate the implications of the domestic U.S. argument over the Iran deal. He is also well situated to place in context how various American observers of international politics have been hoodwinked into believing Saudi Arabia and Israel are joined at the hip in opposing the Iran deal.

Despite the obstacles, to envision that Obama will be unable to summon all his formidable charm and powers of argument to continue to persuade Saudi Arabia of the value of the deal would be to underestimate him.

Strained budgets

An additional stress on the analytics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is the financial challenges confronting both sides. Saudis are rightly concerned that the U.S. commitment to Gulf stability may wane in the wake of diminished U.S. defense budgets. Americans are concerned about the impact of low oil prices on Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. defense budget will likely continue to be cut disproportionately to other budget items. That the United States no longer has an aircraft carrier constantly in the Gulf has been noted throughout the region, together with the implications for regional needs and policies of possible further U.S. defense budget shrinkage.

Obama’s burden will be to show how the U.S. commitment will remain constant even if the American “big-ticket” defense presence, if measured in terms of sheer physical military might, is not. Conversely, Americans might have concerns about the future of Saudi finances if oil prices continue at their current lows. Riyadh is heavily reliant on oil to fund its extensive defense and security structures and systems, as well as its social welfare programs.

The kingdom’s private non-oil industry, while booming and likely to continue to be robust, is yet to be developed to a level that can be sustained in the absence of a strong oil economy. In this context, Obama will welcome insight as to how the kingdom plans to manage this period of low oil prices, especially as there is every indication that it will be extended and deepened once Iranian oil hits the global market.

Future leadership

Both leaders might reasonably be concerned about what will come after they are gone. King Salman may be worried that a new U.S. president will choose not to honor commitments made by his or her predecessors. U.S. election season rarely brings much comfort to Saudi Arabia. This is understandable. The kingdom’s concerns are generally not viewed with the same sympathy as American voters view those of Canada, Mexico, Israel, Europe or Japan.

Obama must do what he can to reassure King Salman that his existing undertakings, in addition to whatever understandings the two may agree to this week, will be honored by his successor.

Conversely, Obama may be concerned about the future of Saudi leadership in light of recent changes made to the line of succession that put King Salman’s son in the position of deputy crown prince, and thus may have raised questions among other branches of the family.

The robustness of the Saudi royal family, however, is generally underestimated in the West. In my lifetime, one Saudi monarch was deposed or disposed to abdicate, and another was murdered. In both instances, no chaos ensued. Nevertheless, mutual considerations of future leaders will be in the background.

Don’t believe the hype

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is strong. That the leaders of both nations are meeting at a time of regional turmoil is indicative of this strength. Both nations have roughly the same objectives in this meeting.

The challenges will be to go beyond understanding each other’s perceptions – this, to a degree, they already do – and find policy courses most likely to achieve mutually beneficial aims. The public announcements after the meeting will be parsed and analyzed, yet from the perspective of analysts they are but trees in the forest.

The greater message is that the king and the president are meeting as peers to resolve issues of mutual concern. The partnership between the two countries – as with any other two countries – can be strengthened only in this way. The relationship is one for the long term.

This article was first published by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations on Sept. 3, 2015.

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Dr. John Duke Anthony is the Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. On June 22, 2000, on his first official state visit to the United States, H.M. King Muhammad VI of Morocco knighted Dr. Anthony, bestowing upon him Morocco's highest award for excellence. Dr. Anthony currently serves on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and its Subcommittee on Sanctions (with special reference to Iran). He is the only American to have been invited to each of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Ministerial and Heads of State Summits since the GCC's inception in 1981.

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