Saudi Arabia: In The Driver’s Seat

TAKING THE LEAD: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during the G20 summit in Turkey, November 2015. The kingdom, led by a new generation of young royals, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has repositioned itself as the center of the Arab world.

Obama’s making nice. But it may not be enough to salvage his track record in the Gulf

By Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla

At the beginning of his first term, U.S. President Barack Obama’s regional tour targeted Egypt in 2009, just one year prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring. He wanted to engage in dialogue with the Arab world and thought that Cairo was the right place at that time.

Even White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that Egypt was chosen because “it is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world.”

Egypt was a key player in the Middle East peace process as well as a major recipient of U.S. military and economic aid.

On his way to Cairo, Obama stayed overnight at the late Saudi King Abdullah’s ranch, outside Riyadh. While there, the two leaders discussed peace and economic affairs. The next day, Obama gave a speech at Cairo University.

Obama started his presidency with a vision for peace in the Middle East.

He was full of political determination to end a 65-year old Arab-Israeli conflict. He also had a clear message of new beginnings not just with the Arab world, but also with the one billion-plus Muslims across the globe.

Towards the end of his presidency, it seems that it is no longer the case, and that he may have squandered any goodwill. On his presidential trip to the Middle East this week, Obama seems to carry no clear message to the leaders and the people of this region.

But one thing is for sure; Obama’s two-day visit to Saudi Arabia with the recognition that Riyadh, not Cairo, is the new political capital of the Arab world.

So what is it that Obama wants now?

Perhaps he is trying to tell Arab leaders that it is time to trust Iran and initiate dialogue with the nation as a regional power.

Perhaps Obama wants to advocate for women’s rights, introduce democracy, curb extremist ideology, and so on.

After all, the U.S. president has repeated most of these notions throughout many of his past interviews, during which he had shown skepticism towards his country’s Arab allies.
He has even taken it a notch further calling them—especially Saudi Arabia—free riders.

Obama probably thinks he knows Islam and the Muslim world better than any other U.S. president. After all, he has a Muslim father, carries a Muslim name and has lived for a while in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country.

But it appears that Obama has underestimated the complexity of the crisis plaguing the region extending from Pakistan to Morocco—perhaps the most violent on Earth today.

He, just like most U.S. presidents who lead the free world before him, has contributed to the violence endured in this region, primarily due to his lack of action.

And the legacy Obama leaves behind is not very impressive for a president who thinks he understands the region better than most of his predecessors.

The outgoing U.S. president’s meetings with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on April 20, as well as with the remainder of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders on April 21, was planned to cover defense-related issues—mainly counterterrorism and fighting Daesh.

King Salman and his five Arab Gulf counterparts, on the other hand, are deeply unhappy with Obama. But Riyadh will do its best to make his last visit a success.
Despite the GCC’s discontent with its Western ally, the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship remain as strong as ever. If anything, this week’s meeting in Riyadh shows that it is in the best interests of both sides to strengthen their ties in the years to come.

Obama’s visit comes at a time when King Salman is recognized as the only well-positioned king in the Middle East’s chess game. In less than a year, he has set all the right pieces in place and holds the best pawns to make his next move.

There is nothing left for Obama but to recognize that he is now dealing, not only with the leader of Saudi Arabia, but also with the decision maker in this region.

Obama would be off the mark if he believes he can waltz in and try to sell King Salman the idea of a moderate Iran, or to persuade the Saudi royal to accept Tehran’s nuclear deal as is. The results of such an attempt will not be encouraging and Obama will go back home, somehow empty handed.

On the other hand, King Salman has managed, in less than a year, to secure a ceasefire in Yemen, to gain control over Syria’s opposition, maintain balanced relations with both Cairo and Ankara and act as the man of the hour during the recent Islamic Summit in Istanbul.

If anything, it would be correct to say that the king has the Arab world, including the GCC, covered with his royal Bishet (a traditional thin cloak worn by Arab men).

Furthermore, the king is aided by a young royal team that is decisively working on the most ambitious domestic reform plan preparing the kingdom for a post-oil economy. Earlier this month, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that his country will launch a $2 trillion megafund for a post-oil era.

Obama will meet a confident king, one who has the right to act as the decision-maker in this region; and it is his choice on how to move his formidable chess pieces.

One thing is for certain, King Salman does not feel that the time is right to start a dialogue with Tehran; not just yet.

So if Obama is here to urge Riyadh to open up to Tehran, or if he is here to lecture the king on the benefits of working with Iran to resolve the Middle East’s problems or revive the twin policy of the 1970s, Riyadh won’t be interested.

Under the twin policy formula, the late shah of Iran acted as the U.S. junior partner while Riyadh was reduced to a minor role.

Tehran probably does not mind going back to that formula where it acts as the policeman of the Gulf on behalf of Washington. But this is hardly what Riyadh has in mind.

What Riyadh wants is to have Washington on its side when it opens dialogue with Tehran. And it will not see the solid support the region needs as long as Obama is around.

In that sense, Saudi Arabia is clearly setting its eyes on the next U.S. president. At the moment, time is on Riyadh’s side not Iran’s, which seems to have invested so much in the Obama presidency and gotten the most out of it.

King Salman’s message for Obama would be: Leave us in peace and with the least damage for the remainder of your term.

The king wants a region that is free of Iranian intervention and he is determined to fulfill his vision. In that sense, Riyadh is now more assertive than ever, which has enabled it to become the political capital of the Arab and Muslim world.

It is now up to the next U.S. president to decide whether his country will be a reliable partner and work with Saudi Arabia towards achieving stability in the Middle East, or venture the uncharted waters of a radical Iran that is clearly supporting everything that destabilizes this region.

What Obama and the U.S. need to know is that Riyadh wants to affirm its independence without alienating Washington. It wants to send the message that Saudi Arabia is its natural ally not Iran.

And it seems that the U.S. doesn’t wish to ruin its strategic alliances with the Arab Gulf states, any more than the latter wants to weaken that relationship. However, the bad news is that the differences in opinion, in our region, are vast. Tehran, Washington and the GCC are not on the same page these days.

Washington seems to think that Tehran is more cooperative, more reliable and more in sync on critical issues than the GCC, namely regarding files related to Daesh, Syria, and Iraq. Washington also appears to see Tehran as more realistic and flexible.

But why would the GCC think it is a bad idea to engage in dialogue with Iran.

Well, Tehran comes to the table thinking it has all the negotiation cards up its sleeves, and will speak from a position of strength.

After all, the international sanctions have been lifted, it has Iraq under its belt, and Hezbollah in Lebanon; that, in addition to the fact that it has the closest ties with two global powers, Russia and China.

And there are other reasons as to why the timing is not right for Saudi Arabia to hold such a dialogue at the moment. Taking into consideration that the Obama administration may soon be changed, the GCC thinks that whoever comes next in November may not to be as committed to Iran as the outgoing president is.

Obama has his own agenda and priority but the GCC is not on the same page as he is. And he won’t be able to force the Gulf states to be either.

If anything, the GCC and U.S. officials will be courteous to each other for sure during this visit. They will celebrate the great relationship, but in reality the GCC will be counting the seconds till Obama is gone.



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