President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week is an important political event for both sides. It comes after speculations about the effect of their differences on their strategic alliance. The U.S. president will attend the Summit meeting in Riyadh to states members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It happens one year after his meeting with those leaders in Camp David, on the eve of the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.
The U.S.-Saudi alliance dates to that Valentine’s Day meeting in 1945 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz bin Saud. Despite their disagreement on Palestine, they found common ground in the U.S. guarantees of security for the young Kingdom in exchange for giving U.S. oil companies the priority in exploring petrol fields in Saudi territory.
The relationship between the two countries during the last seven decades had its ups and downs, but both grew closer together. Obama made Riyadh his first stop in his first visit to the Middle East in 2009. His meeting with the late King Abdullah went poorly, but he promised to address the Palestinian issue. When he caved to Benjamin Netanyahu the Saudis felt disappointed again.
The Arab Spring made things worse. President Hosni Mubarak fell without getting any sign of support from his longtime friends and mentors in Washington. In Libya, President Obama preferred to lead from behind. The worst happened in Syria: the U.S. rhetoric against Assad ignited the popular uprising, and when the Syrian masses went under the heavy killing machine of Assad, the Obama administration was very reserved and cautious in supporting the opposition politically or militarily. The culmination was with Assad ignoring Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons against civilian population near Damascus causing the death of hundreds of children and the scandalous retreat of the United States under Russian cover.
The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf felt deeply concerned with the lack of commitment from a super power which was their security guarantor during the Cold War and after. The agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program and the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic was another element in the mistrust towards Washington. They felt left in the dark since the preliminary contacts in Oman between the United States and Iran. They say the Obama administration was indifferent towards all Iranian interventions in the Middle East which violated Security Council resolutions.
President Obama’s comments to Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent of The Atlantic confirmed the Saudi suspicions about his lack of commitment to their interest. He suggested that “Saudi Arabia would have to find a way to coexist with Iran by learning to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace” overlooking all aspects of Iran’s aggressive and destructive policy in the region. Obama referred to Saudis and other European allies as “free riders” who accept security help from the United States without sharing the burden — a presumption which contradicts the impression about the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the region. During Obama’s tenure 95 billion of U.S. arms and weapons were sold to Saudi Arabia alone.
The old relations between the two countries were strained during Obama’s time in the White House. There has been distrust and disagreement over how to contain Iran, the fight against the Islamic State group, the future of Syria and clashes over Yemen. The Saudis felt their security guarantees on a shaking ground, and President Obama expressed his doubts about their political system referring regional tensions to internal problems.
Despite their differences, Saudi Arabia and the United States are not getting divorced. Both have areas of common interest and agreement. President Obama will discuss with the Gulf leaders the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State group in particular. Both are determined to end this dangerous phenomenon. They were and still are good partners in security cooperation. They can both cooperate in curbing Iranian subversive activities, especially in the Gulf, and minimizing its influence in the region.
Syria is on the agenda, and ending its war is a pressing issue. Peace in Yemen is a high priority.
President Obama’s visit this week might help contain differences and emphasize common objectives. It won’t restore the relationship to its glory days.