Obama Has Some Explaining to Do in Saudi Arabia

Obama’s Visit: All Eyes Fixed On His Meeting With The King

Obama is expected to arrive in Riyadh on Thursday 27th March and meet with King Abdullah to discuss a range of security issues in the Middle East that have caused some strains in the bilateral relationship.

The Saudis are alarmed by the USA’s paralysis that allowed the al Assad regime to kill more than 135,000 people and force millions out of their towns and villages. The Saudis are dismayed by the vacillating, lurching, confused and dithering approach to decision making of President Obama and his top advisers.

The US has failed to act when the regime crossed Obama’s own red lines. It has failed to honour pledges of military support to the rebels who are fighting the regime and its allies, as well as fighting al Qaeda in Syria. Back in August 2011, Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step down.

The White House pinned its hopes on the Geneva 2 conference which ended in failure. Meanwhile Russia and Iran are providing the Syrian regime with weapons, money and men.

The Saudis’ displeasure with the USA is evident and understandable. Both sides are now determined to rescue the so-called special relationship and mend fences.

Top Of The Agenda

obama saudi arabia 2009
Obama in Saudi Arabia, 2009

The Obamas’ visit to Riyadh is intended to bolster the bilateral relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia. Syria, Egypt and Iran’s nuclear programme will top the agenda. There will be frank exchanges about the failure in dealing with the murderous Syrian regime. The Saudis believe that the USA has no coherent strategy for the Middle East and no convincing policy on Syria.

The Saudis rightly feel that they were being ignored and even betrayed by Obama. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, acknowledged that the U.S. recognizes that the toppling of Bashar al Assad is an important Saudi strategic objective to protect Saudi regional interests.

Last month, Jay Carney the White House press secretary, said: “The president looks forward to discussing with King Abdullah the enduring and strategic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia as ongoing cooperation to advance a range of common interests.”

On January 31st, The Wall Street Journal, citing Arab officials who have been briefed on the trip’s preparations, said the meeting with King Abdullah is part of an effort to ease tensions:

“Relations between Washington and Riyadh have grown inflamed in the past year over the Obama administration’s Middle East policies, particularly its outreach to Iran and its unwillingness to get involved militarily in Syria’s civil war.”

What the Saudis want from America is a tougher stance against what it sees as an evil alliance between Tehran, Moscow and Damascus. The implication of a Syrian victory in the region would be calamitous for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and US allies in the region.

The critical question is would President Obama respond positively to Saudi demands? Would the US seriously consider providing the Free Syrian Army and moderate rebels with the right weapons to change the balance of power on the ground in favour of the opposition?

Strategic Co-ordination

There is widespread speculation in the media that the US and Saudi Arabia will embark on a major policy shift on Syria. There will be more coordination to achieve the strategic aim of toppling the regime of Bashar al Assad. The recent changes in Saudi Arabia might explain this shift.

The recent replacing of intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan by Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, with special responsibility for Syria, was welcomed by the USA. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, Saudi King Abdullah’s son and head of the Saudi National Guard, has also assumed a bigger share of responsibility for the kingdom’s policy towards Syria, the advisers said.

The U.S. wants to see the moderate rebels it supports fight both the regime and radical fighters such as the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Increasingly, this is happening on the ground in Syria.

For three years, the Obama administration refused to provide the right weapons to the rebels whilst turning a blind eye to Iranian and Russian support of the regime.

It would be interesting to see whether the visit will ultimately lead to a dramatic change in the balance of power on the ground in favour of the rebels battling the Syrian regime and al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria.

Nehad Ismail is a writer and broadcaster, who writes about issues related to the Middle East from his home in London.