Obama’s last visit to Saudi Arabia: Forget niceties, let's talk business

Gulf leaders have more or less resigned to accepting their differences with the US administration

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

It’s no secret by now that US President Barack Obama has little to no chemistry with the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders. Their meetings are relatively short with no one-on-one retreats that were common with previous Presidents.

Yet, hours ahead of their summit in the Saudi capital, Obama and the GCC leaders will not spare any effort to make it work. Not because they love but rather need each other on issues from regional stability, fighting ISIS and pursuing UN brokered solutions in Yemen, and Libya.

Agree to disagree?

Eight months before Obama leaves office, the Gulf leaders have more or less resigned to accepting their differences with the administration and agreeing to disagree when it comes to perceiving the Iranian role, addressing the conflict in Syria and setting expectations. Some are just waiting for the next US President to take office, though no guarantees there as well, that in the midst of regional, energy and global challenges that Obama’s successor will be that much different.

It is clear, however, from the tone of the Gulf leaders and preparations for the Riyadh summit, that all sides want this exercise to succeed. The purpose is not exactly in the group photo or the joint communique but in institutionalizing these summits as new annual rituals, after Camp David last May, between the US and the GCC.

Differences on Syria that were present last year at Camp David, and centered round key GCC leaders pushing for a more robust plan against both pro-Iranian militias and ISIS in the conflict, will likely be overlooked this year. Arming the rebels is also another area of disagreement between Washington and Riyadh, and where the US has voiced objection over delivery of MANPADS while hinting at possibly escalating with antiaircraft weapons that are less mobile if the political talks falter.

This difference in perceiving the Iranian threat and actual doubts in GCC capitals about the current US view will likely dominate a significant portion of the summit

Joyce Karam

The starkest area of difference between Obama and the GCC, however, is Iran and its role in the region. It is an understatement to say that Obama's comment to The Atlantic, calling on his Gulf partners to "find an effective way to share the neighborhood" with their archenemy Iran has poisoned the well two months ahead of the summit.

The comment, despite multiple clarifications from the White House, confirmed early doubts that the administration is not fully ready to defend its allies nor it recognizes the full extent of the Iranian threat as they perceive it.

UAE’s ambassador to Washington Yousef Al-Otaiba and in a blistering op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, pointed out to increasing provocations by Iran since the nuclear deal that have gone unnoticed. Saudi sources cite Iran’s missile tests and firing rockets in the Strait of Hormuz last December as “very problematic” because they were not met by a serious response from the Obama administration.

This difference in perceiving the Iranian threat and actual doubts in GCC capitals about the current US view will likely dominate a significant portion of the summit. Gulf leaders are looking for acknowledgment from Washington of the Iranian threat, while the White House is eying de-escalation and “cold peace” between its partners and Tehran.

Areas of agreement

Not all the Riyadh summit will be disputes and disagreements. From Yemen to Libya to defense cooperation, the GCC and the Obama administration have bridged key differences and are closer to achieving a common agenda.

In Yemen particularly, there is consensus from Washington and the GCC on the need to support the ongoing Kuwait negotiations between the Yemenis under the United Nations auspices to reach a political agreement. The US is hoping that such an outcome can not only begin to restore peace to Yemen but also free up GCC military commitments and refocus them to the war against ISIS. Gulf leaders are looking for commitment from the US and other international partners in helping in the post-war reconstruction and development period in Yemen and securing its maritime border.

A similar narrative applies to Libya where progress recently made on the unity government and the UN talks, is renewing the push to turn the page on the country’s civil war. This progress, according to GCC sources, was first initiated at the Camp David summit last May, where both UAE and Qatar and under pressure from Washington, agreed to meet and work towards a solution that brings Libyans together instead of engaging in a war by proxy.

Inside the GCC as well, leaders are looking to Washington to speed up commitments it had made at last year's summit on maritime security, ballistic defense, establishing a counterterrorism force and arms deliveries.

In Riyadh, Obama will encounter a more proactive and independent GCC leadership that despite its reservations on US tone and some policies, is hoping to deepen the security and trade ties with Washington. It's these strategic ties that constitute the bulwark of US-GCC relations and have withstood the test of time despite regional changes and recurring political differences.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

This article is part of Al Arabiya English’s Special Coverage on Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

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