An impossible Gulf: Obama and Saudi Arabia

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa, Saudi Arabia

Obama arrived in the Riyadh yesterday on the backdrop of a proposed Congress bill that leaves the potential for citizens to sue the Kingdom over 9/11, and a subsequent Saudi threat to withdraw $750 billion from the US.

But this is not the key issue behind Obama’s visit. Rather the above is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The agenda

Saudi Arabia and Obama have come a long way since 2009 when the latter wooed the Arab world with his speech in Cairo. Today, both sides have become open in their dislike for one another, with Obama displaying a compulsion to deal with the kingdom rather than any real desire for them to remain an ally, and the latter describing him as the worst president to have entered the White House.

So what do the two seek of each other this time?

Iran

This is the elephant in the room. Saudi Arabia remains baffled at Obama’s inability to comprehend the threat that Iran poses in the region. For all of the US criticism of Saudi Arabia exporting Wahhabism and extremism, the Saudis point that they do not have a single militia operating in any foreign country unlike the Iranians who have Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Badr Brigade and others in Iraq, and have openly backed the Houthi movement which has succeeded in ousting the legitimate government in Yemen. Saudi Arabia wants Obama, and any incoming US President, to be tougher on Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and to play a more active role in curbing the Iranian ‘expansion’.

Obama on the other hand believes that the Iranian threat is exaggerated and that the Saudi concern is based on an inability to accept that its once unrivalled hegemony in the region is under threat. He believes that the Saudi stance on Syria and Yemen has little to do with the governments of either country but rather the influence of Iran in either country. The extent of this belief even outside Obama’s circle is such that some analysts and officials have privately suggested that Saudi Arabia could accept Assad staying in power on the condition that Iranian influence on a future Syria would be curbed. Hence, he has called on the kingdom to ‘share’ the region with Iran in an acceptance of the status quo; something Saudi Arabia vehemently opposes.

ISIS

Whilst Iran may be the priority for Saudi Arabia, ISIS remains the priority for Obama. Obama believes that the Saudi ideology bears much similarity to that of ISIS and believes that the ‘brand’ of Islam (for lack of a better word), encourages ordinary citizens to join ISIS. This is not the same as suggesting that Saudi Arabia actively supports ISIS. Rather Obama believes that the environment within Saudi Arabia is conducive to the promotion ISIS propaganda. Obama wants guarantees from Saudi Arabia that it will increase its efforts in defeating ISIS as well as fighting its ideology within the Muslim World.

The Saudis however view ISIS’s emergence as a direct result of Obama’s failed policy in the region. By pandering to Iran in Iraq and Syria, the Saudis believe that an environment was created in which ISIS was allowed to emerge. Some analysts go further to suggest that the only country ISIS really benefits is Iran as its presence means that Iran no longer has to operate ‘under the table’ in Iraq but can be open and active in its control of Iraq, reflected in the presence of the Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani and other Iranian advisors and fighters on Iraqi soil.

Saudi Arabia however has been the subject of a number of open threats and attacks from ISIS, leading the Saudis to believe that Obama once again does not understand what is going on in the region.

The Impossible Gulf

Neither party is likely to get what they want in this meeting. The gulf between the two leaders will be impossible to bridge given that they have different stances on key issues in the region. Obama also believe the Gulf to be impossible to work with over trying to put out the fires that engulf the region. Saudi Arabia does not see Obama as genuine in seeking to get rid of Assad, or curbing Iran’s influence, and the latter has demonstrated a preference for a political solution in recent times given the continued humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia believes no solution can be reached whilst Assad remains. The US disagrees.

More importantly for the Saudis, the US have shown a flagrant disregard for the former’s back garden; Yemen. When Houthi seized the capital Sana’a and the Gulf voiced their discontent by closing their embassies and withdrawing their ambassadors, the US did not follow suit. Instead, US officials suggested that Houthi was a key ally in the war on Al-Qaeda and the consideration by the then UN representative Jamal Ben Omar over the Houthi proposal of setting up a military council only drew the ire of the kingdom even further. The US sees the conflict in Yemen as based on a hysterical fear from Saudi Arabia over Iran and only orthodoxy in US foreign policy has prevented the US from applying significant pressure on the Kingdom to reel back its war on the Houthis.

The Saudis are also furious at having been put under pressure to cut output to raise oil prices. With the US no longer reliant, their trump card is no longer effective and the kingdom fears losing market share to their ally and Iran.

$750 billion

Much has been made of the Saudi threat to withdraw their investments from the US. However, it is unlikely that the Saudis even want to do so. More interesting however, is whether the Saudis would even be able to do so if they wanted to. The US is unlikely to simply stand by and watch such a large sum of money leave the economy. The threat is therefore a bluff but the message is loud and clear; such so as to warrant this visit from Obama to Riyadh to attempt to soothe the perhaps implacable Kingdom.

Farewell meeting

This is most likely Obama’s final meeting with King Salman and the Saudis are unlikely to miss him much. However, what is most unforgiveable about Obama amongst the Saudis, is that his changes in the region, including the Iran Deal, and the impact of his policies in Iraq and Syria, have become such that it is near impossible for any incoming US President to reverse those changes.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…