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Obama’s ‘Complicated’ Saudi Trip

Posted April 21st, 2016 at 12:04 pm (UTC-4)
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“It’s complicated.”

That’s the way President Barack Obama is said to have recently described the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. And it appears Saudi Arabia feels the same way.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) stands next to Saudi Arabia's King Salman during the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21, 2016. (Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) stands next to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman during the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21, 2016. (Reuters)

Hanging over this week’s visit by Obama to Riyadh and his attendance at the Gulf Cooperation Summit were comments the president made in a recent cover story in The Atlantic, describing the Saudis and other Gulf nations “free riders” on U.S. military action in the region, and saying the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with Iran.

In a post-summit news conference Thursday, the president described any strain about his comments as “overblown,” and he pointed to U.S. “cooperation in interdicting Iranian efforts to arm the Houthi militias inside Yemen” as creating some confidence.

In his statement at the end of the summit, Obama said he reaffirmed the policy of the United States to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners.” Can statements like that from a president who is in office for just another nine months do much to warm what is by all indications a frosty relationship?

Obama in Saudi Arabia, Exporter of Oil and Bigotry

Nicholas Kristof – The New York Times

Let’s not let diplomatic niceties keep us from pointing to the insidious role that Saudi Arabia plays in sowing instability, and, for that matter, in tarnishing the image of Islam worldwide. The truth is that Saudi leaders do far more to damage Islam than Trump or Cruz can do, and we should be as ready to denounce their bigotry as Trump’s.

Americans are abuzz about the “missing 28 pages” — unsupported leads suggesting that Saudi officials might have had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. But as far as I can tell, these tips, addressed in a still-secret section of a congressional report, were investigated and discredited; Philip Zelikow of the 9/11 Commission tells me the 28 pages are “misleading”; the commission found there was “no evidence” of the Saudi government or senior officials financing the plot.

The much better reason to be concerned with Saudi Arabia is that it has promoted extremism, hatred, misogyny and the Sunni/Shiite divide that is now playing out in a Middle East civil war. Saudi Arabia should be renamed the Kingdom of Backwardness.

Obama in Arabia

Bernard Haykel – Project Syndicate

Obama expended an enormous amount of time and political capital to obtain a nuclear deal with Iran. He hopes that lifting sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to halt its nuclear program for about 15 years will lead Iran to change its behavior, become a more responsible state actor, and abandon its revolutionary agenda and frequent use of non-state actors (including terrorist groups) to advance its goals.

If Iran does as Obama hopes, the US will be able to reduce its military presence in the Gulf. And if Iran’s leaders stop promoting terror, another important foreign policy achievement will be added to Obama’s legacy.

Unfortunately for Obama – and for the Middle East – his strategy is failing. As America’s shadow has receded, Saudi Arabia and Iran have become more aggressive, even irresponsible, in pursuing their interests.

A Letter from a Saudi Citizen to Obama

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi – Arab News

President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman walk together to a meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 20, 2016.

President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman walk together to a meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 20, 2016.


Mr. President, as a Saudi and Arab, let me tell you that there was unprecedented joy and celebration when you won the elections to become president. We were optimistic that there was an intellectual in the White House, who was aware of world issues.

The reality of your time in office has tempered our hopes. Not that we want to hold you responsible, but the United States’ disengagement from assisting in resolving the region’s problems, has resulted in a somewhat gloomy outlook for nations here.

Saudi Arabia knows that there are no free rides in politics and that’s why it took all these initiatives. Saudis understand that their strategic relationship with your country is an integral part of the Saudi political doctrine. But, as they say, it takes two to tango. And both sides need to synchronize their steps to be in the same rhythm.

The Saudi and Gulf Perspective on President Obama’s Visit

Anthony Cordesman – Center for Strategic and International Studies

The end result is several ironies in the meeting between President Obama, the Saudis, and the other GCC states. First…Unlike previous meetings, however, Obama is to some extent a lame duck President, and one clearly operating without the support of a Congress that Saudi Arabia sees as uncertain and to some degree hostile. In a year where every major security issue involves critical uncertainties, this U.S. President brings little clear leverage to the negotiations. His success will consist largely of restoring the image of cooperation without having an impact on the substance.

The nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar & United Arab Emirates

The nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar & United Arab Emirates

Second, the Saudi royal family is all too familiar with the constant outside obsession with Royal politics and succession issues. This time, however, the U.S. President’s succession issues involve three main populist candidates whose foreign and security policies are almost all rhetoric and no clear substance. If the U.S. delegation is worried about future Saudi leadership, imagine how the Saudi leaders feel about the United States!

Third, and perhaps most ironic of all — regardless of what the Saudi Arabia can or cannot say publically — the only competent U.S. Presidential candidate that serves the common Saudi and U.S. interests, and now now seems to have a serious chance of winning, is a woman.

The Ever More ‘Complicated’ U.S. Relationship with Saudi Arabia

David A. Graham – The Atlantic

But the most pressing issue at hand is much older: It’s the September 11 attacks. As Obama prepares to travel, Congress is considering a bill that would open the door for Saudi interests to be held liable in court for the attacks. And as The New York Times reported over the weekend, the Saudi government is threatening to sell off nearly a trillion dollars in assets held in the U.S. if the bill passes….

But wait, what role did Saudi Arabia play in the attacks? The 9/11 Commission report said this: “We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” Just like the proposed change to sovereign foreign immunity, it’s a narrowly tailored sentence….

Even then, there’s some information about Saudi involvement that has been gathered but is not yet public. A 2002 joint congressional investigation into intelligence failures ahead of 9/11 produced 28 pages that remain classified, and which are said to shed light on potential Saudi involvement in the attacks—perhaps by lower-level Saudi officials, or by elements of the government but not the government “as an institution.” Former Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who chaired the Senate side of the committee, has been pushing for years for the 28 pages to be released. Graham (no relation to this reporter) has fought a long and somewhat lonely battle, in part because he believes it could affect the victims’ families’ quest for restitution.

President Barack Obama speaks at a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21, 2016. (Reuters)

President Barack Obama speaks at a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21, 2016. (Reuters)

What to Expect from the U.S.-GCC Summit

Hussein Ibish – The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Although some Americans, including Obama, have questioned how strategically important the Middle East remains to the United States, both U.S. policy and interests continue to reflect a strong engagement in and commitment to the region in general, and the Gulf area in particular. Yet the trust of some Middle Eastern partners has been frayed, specifically among the Arab Gulf states. In these societies, anxieties are widespread that the United States may have abandoned these countries to their fate in a region they fear is being increasingly dominated by an ascendant Iran….

[W[hatever hopes may have been harbored that the nuclear agreement might lay the basis for a broader restructuring of the relationship with Iran, Tehran’s behavior thus far into the implementation phase suggests that traditional alliances with Arab countries will remain essential to securing U.S. interests in the region.

The Long Divorce

Simon Henderson – Foreign Policy

Although the upcoming visit is being touted as an effort in alliance-building, it will just as likely highlight how far Washington and Riyadh have drifted apart in the past eight years. For Obama, the key issue in the Middle East is the fight against the Islamic State: He wants to be able to continue to operate with the cover of a broad Islamic coalition, of which Saudi Arabia is a prominent member. For the House of Saud, the issue is Iran. For them, last year’s nuclear deal does not block Iran’s nascent nuclear status – instead, it confirms it. Worse than that, Washington sees Iran as a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. In the words of one longtime Washington-based observer: “Saudi Arabia wanted a boyfriend called the United States. The United States instead chose Iran. Saudi Arabia is beyond jealousy.”

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