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.”
Saudi threats of a “major shift” away from the U.S. ring hollow to most. When it comes to shoring up their defensive capabilities against the nuclear and sectarian threats of the day, the Saudis have nowhere else to turn. The U.S. is the only country capable of providing military protection for the Gulf, which it has carried out under a security agreement with Riyadh in exchange for assurances that Saudi Arabian oil will flow, and at a fair price.
Since 2010, the U.S. has approved more than $86 billion in weapons sales to Riyadh, and it has kept a tight rein on Iran by cracking down on suspicious transport of military equipment. There is no reason for Riyadh to worry that fundamental arrangement could soon deteriorate, analysts say.
Washington and Riyadh are also still on the same page about their regional objectives — social and political stability, the global battle against terrorism, and containing Iran. Their rift, analysts say, is in large part tactical.
Obama and his counterpart, King Abdullah, will seek to iron out those differences on Friday.
"Obama wants to make clear exactly what the U.S. objectives are in the region, and the fact that they’re not incompatible with Saudi interests. That’s the missing piece in this whole thing,” Sick said. “Saudis want us to use military action to push the kind of Middle East that they want to see, but that doesn’t prevent the two sides from coming to a recognition that what we’re doing is in fact to their benefit. Getting rid of chemical weapons in Syria and WMDs in Iran are both things that should be highly desirable from the point of view of Saudi Arabia.”
But Saudi Arabia is looking for more than just tactical convergence with the U.S., said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. And Riyadh’s anxieties about U.S. retrenchment are not unfounded, he said.
“The problem for Saudi Arabia … is that unlike Iran, it has a limited ability to project power regionally,” Haykel said. So while Riyadh can fund rebel forces in Syria, it cannot buy their long-term loyalty. Iran, on the other hand, is a military power with a proclivity for flexing its muscle in defense of allies in the region, such as the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “As such, U.S. projection of force in the region is crucial for Riyadh, hence the disappointment at Obama’s unwillingness to use it.”
And another tenet of the Obama doctrine with long-term implications for Saudi Arabia is Obama’s announced "pivot eastward," which has prompted concern from U.S. allies in the Middle East that more resources will be devoted toward foreign policy priorities in Asia. Saudis view the imminent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as evidence that has already begun.
Friday’s meeting will be considered a test by critics in the Middle East and the U.S. alike who are lukewarm on the Obama doctrine, which has been under heavy scrutiny since Russia recently claimed a geopolitical victory over the U.S. by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Most analysts say Obama’s approach to resolving the three-year civil war in Syria – as the most pressing issue on the docket – will be looked at closely in Riyadh. Two rounds of peace talks in Geneva were an abject failure, and current U.S. aid to the rebels has proven entirely inadequate to change the balance on the ground.
“I don’t know how much will come out of this meeting because the president has proven to be incredibly timid when it comes to foreign policy,” Haykel said. But, “he may choose to become more aggressive now because of what’s happening in Russia."
Amel Ahmed contributed reporting.