When U.S. Barack Obama paid a visit to Saudi King Salman Wednesday to attend a regional summit on terrorism and regional conflict, the mood was anything but amiable.
Instead of personally receiving his American guest at King Khalid International Airport (following a precedent set by Salman’s half-brother and predecessor King Abdullah when George W. Bush visited Riyadh), Salman sent a loud and clear diplomatic message to Obama by dispatching a low-ranking royal functionary, Prince Faisal, the governor of Riyadh, to welcome the U.S. president.
Salman’s snub of Obama was made all the more blatant by the fact that earlier in the day the Saudi monarch was televised personally welcoming other Gulf state leaders on the King Salman Air Base tarmac.
The reasons behind Salman’s diplomatic rebuke are multiple, and are emblematic of the growing animosity between the former political allies.
To begin with, Saudi Arabia is not at all happy about the recent rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, the capital of its archrival for territorial and sectarian control of the Middle East.
Nor was the oil-rich kingdom amused by Obama’s recent reference to their country as a “so-called ally.”
And then, of course, there is the recent brouhaha over the possible declassification of the last 28 pages of a U.S. congressional report on the 9/11 terror attacks, a highly sensitive document that allegedly links the Saudis to financial and political sponsorship of the masterminds behind that horrendous 2001 acts of terrorism.
Bilateral tensions got even worse when it was revealed last week that Riyadh had threatened to sell off billions of dollars in U.S. assets should Congress proceed with a proposed bill to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi government and private entities for the attacks, and if the 28 pages are declassified and released, there may be solid ground for their legal suits.
The icy air that surrounds the desert summit in Riyadh could be a sign of not-so-great things to come between an increasingly Islamophobic United States and the dogmatically conservative Sunni monarchy, which have already butted heads on a series of issues ranging from Saudi backings of Houthi rebel groups in Yemen and flagrant human rights abuses against its own Shi’ite minority to the dropping price of oil and an apparent Saudi reluctance to take a stronger stance against Islamic State violence.
For now, Obama seems to be letting the Saudi diplomatic insult slide, focusing instead on more substantial issues and quietly allowing Salman to make a dramatic show of his public glove slap to the United States to impress his fellow Gulf leaders.
Bruised egos aside, that may be the best approach in the long run, since despite the mounting antagonisms between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the two countries clearly need one another – with Riyadh depending on the United States for military backing and Washington relying on Saudi Arabia for oil and the regional fight against Islamic extremism.
Sticks and stones…