26.04.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Obama Went On a Mending Mission to Saudi Arabia

3243333Barak Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia has happened at a time when political friction between the two states has reached a point where both have started to ‘threaten’ each other—hence, the need for bringing their ties back to ‘normal.’ While this is seemingly what both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia aim at achieving, the gap seems to be too big to be filled by visits merely. It would require massive policy changes, particularly by the U.S. with regard to its revamped relations with Iran, to re-cultivate Saudi Arabia as its ‘vessel’ in the Middle East. This, however, seems to be too ambitious a task at the moment.

The ‘best friends falling apart’ scenario owes its existence to multiple failures that both, as allies, have had to face on various fronts in the Middle East. For the Saudis, failure to topple Assad in Syria and defeat the Houthis and Saleh in Yemen constitute major blows to its claims of leadership of the ‘Sunni Muslim’ world. Besides it, hit by massive cuts in revenue earnings due to low oil prices—a situation that is a direct result of Saudi Arabia’s own policies—and consequent inability to respond to the on-going crisis situations has created panic among the Saudis and its allies—hence, wayward political and economic decisions.

The Saudis, on their part, have blamed the U.S. for their multiple failures. Policy makers across the kingdom have long said that they feel Mr. Obama does not share the country’s regional interests. And after Obama criticized them as “free raiders” due to their war of atrocities in Yemen, the Saudi policy makers were forced into re-thinking terms of their relations with the U.S. in particular and the West in general. However, despite the fact that both countries do not necessarily share deep common interests in the Middle East, their mutual dependence (read: Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of the American weapons and the U.S. happens to be a big importer of Saudi oil) tends to play the role of a ‘fire fighter.’ Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of American military hardware and services, and those sales have expanded under Obama, with more than $100 billion in sales approved by 2015. Yet, their mutual friction is real and the cardinal purpose of Obama’s visit is to reduce it.

While Obama is in Saudi Arabia to ‘fight the fire’, the U.S. also continues to maintain pressure on Saudi Arabia to a certain degree. This is evident from the way the U.S. government and the U.S. Congress are pressing the Saudis from both sides. John Kirby, the State Department`s spokesman, when asked to characterise the US-Saudi relationship, said that Saudi Arabia `remains a key partner` and the United States would `continue to look for ways to improve` these ties.

But the U.S. lawmakers do not seem to share the State Department`s enthusiasm. Besides the bill seeking to sue Saudi Arabia for 9/11, the U.S. Senate is also considering another piece of legislation that proposes a restriction on sales or transfers of US-made air-to-ground weapons to Saudi Arabia. They argue that the Saudi bombing of Yemen was not in the US interest. The resolution, moved last week, followed a Human Rights Watch report alleging that Saudi Arabia used US-supplied bombs in one of its deadliest attacks yet in Yemen.

And in an interview to New York Times, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal acknowledged that US-Saudi differences were deep. `America has changed, we have changed and definitely we need to realign and readjust our understanding of each other, ` he said.

This seems to be an oversimplified version though. Far from being a ‘change of heart’, this ‘change’ is a display of the deep divergence between the two countries that has slowly, yet surely, emerged over the years. This divergence can be observed in a number of political decisions that both countries took during past few years. The US’ refusal to rescue Hosni Mubarak was the defining moment. After this, the principal divergence has taken the form of myriad of contradictions. They range from the Obama administration’s engagement of Iran instead of confronting the “satanic Safavid regime” to the Obama administration’s prevarication over the regime change agenda in Syria.

This divergence is also glaring in Saudi Arabia’s oil policies aimed at preserving the Saudi market share (which factor in the North American shale revolution as a fierce competitor) and the inevitable shift in the U.S.’ regional and global priorities toward the Asian continent or the ‘rebalance strategy’ to counter China and Russia. For Saudi Arabia, this pivot to Asia has an altogether different meaning. It tends to interpret it as weakening U.S. security commitments in the Persian Gulf.

Therefore, part of the president’s mission on this trip is reassuring the Saudis and their Persian Gulf neighbors of the U.S.’ ‘ever-lasting’ commitment to their security against Iran. However, this mantra of re-assurance itself contradicts the U.S. President’s other policy of forcing the Saudis and their allies into a ‘easy mode’ vis-à-vis the Iranians. This, however, is too much to expect from the Saudi ruling elite who, in turn, owes its existence to the very existence of an ‘enemy at the border’: Iran.

Obama’s visit, although important in the current scenario, is, therefore, unlikely to put the U.S.-Saudia relations on the path to normalization. However, while Obama has expressed his frustration at times with his Saudi allies—who themselves deeply opposed the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran— foreign policy emergencies in Syria means that the U.S. president is highly unlikely to challenge the Saudis on matters of foreign policy and human rights. For the U.S., the short term objective is to cool the Saudis down. Long-term normalcy does not seem to be forthcoming until the new U.S. administration comes to office next year.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.