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March 28, 2014 4:39 pm
Amid persistent fears among many governments in the Gulf that the US intends to scale back significantly its presence in the region, the two men met at a desert farm near Riyadh on what was the US president’s second visit to Saudi Arabia since he took office.
The Saudi government made little secret of its deep disagreement with US diplomacy towards Iran, believing that Washington is naive about the real intentions of the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia has also been disappointed at Mr Obama’s reluctance to get more involved in the Syrian civil war and the two countries have argued over how to respond to the political turmoil in Egypt.
After the meeting, the White House stated that the US remained convinced of the importance of “its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has endured for over 80 years”.
Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said the two governments were already taking steps to co-ordinate their policies in Syria more closely. Although he said there would be no specific announcements from the meeting on Syria, the two countries were working more closely over “who we are providing assistance to and what types of assistance we’re providing”.
However, he added that the US still had concerns about proposals for Saudi Arabia and other countries to provide anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian rebels.
On the eve of the visit, King Abdullah announced the appointment of a younger half-brother to be deputy crown prince, in an effort to cement domestic political stability. The king, who is in his early 90s, nominated Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, as second in line to the throne after Crown Prince Salman, who is in his mid-70s and, like the king, very frail.
Clarifying the succession is an attempt to ease concern over the ageing leadership in Saudi Arabia as the oil-rich kingdom uses its financial and diplomatic clout to take a more proactive role in the Middle East’s political and sectarian unrest.
The elevation of Prince Muqrin, a former fighter pilot in his early 70s, also puts one of the king’s close allies in position, undermining the ability of the current crown prince to anoint another relative.
Decisive action on the succession could also reassure the US that Saudi Arabia will continue the modest economic and social reform efforts initiated by the king to tackle the worsening challenge of unemployment and calls for social and political change.
Described by many Gulf analysts as an “unreliable partner”, Mr Obama hoped to use the talks to sooth testy relations with the US’s oldest Gulf ally.
The president’s visit comes as the Gulf states – Washington’s traditional bedrock of regional allies – are locked in a diplomatic crisis over the role of political Islam in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, has withdrawn its ambassador from Qatar, home to the largest US military base in the region, to protest at Doha’s backing of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see the Islamist group as an existential threat to the tribal-based conservative monarchies of the Gulf and, along with the Egyptian government, have emerged as an anti-Islamist axis, battling the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
The main item on the agenda, however, was expected to have been Iran. “Obama will hope that holding the king’s hand and close consulting with him and his entourage will help ameliorate Saudi fears that Tehran is going to become a normal part of the regional furniture,” said Neil Partrick, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank. “Yet the US knows that this is precisely what the Iranian leadership has to believe it has a chance of becoming.”
Underpinning the sense of unease in Riyadh is the belief that the US, bolstered by increasing energy independence thanks to the shale oil boom, is gradually exiting the Gulf and refocusing on Asia.
US analysts said that while Mr Obama would try to reassure the Saudis that he had a hard-headed approach to the nuclear talks with Iran, there would be no easy way to ease Saudi concerns about diplomacy with Tehran.
Frederic Wehrey, an expert on the Gulf states at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, said the US and Saudi Arabia had a fundamental disagreement over Iran. The Saudis wanted to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb, he said, but they also see a US agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme as a core threat. “There is no way that we can reassure them over this. They see themselves as facing an existential struggle that the US can never resolve. Their biggest nightmare is that Iran gets back into the international fold.”
“Many people in the region feel that the US is actively turning to Iran. It is very hard for us to understand but the conspiracy is that the US will abandon the Gulf Arabs and shift to Iran and the Shi’ites,” said Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “At this point, our goal should be to reassure the Saudis about continuing US presence in the Gulf and continuing US support for the Gulf Co-operation Council.”
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, general manager of Saudi-owned satellite news channel al-Arabiya, confirmed in an article this week the fear that Washington was “divesting” itself of the region. He added that Washington and Riyadh’s policies had diverged over most regional issues, including Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Iran.
“Even with these several disagreements, Saudi Arabia is aware that the relationship with Washington is a strategic, and not a tactical, issue and that it must not be given up,” he wrote.
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