Saudi Arabia: Mr. Obama's foreign policy conundrum

President Obama wants allies to take more responsibility for their own defense. But what if the US doesn't like their decisions?

Hani Mohammed/AP
A boy chants slogans through a gap in a national flag raised by Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, during a protest against Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday.

For much of his presidency, Barack Obama has encouraged America’s allies to take on more responsibility for their own defense.

Mr. Obama will get a firsthand look at how that central tenet of his foreign policy doctrine is working when he visits Saudi Arabia Wednesday. What he finds will likely drive home the point that allies left increasingly to their own initiative aren’t always going to act in ways that suit the United States.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the chief example is the war in neighboring Yemen, where the Saudis intervened more than a year ago against advancing Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The Saudis have become bogged down in a war that has caused tremendous suffering among civilians, paved the way for expansion of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and pitted the region’s two rival powers – Saudi Arabia and  Iran – in a proxy war.

The result is “a kind of catch-22,” says Frederick Wehrey, a Persian Gulf expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “We want them to be more responsible” for themselves, he says, “but when they do it … it’s destabilizing.”

Obama is traveling to Riyadh as part of a pledge made a year ago at summit of Gulf countries at Camp David. There, he promised to follow up with a second summit this year in the region. That meeting of the US-Gulf Cooperation Council summit will take place Thursday.

In the April issue of The Atlantic magazine, the president lamented “free riders” – including Saudi Arabia – who traditionally have relied too heavily on the US for their national security.

But the Saudis have been charting a more independent course at least since the outset of the Obama presidency and the president’s focus on securing a nuclear deal with Iran. The disagreement now is over the path a more proactive Saudi Arabia should take.

“I find it a little difficult to understand how the president could accuse the Saudis of not quite pulling their weight,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst and Saudi Arabia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Pointing to the Saudis’ “much more active military voice in the region” – specifically Saudi initiatives in Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen – Mr. Cordesman says tensions have more to do with divergent priorities, first and foremost over Iran.

Saudi defense spending is the equivalent of about 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Cordesman says. That order of annual contribution, even as oil prices have plummeted, “doesn’t exactly equate to standing aside.”

The Riyadh meeting should allow the two countries to iron out differences. “It’s an opportunity to … stabilize the relationship and move it in a different direction,” says Mr. Wehrey.

That could include “reassurances to mitigate the fallout” from The Atlantic interview. Obama is also expected to emphasize that the US is, like the Saudis, deeply concerned about Iran – both its pursuit of missile development and recent missile tests, and its involvement in Syria and Yemen.

In the  “you can do more” column, Wehrey says, Obama is likely to suggest that the Saudis step up support for the fight against the Islamic State – particularly financially – and move forward on domestic political reforms.

The Saudis, along with other Gulf leaders at Thursday's meeting, will have in the back of their minds that the American leader is on his way out.

“The end of the Obama administration can’t come quickly enough for these leaders,” says Perry Cammack, a regional expert at the Carnegie Endowment. But the next president might not give them what they want, either. 

“The hope is that with a new [US] leader, things will revert back to where they were for decades – and I’m not sure that’s the case,” says Mr. Cammack, a former Middle East analyst on the State Department’s policy planning staff.

Obama is likely to be quizzed about a topsy-turvy presidential campaign that has America’s international partners uneasy.

But while Islamist extremism and Syria’s civil war will keep the US engaged in the Middle East, Cammack and other say, other factors – like falling US dependence on Middle East oil and continuing implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement – will also mean that the good old days of US-Gulf relations are likely gone for good.

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