On his first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2009, President Barack Obama will have some explaining to do — about his decision to condemn a Riyadh-funded military coup in Egypt, about his empty threats to strike Syria, and about the perceived diplomatic thaw between the United States and Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran.
Since last summer, longtime allies Washington and Riyadh have been out of step on the defining regional crises of the time. Saudi Arabia, in a moment of heightened anxiety about its waning regional prominence, has issued a rare public rebuke of perceived U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East.
After parting ways on a military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president of Egypt, tensions came to a head in November with the announcement of a multilateral agreement between Iran, the U.S. and other Western powers to scale back Tehran’s nuclear capacity. Rather than celebrate the reduced threat of a nuclear-armed Iran — within striking distance across the Persian Gulf — Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni Muslim power, grew ever wary of what it sees as rapprochement between its Shia Muslim rival and the U.S.
Riyadh is also concerned about Iran’s creeping influence on a regional level, particularly as it lays down its chips on a sectarian battlefield in Syria. Viewing Syria as a proxy war against their sworn enemy, the Saudis want to provide major weapons to the largely Sunni rebels and are pushing Obama to make good on his threat of military intervention against the regime in retaliation for a 2013 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that was widely blamed on government forces. Instead, the U.S. disappointed Riyadh by backing down and brokering a deal with Russia to remove and destroy the regime’s chemical stores.
With Saudi anxieties — about Iran’s rising geopolitical stock and the underground “threat” of a Muslim Brotherhood resurgence in Saudi Arabia — feverishly high, the notion that their powerful U.S. ally is either gun-shy or wavering in its commitment to the region altogether has been cause for alarm.
In November, senior Saudi figures threatened a “major shift” away from Washington, warning that Riyadh might “go it alone” if Obama continued to neglect Saudi demands for the type of coercive action they grew accustomed to under former President George W. Bush.
But Obama won’t offer that on Friday, analysts say. After successive invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later, “the Obama Doctrine is a redefinition of U.S. policy that is minimalist, multilateral when possible, and unabashedly self-centered,” said Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.
“Obama, unlike Bush, is not willing to go in and change the face of the Middle East to suit Saudi desires, to get involved in nation building and in basic domestic issues in countries,” Sick told Al Jazeera. “He just isn’t willing to do that.”
The U.S. is not fond of a multinational, mobilized Islamist organization like the Brotherhood, but the existential threat that Riyadh perceives from an emboldened Brotherhood in Egypt, ostensibly through its own branch of the movement, is, in Obama’s view, fundamentally a Saudi problem.
“They have in the past embraced and provided a haven for Brotherhood people,” Sick said. “This is a domestic problem in Saudi Arabia, and it’s very clear Obama is not going to get involved. It doesn’t directly involve U.S. interests, and that’s where Obama draws the line.”