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Why Obama could get a rough reception from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah

President Obama meets with King Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. The list of Saudi concerns is long, including Syria, Iran, the US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda, and more, analysts say.

Yves Herman/Reuters
President Obama attends the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 24, 2014. Obama is on a week long trip to the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. He meets with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh on Friday.

To get an idea of the rough reception President Obama can expect when he meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Riyadh Friday, consider the disappointment and only lightly veiled disdain behind a recent comment from an influential member of the Saudi royal family.

“We’ve seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence head and ambassador to the United States, told an international conference in Monaco last December.

Prince Turki’s comments were clearly referring to Mr. Obama’s decision last year not to strike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad even after the president’s “red line” on chemical weapons use was crossed. Also hinting that his concerns extend to Obama’s dealings with Iran, the prince added, “When that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it. There is an issue of confidence.”

Obama will confront Saudi Arabia’s shaken confidence in the US when he sits down with the king. The list of Saudi concerns is long, regional analysts say, extending beyond Syria and Iran to the US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda. There are even qualms that America’s increasing energy independence will trigger a weakening of the US commitment to assuring the security of the Persian Gulf.

Behind each of these concerns, some say, is a growing worry about America’s commitment to the Middle East. At the core of every “threat” Saudi Arabia perceives is “a Saudi concern that the United States has not really backed stability, that it has failed in Egypt and in Syria, that it has failed in Iraq, that it may be leaving the region or giving it less priority,” says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

A key Saudi concern is Iran – and a perception that the US is so focused on reaching a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program that it is overlooking what Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries see as Shiite Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. These countries view Iran as trying to encircle its adversary Sunni Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia “sees Iran as directly involved in covert action and in trying to encourage unrest in the region using its Al Quds Force,” a secretive unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, “and its intelligence” to destabilize “an important list of countries” from the Gulf to the Red Sea, Mr. Cordesman says.

A “conspiracy” sweeping the region, he notes, is that the US will “abandon the Arab Gulf and shift to Iran and the Shiites.” Such thinking may be “very hard for us to understand,” but it is indicative of the ambience Obama will enter as he visits Riyadh, Cordesman says.

Iran, Syria, and Egypt are all major concerns, but other regional analysts agree that worries about them are heightened by doubts about the role the US intends to play post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan in the Middle East.

“The underlying anxiety and the demand for Washington’s attention from the Gulf come from something bigger than any one policy issue,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “It comes from the fact that we are at a bit of a turning point in terms of America’s role in the region.”

That turning point is not just the result of the drawdown from Afghanistan and the “relative diminution of American military presence” that entails, she says. It is also the “energy revolution” that will leave the US less dependent on Mideast oil and the still-rumbling “political earthquake” in the region known as the Arab Awakening.

Some regional analysts have summed up Obama’s task in Riyadh as offering “reassurance,” but Ms. Cofman Wittes says the president’s job will be something beyond that – more like explaining his “vision” of a continued but evolving American commitment to the region.

On Syria, for example, Obama must be able to offer “some clear alternative strategy [to US military involvement] to deal with the consequences of the Syrian war for American interests and for the security of America’s allies,” she says.

On Iran, she says, Obama must explain to dubious ears “the strategy in the nuclear talks” while “reminding” the Saudis that the US agrees “there are a whole host of other aspects of Iranian behavior in the region that the US finds obstreperous and destabilizing and problematic – and that the US is still committed to confronting Iran on these” other issues.

“It’s a question of alliance management,” she says, “but it’s alliance management in the face of tremendous upheaval.”

A key indication of the success of Obama’s Riyadh visit will be not so much a sense that the president was able to offer a set of American remedies to address the region’s turmoil, says Cordesman of CSIS, but that the longtime partners can overcome doubts and differences to work together on common interests.

“The problem on both sides is not that the Saudis have expectations that the US can do something decisive” about the region’s many challenges, Cordesman says. “It is whether you can move towards some form of cooperation, and particularly patient cooperation over time,” he adds, “because neither the US nor Saudi Arabia has any quick meaningful answers to any of the major problems in this region.”

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