Saudi King channels John McCain, demands Obama Take Hard Line on Iran, Syria, Muslim Brotherhood

(By Juan Cole)

President Barack Obama met late Friday with King Abdullah b. Abd al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia at the latter’s desert camp, flying out from Riyadh by helicopter.

The tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States have come about in part because Riyadh, after being skittish about George W. Bush’s muscular Neoconservatism in the region, has now swung around and adopted a set of foreign policy stances far closer to those of the Republican Party in the US than to the Obama administration. Given that Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative, religious state based almost entirely on the petroleum industry, it is no accident that it is a Red State in American political terms.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia a decade ago worked against Bush’s refusal to talk to the Iranians, calling that country’s president and foreign minister to Riyadh. But despite an Iranian overture to the Saudis since the election of current President Hassan Rouhani, the king and his closest advisers are against Obama’s attempt to get a deal with Iran that would let Tehran enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear fuel. Like the Israelis, the Saudis want the US to push Iran into closing down its nuclear enrichment program (which Iran maintains is for peaceful civilian energy purposes) altogether. This goal is of course impossible to achieve without an invasion and occupation of Iran by the US, which is not going to happen while Obama is in office.

The Saudis also want the US to allow the supply to Syrian rebels of anti-aircraft and other heavy weaponry. Obama’s decision not to get involved directly in Syria, from a Saudi point of view, has allowed the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad to recover the momentum in pushing back the rebels.

And, the Saudis want the US to accept the coup d’etat in Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood president Muhammad Morsi, and to support the military government.

Zuhayr al-Harithi of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Saudi Consultative Council that advises the king said that the monarch wanted to impress on Obama the magnitude of the dangers and challenges in the region, which require and adjustment of current US policy.

The Saudis wanted to hear more about the safeguards the US will implement against an Iranian nuclear weapons program, but wanted to pursue aspects of Iran policy beyond the nuclear issue — presumably, Iran’s support for al-Assad in Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon. The Saudis are supporting Salafi and Sunni rebels against the secular nationalist Baath Party, which has many Alawite Shiites at the top of it. Twelver Shiite Hizbullah policy is opposed by Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Sunni politician who is a client of Saudi Arabia.

Some other Gulf Arab concerns were laid out by Ibtisam Al Ketbi. She is a policy thinker in the UAE but her views on foreign policy overlap with those of Riyadh. She adds a concern about Shiite triumphalism in Iraq to the list of issues, along with a concern for successful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for a Palestinian state. (The Palestine issue is the only major one where the Saudi position is the opposite from the GOP one).

Aside from providing a bit more US covert aid to the “moderate” Sunni rebels in Syria, however, it is difficult to see how Obama can actually make King Abdullah happy. The differences in policy cannot easily be bridged. The US doesn’t want the Syrian rebels (who are now dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates) to have heavy weapons. Presumably, however much the Israelis hate Bashar al-Assad, they don’t want al-Qaeda types being able to shoot El Al airliners out of the sky with Manpads.

Obama wants an Iran deal, which would be a game changer for US foreign policy in the region, and believes that safeguards can indeed be put in place preventing Iran from putting its low-level enrichment of uranium to bomb-building purposes.

Obama has done what he can to hold the Egyptian military harmless from its coup against Morsi, but the left wing of the Democratic Party is not happy about continuing US aid as normal, given military rule. Perhaps if Egypt moves quickly to fairly transparent elections, the Washington-Cairo relationship can begin to be repaired. But the Obama administration doesn’t think persecuting, shooting down and executing Muslim Brothers is wise and fears it will lead to radicalization.

The Israel-Palestine negotiations look likely to fail by the end of April, quite decisively, and Riyadh is not going to be happy about it. From a Saudi point of view, such a failure would show that Obama proved unwilling to pressure Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu sufficiently.

Obama has a tendency to believe that personal contact can paper over policy differences. One remembers the painful meeting he staged over Obamacare with Republican senators, hoping he could find some compromise, only to be universally rejected and scolded. Likewise, his spokesman talked of the importance of looking King Abdullah in the eye.

But Obama is not a hawk on Iran, is convinced a US intervention in Syria would lead to a quagmire, isn’t happy with the Egyptian military, and can hardly be expected actually to intervene effectively in Iraq or the Israel-Palestine issue, which are based on ground truths that the US cannot alter from 30,000 feet.

So, US-Saudi tensions will continue.

Ellen Knickmeyer tweeted:

Nor is it clear that King Abdullah’s new Neoconservatism is wise. A deal with Iran will benefit Saudi Arabia in reducing Gulf tensions. Riyadh’s fixation with overthrowing the Syrian government has helped cause a civil war that could well blow back on Saudi Arabia.

No drama Obama may be exactly what the Middle East needs, not a Wahhabi Saudi Arabia on steroids.

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AP: Obama arrives in Saudi Arabia

11 Responses

  1. I can not think of any instance where Saudi interference has lead to a positive result. From their leading role in creating feudal fundamentalism in Afghanistan to the 911 bombing and on to repression in Bahrain, the support of the worst elements in the Syrian opposition and to their backing of Egypt’s junta. they have always opposed democracy and supported the most intolerant forms of Islam.

    Why this misogynist feudal monarchy is treated with any respect is a mystery to me. All I can think of is the Saudi Royal family pays hard cash and political donations and a well paying retirement job trumps morality.

    Am I being too critical of the Saudis? Perhaps we should pity a nation fast following in the footsteps of Nauru – although I am sure the 5000 member royal family won’t be hanging around when the oil flow slows.

    • The rather thin legitimacy of Saudi rule begs the questionability of their advise to other countries of what’s in their own best interests. In fact, it’d be wise to discount anything people like that had to sell.

  2. Amnesty International asked Obama to use a female secret service agent to drive him in a country where women are not allowed behind the wheel of a car. Nor are they allowed to travel on their own or without the presence of a male relative.

    Did Obama have the courage to even make this quiet protest against a regime which has so much discrimination against women?

  3. Saudi rulers’ opposition to Iran has more to do with their precarious domestic and regional position than with Iran’s nuclear program. Not only were the Saudis not bothered about Iranian nuclear program under Presidents Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami with whom they had very friendly relations, they also warmly received President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who was the most ardent supporter of nuclear enrichment.

    However, since the “Arab Spring”, Saudi rulers feel extremely vulnerable. They have placed themselves as the main supporters of the former dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and they have given refuge to former Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They have invaded Bahrain to support the Bahraini ruler’s suppression of the protests by the majority Shi’as, and they are heavily involved in Yemen’s civil war against pro-al-Qaeda groups while they are supporting similar groups in Syria.

    During the last GCC summit meeting in Kuwait, the Saudis called for a joint military force among all the six GCC countries. Not only did they not achieve that goal, the GCC seems to be on the verge of collapse. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar due to the latter’s support for Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. During President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia all GCC leaders were due to go to Riyadh to meet with him. The disagreement among them has been so intense that the whole project was shelved. Domestically too Saudi rulers feel very vulnerable. The 91-year old King Abdullah is very frail, the 77-year old Crown Prince Salman has had some trouble focusing mentally of late and is believed to show signs of dementia. This is why, in an unusual move, on the eve of President Obama’s visit, King Abdullah appointed his 71-year old half brother Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as deputy crown prince. How long this method of succession among some 5,000 princes can go on is anybody’s guess.

    • Wonderful comment, Farhang.

      The only slight caveat is that Wikileaks shows that Saudis were urging US to hit Natanz with cruise missiles even while they were inviting Ahmadinejad to Riyadh

  4. That’s all we need. Another hand on the tail wagging the American dog. However, this presents Obama with a chance to add some virtue to his legacy by establishing a policy of no more wars.

  5. I wish Juan would sometime address the issue of so-called Saudi advocacy of Palestinians. There is some misconceptions out there. In practice, like all Arab governments, they have hypocrtically given lip service to the Palestinian cause. This ruse and pretense have been useful since when necessary, they would pressure Palestinians psoing as their advocates, just like Mubarak did , to compomise even further (although not much is left to surrender) when Americans/Israelis have asked them. They backed King Hussein when he massacred Palestinians, expelled Palestian workers during the first gulf war, and now are backing the junta in Egypt which does worse to Palestinians in Gaza than Israel. (No coincidence that Egypt literally calls Palestinians terrorists.) Their main concern was always Jerusalem and not the Palestinians and on that one they have been willing to compromise to. Have they and as a matter of fact any Arab country protested the genocide taking place in Yarmouk camp in Syria? Don’t expect that. They are in fact opposed to freedom seeking and free spirit that Palestinians have come to represent in Middle East. A free Palestine would set a dangerous precedent.

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