Top 4 Issues Saudi King Salman will discuss in first visit to Obama’s White House

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Saudi King Salman is meeting Friday with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. King Salman had declined to attend Obama’s Gulf Summit in May, apparently over anger at the negotiations with Iran over its civilian nuclear energy program, and issue that will undoubtedly preoccupy the Friday summit.

US-Saudi relations are in bad shape, and the meeting is clearly intended as an attempt to reboot them.

1. Whatever they say in public, Saudi officials are angry about the Vienna agreement between the UN Security Council and Iran allowing the latter to enrich uranium for reactor fuel but forestalling through inspections and other measures any Iranian breakout toward a nuclear bomb. Wikileaks revealed a state department cable that alleged that current Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Jubeir, urged the Bush administration to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Obama and his team will attempt to convince the Saudis that the Iran deal forestalls an Iranian nuke, rather than permitting it.

A subtext of the successful negotiations with Iran is that international sanctions will gradually be removed from that country. Iran will be able to pump 1.5 million barrels a day more than it does now, and will be able more freely to engage in trade. These steps will further lower the price of petroleum, hurting the Saudi economy, and will make Iran economically stronger, a development unwelcome in Riyadh. It is hard to see how Obama will be able to mollify King Salman over these developments, which inevitably worsen Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical situation in the short term, at least. Perhaps more US arms and security guarantees will take the sting out of it.

2. The US sees Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) as far more threatening than does Saudi Arabia. For Obama, defeating Daesh is perhaps the most important campaign in which his administration is engaged in the Middle East at the moment. Saudi Arabia did not create Daesh and does not like the organization. But it knows that if Daesh is rolled back in Iraq and Syria, Shiite Iranian allies will likely be the biggest beneficiaries, and so it has put Daesh on the back burner. Obama will try to convince King Salman to step up. The US is willing to ally with Iran on a de facto pragmatic basis to defeat the faux caliphate. Saudi Arabia won’t be able to bring itself to go so far.

3. Saudi Arabia is backing rebel Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) and Jaysh al-Islam in Syria, both of them hard line Salafi movements that don’t believe in democracy but do want a Taliban-like Muslim religious state with a literal approach to Islamic law. The Free Men of Syria are in turn allied with the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). The US wants the Free Men of Syria to repudiate al-Qaeda before it can accept it as “moderate” rebels. But for local tactical reasons, The Free Men need al-Qaeda in their struggle against the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The US has therefore allied instead with left wing Kurds in Syria and has attempted to create a moderate rebel group, but has largely failed. The US and Saudi Arabia agree that al-Assad should go, but the US won’t cooperate with an al-Qaeda ally, whereas the Saudis see an al-Assad defeat as more important that avoiding any cooperation with an al-Qaeda affiliate. It is not clear that this gap between Obama and King Salman can be closed.

4. The Obama administration has generally been supportive of the Saudi-lead war in Yemen, and has given logistical support. I hear an NSC staffer just this weak talk about Iran’s “malign intent” in Yemen. While Riyadh and Washington see the Zaidi Shiites Houthi movement as Iran-backed, in fact it is local and indigenous, and the Iranians have given it very little material support (maybe $3 million). There have been some indications of squeamishness on Washington’s part with the intensive and apparently indiscriminate bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The war is going relatively well for Saudi Arabia, given that the Houthis unwisely over-extended themselves into Sunni territory. But the Houthis in Yemen just are not at the top of Washington’s list of Dire Threats, whereas for Riyadh they are enemy number 1. While the Saudis have perhaps made some bombing runs against Daesh, they have waged a very intensive war against the Houthis, whom they code as Iran-supported.

Saudi Arabia is becoming a regional military power and is largely armed by the United States. The Saudis want new warships for their small navy so that they can patrol the Gulf, and that item will bulk large in the discussions.

Basically, the best Obama can hope for is that King Salman, unlike Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, won’t try to torpedo the Iran deal. He is unlikely to get buy-in from the king on shoring up the Shiite government in Baghdad. Washington is squeamish about Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen. The US and Saudi Arabia don’t back the same people in Syria, though they do both affirm the need for overthrowing al-Assad. For the US, al-Assad and his regime are a problem that can be addressed later, after Daesh is defeated. In the meantime, the US needs the Shiite militias to defeat Daesh, which means not angering Iran by getting rid of their ally in Damascus.

Obama and Salman will both come away with something. But on many pressing issues, they won’t get even close to agreement. Saudi acquiescence in the Iran deal, even if grudging, is Obama’s biggest goal. American acquiescence in a new, more muscular Saudi foreign policy in the Middle East, is probably what Riyadh most wants from Obama.

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Related video:

VOA News: “Obama, Saudi King to Meet Against Backdrop of War, Iran Deal”

19 Responses

  1. Unfortunately, the largest divergence between the US and Saudi Arabia is occurring at a cultural level below the likely attention of President and King. Yet it is also the one most consequential to all of our futures: Whether the fossil fuel economy continues for even one more decade, or whether the current uncomfortable symptoms of climate change are multiplied suddenly to levels that will certainly threaten our grandchildren, and which may possibly affect all of us who plan on living later than 2025 or so.

    Much of America, especially the Republican plutocratic class, is bound up with the fossil fuel economy, so nothing is going to change quickly, yet too many people are waking up. The fossil fuel economy must be transformed, soon, or our world will be transformed, most likely in extremely unpleasant directions.

  2. It sounds like these “friends” don’t have much in common.

    I’m sick of US administrations treating the Saudis like their eccentric old uncle. The oil weapon can’t quite be used to devastating effect like in the past. It’s time to draw a line.

    The migrant crisis in Europe highlights the need for a negotiated settlement on Syria. That should be the top item on Obama’s list when he meets with the Saudis. It’s time for the Saudis to put aside their intransigence to a possible role for the Baathists in a future government. Nobody wants it but no one wants 11 million displaced persons either.

    • Our countries have been in a cynical relationship since 1945, with inherently contradictory agendas, and both must in a sense compensate for propping each other up, a great sin in the eyes of certain of their constituencies, by doing something hurtful (but not really damaging) to the other. Saudi must spread Islamist extremism, and the US must push the narrative that Moslems are somehow all terrorists (without explicating the Saudi role in that). I think each side understands that about the other, but they can’t explain it to their publics.

      But this ritual backstabbing maybe has run out of room to avoid damage in an increasingly crowded, zero-sum Middle East. People are fed up, they want real change, and the US and Saudi are all for the tyranny of a freakish and unwholesome status quo.

  3. The notion that the Vienna accord somehow enhances the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon is patently ill-founded and cannot possibly justify the undeniable fuss Israel and Saudi Arabia are stirring up about it; one must seek another reason and in blunt human terms it is probably akin to jealousy. Iran out of purdah can exercise a considerably more important role in local and global affairs than either of them this side of the irrational. Perhaps this is already illustrated by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister visiting Damascus as the Saudi king was still on his way to the White House

  4. On all fronts our interests run contrarily to current Saudi actions. Saudi actions in Yemen are destabilizing and bring a humanitarian catastrophe right to Saudi’s doorstep. Saudi financing of terror groups in Syria and Iraq (or groups that ally with terror groups) is again deeply against our interests. Despite all of this, we sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. According to NYT, Saudi Arabia spent 80 billion USD on weaponry last year (my rough calculations seem to indicate that is more than 10% of their GDP: that’s crazy, considering they do not add much to the world output other than the sale of oil). The US government has arranged for the delivery of weaponry worth 39.6 billion USD since 1990 (according to Federation of American Scientists). Considering how Saudi Arabia uses these weapons in Yemen and their financing of destabilizing groups all across the Middle East, it is time we consider an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. In any event, a revaluation of our relationship with Saudi Arabia is most likely inevitable, considering the deep disparity in interests.

  5. It seems clear to me that Obama is well aware of how inconsequential the Iranian involvement in Yemen is, as he hinted in his Friedman interview in July (“In some cases, for example, the Houthis in Yemen, I think Iranian involvement has been initially overstated,” said Mr. Obama), and it’s also clear to me that the US technical support for the Saudis in Yemen began in part as an effort to hold them back–to restrain the indiscriminate bombing and save civilian lives. But if so, it’s clearly not working, as we learn today. I’d like to try to imagine Obama could use this meeting to make it stop.

  6. ” Saudi Arabia did not create Daesh and does not like the organization. But it knows that if Daesh is rolled back in Iraq and Syria, Shiite Iranian allies will likely be the biggest beneficiaries, and so it has put Daesh on the back burner.”
    Prof Cole, is it not a bit too sophisticated to say that SA did not create Daesh? My understanding is (based to a large part on your fine blogging) that ISIS mutated from the remnants of the Saddam army, the remnants which were funded and backed by SA or its elite.
    The question I would be asking the king is what are you planning on doing to reduce your role in the carnage in Syria, which IMHO is primarily a result of geopolitical games we and the Israelis have been playing with the help of Turkey, Qataris and the Saudis, though we would like our public to believe that it is all because of that ‘monster’ Assad in Syria. It is the INTERVENTIONS of ours and our so called allies that are responsible for it! Very sad and shameful.

    • Funding for al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and ISI may have come from rich Gulfies, including rich Saudis; there is no, zero nada evidence that the Saudi royal family funded the latter. Daesh has attacked Saudi targets and killed Saudi security personnel.

      • The wikileaks cables demonstrated that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote about Saudi Arabia being the largest financier of the Taliban, LeT, and al-Qaeda. The last group has committed terror attacks in Saudi Arabia. That the royal family may or may not have directly funded ISIS is of less relevance than their material and logistical support of groups allied with ISIS. This implicates Saudi Arabia in the terrorism committed in Iraq and Syria. We should be incensed with Saudi Arabia, and have them tried in a war crimes tribunal for the atrocities they are funding and committing.

        • KSA is certainly implicated, but not in support for
          isis; rather for Isis’s enemy al-Nusra Front, the heir to Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Which KSA does in fact back (along with Turkey, and maybe Israel and Senator McCain). It’s most important for the US to be detached from Nusra; I believe that’s the reason for relatively weak US support of those Syrian Sunni “moderates”, because so many of them are really Nusra affiliates, and another thing I hope is that Obama resists the King’s pleas on that subject.

        • The guilt of Saudi Arabia lies at a deeper level, and it is shared with the US and Pakistan. Their covert agencies labored together to create the jihadi universe in Afghanistan, to make it too chaotic and competitive for the Soviet blunderers to keep up with. Then the US simply walked away, leaving the Pakistani Army and the network of Arab bankrollers assembled by the Saudis, including Osama bin Laden, to run wild.

          So even if the Saud family itself doesn’t fund ISIS, it is funded by Saudi/Gulf feudal elites enriched by the Saudi model of oil feudalism and deranged by Wahhabism, who slid from funding the Afghan mujahedeen to al Qaeda to ISIS in search of the biggest bang for their bucks.

          The Sauds are to blame in the same way that Ronald Reagan created the climate for men like the Koch Brothers to turn our own country into a medieval oligarchy.

      • Prof Cole,
        It would be an enlightening case study if you did one on your blog on the role of SA in the current upheavals in ME and the role it played with our connivance in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the rise of Wahhabi madrasas in Pakistan and India . Also, the current carnage it is inflicting on Yemen with OUR blessings.

        Thanks

  7. A real irony of all this is that for decades the big thorn in the relationship between US and KSA was Israel, US support for it and Saudi opposition to it. Today it is all these other regional issues, with to the extent Israel is an issue it is because the Saudis agree with the Israelis against the US in opposing the Iran nuclear deal. Such is history.

    • The US model seems to be to anoint regional hegemons to control their neighbors, but inevitably only hateful and hated regimes will take the job. Israel and Saudi Arabia have earned a lot of Arab hatred, but we see that as a good thing because them Arabs must be evil because they refuse to be good money-worshippers like us. The Sauds and the Likud look “white” to Washington and Wall Street in the same way Diem and the Shah did.

  8. A couple of fast attack subs, an AEGIS cruiser and a fleet of destroyers and it’ll all be good.

    King Salman can afford it.

  9. What a great overview. This article and your one last week on Russia possibly bombing ISIL in Syria are must reads. It was a relief to read them!

  10. “…………..[i]n the meantime, the U.S. needs the Shi’ite militias to defeat Daesh, which means not angering Iran by getting rid of their ally in Damascus.”

    This is quite amazing that the U.S. is a de facto “ally” of Hezbollah – as well as the Baathists in Syria – in ensuring the defeat of Daesh, despite the fact that Hezbollah has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) and has an economic embargo imposed upon Syria.

    Israel has found itself in the same quandary – finding itself with similar interests as the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Succor Front, since in Israel’s case, that terror organization is fighting not only the Baathists – but more importantly – Israel’s arch-enemy Hezbollah.

    There is some evidence that Turkish Intelligence is aiding Daesh – and the logic behnd this is Daesh is fighting Kurdish militants in northern Syria – whom Turkey opposes.

    The wiser approach by these outside nations that has been suggested is perhaps to withdraw from contacts with these known terror organizations and focus their efforts upon humanitarian aid to refugees streaming out of Syria.

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