Why Saudi frustration with Obama might be a good thing

Saudi Arabia is unhappy that the US won't do its bidding over Syria, and that it didn't back Egypt's Hosni Mubarak during mass street protests against his rule. Should Obama care?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khuraim, Saudi Arabia, Friday, March 28, 2014.

Saudi Arabia was the home country of 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks on the US, as well as deceased Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. During the war in Iraq, the Saudi government looked the other way as money flowed from wealthy Saudis and religious charities to the Sunni insurgency. And when it comes to political freedom and the rights of women and minorities, the Kingdom is among the most repressive countries in the world.

Yet President Barack Obama, who visits Saudi Arabia today, is supposed to be worried what King Abdullah and the rest of the ruling family thinks about him? Apparently so, if much of the coverage of his visit is any indication.

Here's The New York Times story on Obama's visit this morning:

Over seven decades, the United States and Saudi Arabia forged a strategic alliance that became a linchpin of the regional order: a liberal democracy and an ultraconservative monarchy united by shared interests in the stability of the Middle East and the continued flow of oil.

But with President Obama arriving in Riyadh on Friday, the rulers of Saudi Arabia say they feel increasingly compelled to go their own way, pursuing starkly different strategies from Washington in dealing with Iran, Syria, Egypt and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.

... Saudi Arabian officials say that has forced them to pursue their own course, to try to contain Iran, oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and support the military-backed government that has taken over in Egypt.

And here's the Christian Science Monitor's take:

“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.”

Yes, Saudi Arabia is not happy that the US didn't go to war to remove Bashar al-Assad from Syria. Or put another way, it's upset that the US has not pursued the Kingdom's national interests on its behalf.

Is this really so horrible? The American government's bipartisan love affair with Saudi Arabia was built on the foundations of mutual defense interests and copious oil reserves. But it has been a running black eye for Democrat and Republican presidents – from Reagan to Clinton to Bush father and son and now to Obama – who claim that democracy, freedom, and human rights are at the top of America's foreign agenda.

Saudi Arabia has spent far more money trying to roll back halting steps towards democracy in Egypt than the US ever did promoting it. It also sent its own troops to Bahrain to crush protests by the Shiite majority against the Sunni monarchy in 2011 and has generally used all its diplomatic skills and financial leverage to shape events to its liking.

Syria isn't the only sore point. The Kingdom is also worried about signs of warming between the US and its regional rival Iran. In Saudi Arabia's view, anything that reduces Iran's isolation is a loser, whether or Iran has nukes.

The American perspective, quite rightly, is that if Iran's nuclear program can be curtailed without firing a shot, that's a winner. And an Iran reintegrating into the global economy would be a bonus, not to mention the huge untapped oil and gas reserves there. 

Would a less isolated Iran be a challenge for Gulf monarchies, particularly ones with significant Shiite populations? Probably. But should the US maintain a permanent state of hostility with the 17th largest country in the world, with GDP over $500 billion, so Saudi royals sleep better at night?

On Syria, one specific disagreement is US opposition to providing portable surface-to-air missiles to rebels. The Obama administration is worried about that such weapons in the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other Saudi-backed jihadi rebel groups could be turned on civilian aviation or US targets some day.

Saudi says there's little to worry about, but Obama will have to weigh Saudi assurances against the possibility that a French or Turkish or Israeli or American passenger jet might erupt into a fireball someday.

And, as always, Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record goes unaddressed. Obama hasn't brought up the issue publicly ahead of this trip, and is unlikely to. Human Rights Watch urged him to in a note ahead of his visit

Saudi Arabia’s new terrorism law and a series of related royal decrees, all issued since January, create a legal framework that appears to criminalize virtually all dissident thought or expression as terrorism.

“President Obama shouldn’t let the opportunity pass to raise important human rights issues with King Abdullah, including the new counterterrorism law, women’s rights, and mass deportations,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “He should make clear that Saudi authorities shouldn’t be using the new, broadly worded terrorism law to restrict further the already restricted space for free expression.”

It's a complicated world, and security interests often (and rightly) trump ideals. But if the Saudis are really worried about the relationship with the US, perhaps it's time for them to reassess their position.

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