Obama in Riyadh: The Strategic Alliance Trumps All

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Saudi's newly appointed King Salman (R) shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at Erga Palace in Riyadh on January 27, 2015. AFP/Saul Loeb

Published Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Saudi Arabia has always been inclined towards the US and always will be. The US too, sees its interests in Saudi Arabia as long as oil and Israel are in the picture.

US President Barack Obama landed in Riyadh yesterday with a large diplomatic delegation. He was met at the airport by the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz. There have been signs and statements before and after the visit, emphasizing the “strategic” and historic relationship between the two countries, which trumps any political disagreements or human right concerns.

Obama can choose not to go to Paris to stand in solidarity with the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, even if the White House declares he regrets not doing so, but he cannot refuse to go to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects to King Abdullah. And so Obama and his diplomatic delegation cut their visit to India short, depriving themselves of a visit to the Taj Mahal to marvel at the sight of the new Saudi king.

When Obama and his wife Michelle arrived at Riyadh Airport, Salman was waiting for them. The king did not offer this kind of reception to any other president or leader that came to deliver condolences in the past few days. But when it comes to the US president, everything becomes possible for the rulers of the land of the Two Holy Mosques. After all, this is Obama, heir to Franklin Roosevelt, and Salman, heir to Abdulaziz, his father and founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Since the Roosevelt’s historic meeting with Abdulaziz aboard a ship in the Suez Canal on Febuary 14, 1945, the strategic relationship between the two countries has remained unchanged. The worst that happened between Saudi Arabia and the US in the past 70 years was a bit of moping and the occasional mischief. The House of Saud are allowed to misbehave a little with their American patron once in a while, but they will never actually cross any red lines.

When Obama visited Saudi Arabia last year, to meet King Abdullah, the latter was not waiting for him at the airport. At the time, it was said that health reasons prevented him from doing so. Other observers parsed this behavior as a sign of Saudi dissatisfaction with US policy towards Syria and Iran. This time, Salman was at the airport — in what appeared to be good health, except for his slightly bent back due to old age.

Why did Obama head to Saudi Arabia? The large delegation he brought along, which included active and retired diplomats, sent a message to the Saudi royal family and beyond. The delegation consisted of about 30 American officials, from both major parties. It included officials that served under George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush, such as former secretaries of state Condoleeza Rice and James Baker, in addition to former national security advisor Stephen Hadley.

Unsurprisingly, secretary of State John Kerry and CIA director John Brennan came along as well, in addition to the commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), General Lloyd Austin. To complete the picture, Obama brought along Republican senator John McCain, a known critic of his foreign policy. This was to show that the strategic US-Saudi relationship “overrides US domestic differences,” as the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV put it.

Before the visit, the Saudi royal court said the meeting woulc entail “official talks between Salman and Obama, including discussion of the bilateral relations between the two countries and ways of developing them. In addition, regional and international issues of common interest will be discussed.”

For his part, US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, said Obama’s visit was “an opportunity... to touch base on some of the issues where we're working together with the Saudis," which include the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Yemen, and negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program.

The visit lasted about four hours. The US delegation left the kingdom without issuing official statements. However, during their flight back, Reuters quoted an Obama administration official as saying that the king “suggested Saudi Arabia would continue to play its role within the global energy market and that one should not expect a change in the country's position.” The official added that the Saudis pledged to continue their traditional roles, and provide an adequate oil supply without discussing the current low oil prices. The official said that the leaders also held discussions about Yemen and Iran, and that Salman did not express reservations over US-led negotiations, but warned that Tehran should not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon.

On the sidelines of the visit, James Baker was quoted as saying:

“I believe it is important that we demonstrate to the Saudis the importance that they represent to us. This is an extraordinarily critical and sensitive time in the Middle East when everything seems to be falling apart. And the kingdom in some way is becoming an island of stability.” Meanwhile, John McCain said in a side interview that the kingdom was emerging “as the major bulwark” against efforts by Iran to expand its influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, adding that it was appropriate to be part of this visit “given relations over here and the importance of Saudi Arabia."

In fact, the relationship between Obama and the late King Abdullah was not at its best in the past year, due to Saudi impatience with the administration’s failure to carry out military strikes against Syria, in addition to Saudi anxiety over reports of US-Iranian rapprochement in the context of nuclear negotiations.

Foreign Policy magazine quoted former CIA officer, Bruce Riedel, as saying: “The Saudis know there is no other game in town but America and they will work with us despite their doubts about how effective and competent the American approach will turn out.”

Before leaving India for Saudi Arabia yesterday, Obama said in an interview with CNN that he and his administration continue to apply "steady, consistent pressure" on allies like Saudi Arabia in relation to human rights issues. The US president said however: "Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.” About exerting US pressure, Obama added: “oftentimes that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated."

And thus, the alleged US pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record has continued for over 70 years without discernable results, while the language of economic and security interests supersedes all else.


This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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