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March 27, 2014 No.
5694

Ahead Of Obama Visit To Riyadh, Gulf Press Voices Concern Regarding U.S. Policy In Region, Pessimism Regarding Visit Outcomes

U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Riyadh, slated for March 28, 2014, has received little attention in the Gulf press. The few articles that addressed it expressed criticism of the U.S. Middle East policy, especially vis-à-vis Iran, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, stating that it could endanger the entire region. They charged the Saudi leadership to demand clear answers from the U.S. regarding its policy, while voicing pessimism regarding the visit's outcomes and the chances of a real change in America's positions and actions.

The following are excerpts from some of the articles:[1]


U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz

'Al-Hayat' Deputy-Editor: The Saudi Leadership Must Receive Clear Answers Regarding The Questions That Trouble It

The deputy-editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Jamil Al-Dhiyabi, listed the reasons for the crisis in Saudi-U.S. relations, including America's support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its rapprochement and secret negotiations with Iran, and its hesitant policy in Syria. He charged the Saudi leadership to demand clarifications from Obama regarding these causes of concern, which, he said, affect the future of the entire region. He wrote: "After the White House announced President Obama's intention to visit Riyadh, most analysts agree that there is a large, obvious 'fracture' in U.S.-Saudi relations, and that it must be healed, because Riyadh is an old Washington ally.

"We must correct those who claim that the alliance between the two countries is based on the equation of oil in return for defense of Saudi Arabia. [The fact is that] there are many reasons for this relationship, including that Saudi Arabia is a strategic and influential country that is defended by its [own] people and by its high status and [large] influence in the Arab and Islamic world. This alliance is based on mutual interests, like all alliances among nations and peoples.

"Obviously, Saudi Arabia has red lines regarding its security and the security of the Gulf and the [entire] region, which is rife with unrest and instability, and is [threatened by] countries and elements boasting that they have become Washington's closest allies. [These countries and elements] include Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood [MB], who wish to spread from Egypt to the Arab Gulf with the assistance of countries in the region, such as Qatar and Turkey. This may be the root of the crisis between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia expressed great chagrin over the White House's policy on the Egypt events, after it became clear that Washington welcomed the MB takeover of the Egyptian revolution…

"The chasm [between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia] widened after Washington adopted weak and hesitant positions vis-à-vis the Bashar Al-Assad regime's determination to kill its own people [in Syria], threaten the region with sectarian war, and set fires in all the countries of the region. Likewise, even though it was clear from the outset that support for the Free Syrian Army [FSA] would have been enough to create a military and strategic balance [of power] that could [topple] Assad and usher in [a different] regime that would fulfill Syrians' ambitions for justice and liberty, influential American elements insisted on delaying this [i.e., Assad's fall]. [This was followed by] President Obama's hesitation [in fulfilling] his promise to attack the Assad regime… and his clinging to the Geneva conference [on Syria as a way out of the crisis – a conference] which did nothing to actualize the aspirations of the Syrians and of the peoples of the region.

"The sides drifted even farther apart after it was revealed that Washington and Tehran had conducted secret talks for several months on the coast of the Gulf and in a Gulf country (Oman), producing a 'carrot and stick' agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program – without even considering the interests of the Gulf states, [to the point of] ignoring them in order to win Iran's sympathy!

"Riyadh did not object to this [U.S.-Iran] agreement, and even welcomed it, provided that it would result in arrangements spreading the required security in the region, and that [the Iranians'] intentions would be honest. However, the Saudis are entitled to consider their own interests and the interests of the Gulf states, and the dangers that they face, if [they feel that] the true price of the West-Iran agreement is enabling Tehran to take over the Gulf and to swallow up the Arab world. This, specially since Iran has long arms in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain, which completely undermines regional security, Saudi and Gulf interests, and the desire of the peoples of the region for security in their own countries.

"The Saudi 'outrage' may be one of the biggest factors that eventually caused Washington to understand that the rift and cooling in bilateral [Saudi-U.S.] relations could worsen and lead to 'damage' that would be hard to mend quickly. It is this that brought about the U.S. [diplomatic] activity that followed Secretary of State John Kerry's Riyadh visit, and also brought about the quick adjustment of President Obama's itinerary for his Europe visit at the end of this month to include Riyadh.

"White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made clear and detailed statements on February 3 regarding the upcoming Obama-King 'Abdallah talks in Riyadh: 'The President looks forward to discussing with King Abdullah the enduring and strategic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as ongoing cooperation to advance a range of common interests related to Gulf and regional security, peace in the Middle East, countering violent extremism, and other issues of prosperity and security.'

"Clearly, whatever the extent of the 'rift' and coolness in Riyadh-Washington relations, they will not end with a severing of relations, as some in the East and West allege. The best proof of this is Carney's statement: 'The president very much looks forward to the visit where all of those areas will be discussed in meetings. And whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact this is a very important and close partnership.'

"Anyone who looks at modern political history and at Saudi-U.S. relations will see that, while they have faced tough tests, the gaps have always been bridged. Following 9/11, everyone thought relations would never be the same, but the current test [of the relations] between these two allies could be the harshest and leave the most lasting impact yet. If that turns out to be the case, it concerns not just a single country, but the future of the entire region. Riyadh and Washington know very well all these aspects of their relations, which are bound to remain strong even in the face of serious obstacles.

"[During] Obama's visit in Riyadh, the Saudi leadership must not gloss over the weakness of his policy, [but] must receive clear answers from him on questions that concern Riyadh vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program and its disastrous consequences for the Gulf states and the region. [It must also obtain a promise from Obama that he will] cease favoring Nouri Al-Maliki's despicable actions [in Iraq], and [clarifications regarding] the Syrian crisis, which has seen constant bloodshed for over three years, and regarding other pressing regional matters.

"There is also the question of the nature of future [U.S.-Saudi] relations."[2]

Saudi Columnist: U.S. Policy On The Gulf Harms Its Security

In his March 26, 2014 column in the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, Saudi columnist Dr. Mutlaq Al-Mutairi criticized Obama's Middle East policy and argued that the Gulf states should not pay the price for the U.S. administration's weakness. He wrote: "...U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said: 'During his visit to the kingdom, [President] Obama will express his commitment to Gulf security' – [but] the type of commitment to be offered by Obama was not defined.

"Gulf security is facing challenges, the primary one being the U.S. policy towards it. This is because the [U.S.] policy that is preparing Iran to enter into political and security agreements [with the U.S. and the West] at the expense of the Gulf [states] cannot be interpreted as commitment to protecting [Gulf] security. President Obama's description of Iranian policy as 'strategic rather than impulsive,' and [his claim] that the Iranians 'have a worldview and see their interests and respond to costs and benefits,' [do not] strengthen Gulf security, particularly when they are accompanied by the U.S. silence regarding Iran's military intervention in favor of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and against the Syrian people.

"The declared U.S. policy in the region is part of the challenges facing Gulf security, rather than an element strengthening [that security]. The same goes for the U.S.'s support for the Al-Maliki government in Iraq, which perseveres in its pact of destiny with Iran at the expense of Iraq's own unity and the security of Iraq's neighbors.

"If this is a new path in U.S. policy, the price will be steep for the Gulf states, which will not wait until their land and history become part of that price. If this [new path] stems from weakness in American policy, the Gulf states must not pay the price for this weakness. Even if the options [open to the Gulf states] to compensate for the weakness of the American role [in the region] are few, they do exist, and they are more than possible; these options include relinquishing the historic alliance with the U.S. There are those who are urging this [approach], desiring it for their own benefit and for the benefit of the Gulf states.

"President Obama's faith in the nuclear negotiations with Iran cannot come at the price of handing over the security of the Gulf to Iran. Iraq is a convincing example of what U.S.-Iran cooperation will bring in the future, and [at this time] the Gulf states still have the power to identify threats to their security – and they still have the weapons, manpower, and allies to defend it."[3]

Bahraini Columnist: The U.S. Administration Must Present Tangible Evidence Of A Change In Its Policy

Bahraini columnist Sayed Zahra wrote in the daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej that Obama must alleviate the Saudi concerns by taking tangible steps to demonstrate a change in America's policy regarding the points of controversy between the two countries. In an article titled "Obama and Saudi Arabia," he wrote: "Naturally, Obama's visit is very important for the U.S., for Saudi Arabia and for the Arab states at large. As is well known, it takes place amid intense disagreements between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as well as many other Arab countries, and against a backdrop of general Arab rancor over America's policy on many different issues. The visit is important because it is expected to mark a decisive turning point, either deepening the disagreement with the U.S. and the Arab fears, or improving Saudi-U.S. relations...

"Everyone knows the nature of the disagreements between the U.S. and many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, and [the nature of their] reservations regarding America's policy in the region. There is extensive disagreement over the general direction of America's new policy towards Iran, [for] it looks like the U.S. means to sign a comprehensive agreement with Iran at the expense of the Arab Gulf states. [They also] have reservations regarding America's support of Al-Maliki's sectarian regime in Iraq, which is subordinate to Iran, and regarding the U.S. positions and policy towards Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and the Palestinian problem... Some think that these U.S. positions and policies [even] threaten the security and stability of the Arab Gulf states and the other Arab countries. [In fact,] there is a general assumption that the U.S. administration has turned its back on the Arabs and has decided to form an alliance with their enemies...

"What Obama will hear from the Saudi leaders will not be diplomatic statements or words of flattery. They will surely express to him, openly and clearly, all their reservations and fears regarding the American administration's policy and their objection to this policy, and demand that he take a firm position in addressing these reservations and fears.

"In his conversations and public statements during the visit, Obama is expected to stress the depth of the relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as well as America's commitment to the security and stability of the Arab Gulf states. He will also speak of developing the relations [between the countries], etc. But the problem is that these positions and views are worthless and meaningless, whether they are stated publically or in secret, for American officials voice them constantly while the American policy that is the source of the Saudi and Arab fears remains unchanged.

"If Obama wants to convincingly reassure the Saudi leaders, he must present definite practical measures that the American administration [means to take] regarding the controversial issues, as tangible evidence of an actual change in American policy... In other words, theoretical assurances are worthless; the American administration must present facts on the ground. Can Obama do this? We are skeptical. In any case, we must wait and see what he suggests and what he does."[4]

Endnotes:

[2] Al-Hayat (London), March 25, 2014.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), March 26, 2014.

[4] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 25, 2014.