President Barack Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia today on a much-anticipated mission to assuage the barely-concealed irritation of America’s oldest and most influential Arab ally. In discussions with King Abdullah and other senior Saudi officials, Obama is expected to address the issues that have provoked sharp divisions between the two states, including Syria, Iran, and Egypt, in an attempt to restore the strategic harmony that once characterized the relationship.
These meetings will hopefully produce better results than Obama’s prior visit to Riyadh, in the first year of his presidency, discussions that both sides reportedly found disappointing and poorly coordinated. This time, however, the policy differences are arguably more immediate and more intense, and it seems unlikely that even a painstakingly prepared summit can overcome them.
The roots of the bilateral tension precede Obama’s presidency — indeed, the real ruptures began at least a decade ago, over the moribund peace process, and hardened over President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the calamitous violence that followed. In the Senate and in his campaign for the presidency, Obama styled himself as Bush’s antithesis, particularly on issues related to the Middle East.
In practice, however, the Saudis see him as less forceful in his assertion of American power, less reliable in advancing their own interests, and therefore more destabilizing. And the high expectations that accompanied Obama’s election and elsewhere have heightened the ensuing sense of betrayal among many in the region at American policies under his leadership.
Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Wittes, director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy, explained in a National Public Radio interview that the frustration in Riyadh transcends mere policy differences and ultimately reflects Saudi frustration with Obama’s failure to articulate a regional vision. “He hasn’t yet addressed the big…questions about the future of America’s role in the Middle East, and I think it’s natural that allies in the region are looking for that answer,” Wittes said.
Cooperation between the two countries on a wide range of issues remains robust. However, something essential has been corroded over the past 15 years: namely, the synergies between the two states’ regional interests and the reciprocal confidence that lies at the core of any durable alliance.
These are of course interlinked; the trust that was the foundation for seven decades of U.S.-Saudi cooperation arose out of the inherent and unmistakable shared interests between the two states. Together, this was more than sufficient to overcome the equally obvious divergence in values.
Today, American and Saudi continue to advance similar objectives on a range of core concerns — among them, regional stability, thwarting Tehran, and an end to Bashar Assad’s vicious violence against the Syrian people. However, Obama and Abdullah differ strongly, and probably incurably, on the path to achieving these outcomes. Changes in global energy markets do not obviate the world’s reliance on Saudi oil exports and secure transit through the Persian Gulf, but the prospect of North American energy independence inevitably attenuates some of the traditional expectations surrounding the relationship.
Egypt is a prime example of the dichotomy in views, as discussed in depth in recent publications by Brookings scholars Shadi Hamid, writing this week in Politico, and Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, in an account of recent interviews in Saudi Arabia published in Foreign Affairs.
These strategic disparities will not be overcome by summitry, and in the absence of real policy congruence, the confidence that once characterized the relationship will not regenerate. For that reason, the question that Obama and Abdullah ought to be addressing today is not how to resuscitate the ghost of the past partnership, but whether it is possible to construct and effective alliance that maximizes the possibilities of cooperation and minimizes the areas of conflict. This requires Washington to move beyond its traditional binary approach to regional alliances. Riyadh is the enemy of America’s enemies —Iran as well as Al Qaeda — however, it may not be a friend.
“The Arab Awakening has demonstrated clearly that Washington and Riyadh do not share common values, but they do still share some common interests. Neither has a viable alternative partner to secure those interests like fighting al-Qaeda and containing Iran. It is likely to be an increasingly disharmonious alliance, but not a divorce.”
The issue of Iran pervades the bilateral frictions. The longstanding competition between Riyadh and Tehran for strategic influence and sectarian dominance has escalated since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Saudis saw as a reckless revision of the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor. The ongoing Syrian civil war as well as festering instability in Bahrain and Yemen have provided multiple arenas for a dangerous spiral of extremism and violence, stoked and funded by both the Saudis and Iranians.
Iranian moderates have historically viewed Riyadh as a pathway to regional rehabilitation and a broader international detente. This approach paid off in the late 1990s with the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries and cooperation within OPEC that facilitated the mutually beneficial rise in oil prices through 2008.
It remains uncertain if Tehran will strike a similar course now. In my conversations with Iranians, I’ve been struck at how rancorous the view of Riyadh has become; even reformist interlocutors now see the Saudis as an existential adversary, determined to erode Iran’s economy and to wreak havoc around the region for sectarian purposes.
Officially, Iran’s international charm offensive, launched since the June 2013 of moderate president Hassan Rouhani, has included assiduous outreach toward its skeptics to the south. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has visited Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait and Oman, and Rouhani ventured to Muscat. But to date, despite some rhetorical efforts, Riyadh has remained stubbornly off-limits. Obama’s current visit to Riyadh was preceded by another emissary, Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alawi, reportedly carrying a message from Tehran regarding the prospects for rapprochement. That would require something far beyond reassurance — a vision for regional reconciliation.