April 10, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1084

Following Obama Visit To Saudi Arabia, Cautious Optimism Alongside Continued Criticism

April 10, 2014 | By Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1084


On March 28, 2014, U.S. President Barak Obama visited Saudi Arabia and met with its king, 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz. The primary goal of the visit was to ease the tension between the two countries, which stems from Saudi Arabia’s displeasure with U.S. policy in the region and was evident in the cold reception accorded to President Obama at Riyadh airport.[1] During their meeting, the two leaders sought to reach an understanding on several disputed issues, such as the policy towards the Syrian and Iranian regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement, and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

On the eve of the visit, the Saudi press expressed pessimism regarding its outcomes in light of the foreign policy led by Obama in the region, which, the papers said, is detrimental to Saudi interests.[2] After the visit, articles in the Saudi press expressed diverse opinions. Many stated that it had helped ease the tension between the two countries, but had not brought about the hoped-for change in American policy, except perhaps in limited areas, such as the handling of the Syrian crisis. Others emphasized the importance of the visit in restoring the trust between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and called to keep improving the relations. Others continued to express apprehension and criticism regarding the U.S. policy, especially towards Iran and the MB.

The visit was also covered by the Syrian government press, which naturally took a negative view of it. Obama was referred to as "Hussein 'Abd Al-Wahhab" (a reference to the founder of the Wahhabi ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia), and his meeting with the king was described as a "summit in support of terrorism" in Syria and Ukraine. The Qatari and Iranian media were likewise critical, slamming Obama for failing to address the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia during his visit.

This report reviews responses to the visit, primarily in the Saudi press, during the visit and after it.

The Core Issues Discussed During The Visit: Syria And Iran

As mentioned, the purpose of the visit was to alleviate the tension between the two countries. According to reports in the Saudi press, Obama’s meeting with the king, which lasted about two hours, was relaxed and characterized by mutual understanding, though the king did express his disapproval of Obama’s Middle East policy.[3] According to the reports, the main issues discussed were the Syrian crisis, Iran’s nuclear program, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the situation in Egypt.[4] It was also reported that Obama tried to alleviate Saudi concerns regarding American-Iranian understandings on Iran’s nuclear dossier.

As the meeting was not followed by a joint statement or press conference, the U.S. and Saudi press published conflicting reports as to what understandings, if any, were reached by the two leaders, mainly on Syria and the arming of the Syrian opposition. Al-Hayat editor Jamil Al-Dhiyabi claimed that the meeting did not yield any clear understandings on Syria or Iran, but that the U.S. policy on Syria has finally changed, for "Obama means to discuss options for supporting the moderate Syrian opposition. The American realization [that this is necessary] started to crystallize following the crisis in Ukraine," he said, and added that a body will be formed to coordinate the provision of military support to the Syrian rebels "via channels that will ensure [this aid] reaches the moderate opposition."[5] Conversely, political analyst Khalid Al-Dakhil wrote that, though there has been a change in U.S. policy vis-a-vis Syria, "the extent and nature of this change remain unclear." He argued that Obama draws no distinction between the Syrian and Iranian issues, and therefore it seems that "the [U.S.] administration sees the Syrian revolution as a means to pressure the Iranians, more than anything else."[6]

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, known for his excellent contacts in the Obama administration, cited "knowledgeable officials" on a possible shift in the U.S. policy on Syria. The sources conveyed that, in order to convince Assad that he could not expect to win militarily, the United States would have to strengthen the Syrian insurgents while preventing the empowerment of the extremist elements amongst them. Hence, the U.S. (which has hitherto supplied the opposition only with non-lethal assistance), intends to help arm the opposition with heavy weapons and is operating a covert plan to train the Syrian opposition in Jordan and northern Syria.[7]

According to Saudi sources, the kingdom has indeed purchased from the U.S. 15,000 shoulder-fired missiles to be supplied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and U.S. experts are training FSA forces in Jordan.[8] However, U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes denied there has been any change in U.S. policy regarding arming the Syrian opposition with shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles.[9]

As for Iran, a U.S. official commented anonymously: "It was important to have the chance to look him [King 'Abdallah] in the eyes and explain how determined the president is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and how determined the president is to continue to counter Iran’s other destabilizing activities and that the U.S. going into this eyes wide open."[10]

U.S. President Barack Obama with Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-’Aziz (image: Al-Quds Al-’Arabi, London, March 28, 2014)

Internal Saudi Issues Conspicuously Absent From The Conversation Between The Leaders

On the eve of Obama’s visit, the Saudi king announced the appointment of Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-’Aziz (69), who is second deputy to the Saudi prime minister and the king’s personal advisor, as deputy to crown prince Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz (79).[11] Some assess that the king took this measure in preparation for stepping down from the throne due to his deteriorating health.[12]

Several Saudi columnists commented that the appointment was also meant as a message to the U.S. and the world at large that the Saudi regime is stable. Columnist Halima Muzaffar wrote that the appointment was intended to convey to the world, "including to those lying in wait [and seeking to] harm the security and stability of this great homeland," that Saudi Arabia has its domestic and foreign affairs well in hand. She wrote that "the decision came [only] a few hours before Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia so as to emphasize that the Saudi home[land] has the ability, sense and knowledge to be the best manager of its own domestic and strategic foreign affairs."[13]

It should be noted that, in their meeting, the two leaders refrained from discussing domestic Saudi affairs, including the state of human rights in the kingdom, despite the importance the U.S. ascribes to this issue.[14] The

Qatari-owned London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, known for its criticism of the Saudi regime, stated in an editorial that Obama "ignored the fact that the Saudis are suffering from the absence of basic rights and freedoms."[15] Criticism of this was also voiced in Iran. Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Yadollah Javani, said on March 30 that the West’s and Europe’s conduct in the matter of human rights was hypocritical and motivated by self-interest alone, not by the desire to protect human rights throughout the world – as evident from Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been violating human rights for decades.[16]

Hostile Coverage Of The Visit By The Official Syrian And Iranian Press

As mentioned, reports in the Syrian government press on Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia were hostile and critical in tone. Obama’s meeting with the king was called a "summit in support of terrorism" in Syria and Ukraine, and it was claimed that the purpose of the visit was to discuss helping the terrorists in Syria and to use this terrorism, which is led by the Saudis, to "fight the growing role of Russia and respond to Putin’s [policy] with minimum [American] losses."[17]

The Syrian press claimed further that Obama had requested Saudi assistance in handling the crisis in Ukraine. Columnist Muhyi Al-Din Al-Muhammad wrote in the daily Teshreen that "Obama seeks to use Saudi Arabia’s money and its terrorists around the world to exacerbate the situation in Ukraine even further, in order to pressure Russia and cause it to recant its position in support of the peoples that oppose the policy of American hegemony."[18] Columnist Dr. Turki Saqr wrote in a similar vein that Obama wants "Saudi Arabia to activate its hidden terrorist armies and sleeper cells in Muslim areas in Russia and its region, and [thus] recreate the Afghan scenario in Central Asian countries and inside Russia."[19] It was also claimed that the goal of Obama’s Saudi visit was to ensure that the appointment of Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz as deputy crown prince would not "harm the strategic foundations of [U.S.-Saudi] relations, including the protection of Israel’s security and the continued hostility towards Iran."[20]

"Obama’s red lines" (Al-Sharq, Saudi Arabia, March 27, 2014)

Responses To The Visit In Saudi, International Arab Press

It Helped Restore U.S.-Saudi Relations; The Ties Between The Countries Must Be Strengthened

Following the visit, many stressed its importance for restoring Saudi-U.S. relations and strengthening the strategic bond between them. Tariq Alhomayed, the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that Obama’s visit was evidence that the Saudi criticism of U.S. foreign policy had been noted. He said: "...Was Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia a success? I believe the answer is yes, especially since its stated goal, on America’s part, was to emphasize the strategic alliance with the [Saudi] kingdom as a powerful and loyal partner. This [is especially important] in light of the doubts that have arisen recently [regarding this alliance] due to the nuclear talks [with Iran] and the U.S. position on the crises in Syria and Egypt.

"The visit was clearly a success, since it indicates, first and foremost, that the Saudi message has reached American ears. The content of this message is that Saudi Arabia has various positions informed by the nature of the developments in the region, and that it will not accept any threat to the security of the region or any initiatives or practices that can generate new crises instead of preventing them. The U.S. President’s visit to the region and his meeting with the king mean that the message has indeed been received and that the Americans want not only to reassure the Saudis but to accept their position..."[21]

In his Al-Hayat article, the daily’s deputy editor Jamil Al-Dhiyabi wrote: "...The visit undoubtedly softened the disagreements [between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.], but did not restore [the relations] to their previous warmth... This means that there is need for greater efforts by both countries, for more coordination and for additional mutual visits in the upcoming period, in order to reach a deeper understanding regarding the complex problems in the region."[22]

Saudi columnist Ahmad Al-Farraj also wrote, in the daily Al-Jazirah, that Obama’s visit was important for restoring the bilateral relations: "Though short, the visit was important by any standard... [for] it came after [a period of] an unprecedented cooling-off in relations between the two countries... This important meeting was intended... to restore the warmth of the relations that have been deteriorating for over a year... We hope this visit by the most prominent global leader will help address some important political problems, and that Saudi-U.S. relations will reassume their proper course..."[23]

Columnist 'Abdallah bin Bjad Al-'Otaibi wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the visit was important for both countries and that the alliance between them has not suffered, despite the disagreements: "The visit... occurred amid some disagreements between the two countries. These blatant disagreements put false ideas into [the heads of] certain regional and international elements and the visit came to clarify the [real] situation...

"Strategic alliances are not affected by the decisions of a [specific] administration or president. They are well-rooted in history and anchored in reality, and require mutual understanding of the choices made by each side. Therefore, Obama, who is president of the world’s most powerful country, did not come to apologize [to Saudi Arabia] but came with a new understanding of the controversial issues and of Saudi Arabia’s prominence and the validity of its positions and decisions. The positive signs in the talks between the two countries and the two leaders are numerous and diverse, and are clearly evident in the statements of senior diplomats, especially on the American side..."[24]

There Is Need For Real Change In U.S. Policy; Obama Left Many Questions Unanswered

Conversely, some articles complained that Obama had not answered many questions that trouble the Saudis, and that he must demonstrate America’s intention to actually change its policy. Columnist Zuhair Al-Harthi claimed that restoring the relations between the two countries is important, but that it is more important for the U.S. to correct its mistaken decisions in the region. He wrote in the daily Al-Riyadh: "The U.S. President has left Saudi Arabia, and nobody knows the exact outcome of [his] meetings except those who attended them. However, statements by some members of his entourage convey positive signs regarding America’s commitment to [meeting] its obligations...

"Suffice it that this visit cause a gradual shift in [the countries’] positions based on a reappraisal of the relations between the two countries in light of the developments in the region... Restoring the relations is important, but it is more important that the U.S. reexamine its mistaken decisions in the region, which have undermined its relations with its friends and allies..."[25]

Columnist Tallal Aal Al-Sheikh wrote in the government paper Al-Watan that, before leaving Saudi Arabia, Obama should have made a statement to the Saudi press detailing the commitments he had given to Saudi Arabia on various burning regional issues and which must be translated into action. He claimed that the reassuring messages Obama had conveyed to King 'Abdallah, especially regarding Iran, were good, but must be accompanied by commitments that would prevent the deepening of the disagreements between the two countries.

Aal Al-Sheikh claimed further that the U.S. had turned a deaf ear to Saudi Arabia’s advice, and the best proof of this was that it had handed Iraq to Iran "on a silver platter", exactly like in the era of former president George [W.] Bush. He said that the U.S. still feels guilty about its mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this explains American hesitancy about Syria. But he asked: "Is it conceivable that this [guilt] should come at the expense of the [Syrian] people, some of which has been exterminated with weapons whose use the U.S. [itself] has banned and which it called a 'red line’? Is it conceivable that the U.S. should lead peace efforts that are thwarted on a daily basis by the Israeli occupier...? Is it conceivable that it should make secret deals with the Iranians at the expense of the Gulf’s security and interests? Is it conceivable that the U.S., a superpower, should form ties with the [MB] movement, whose involvement in harming Egypt’s security has been proven? There are many questions Obama should have answered before boarding his presidential plane."[26]

U.S. Policy Will Lead To A Nuclear Arms Race; There Is An American-Iranian-MB Conspiracy To Divide The Region

Both during Obama’s visit and after it, articles in the government Saudi press harshly attacked his Middle East policy. Criticism of the U.S. policy on Iran was voiced by columnist 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-‘Owaisheq. He emphasized in an Al-Watan article that the West’s nuclear agreement with Iran still worries the neighboring countries, which, unlike the American administration, consider it a bad agreement: "When it comes to the Iranian issue, the agreement in principle that was reached [between Iran and the West] does not reassure [Iran’s] neighbors in the slightest and has not led to an improvement in its positions towards the region. On the contrary, Iran and its allies have increased their efforts to undermine the region’s stability. Yet U.S. officials prefer to repeat the mantra 'we would never sign a bad agreement with Iran' and the mantra 'no agreement is preferable to a bad agreement,' and [keep reiterating] that they are determined to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. But what do these statements mean in practice...?

"Without guarantees that Iran will not develop military nuclear capabilities, the agreement between the West and Iran does not in any way reassure the region’s [countries] regarding Iranian intentions. On the contrary, it is likely to lead to an unprecedented arms race... Everyone is waiting for America to keep its promises, reexamine its options and take swift and determined action to evaluate the problems of the region in a way that will restore [America’s] international image and position, strengthen its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, and put it back on its historical course."[27]

In his Al-Hayat article, Khalid Al-Dakhil wrote that Saudi Arabia must rethink its alliance with the U.S. and not rely on the American umbrella: "Saudi Arabia must reexamine the framework of its alliance with the U.S., the nature of Saudi Arabia's role in this alliance, and the meaning of Saudi national security... America is a friend, and the alliance with it as a superpower is useful, but the military and political defense of Saudi Arabia’s national security is primarily up to the Saudis [themselves]."[28]

Saudi columnist Dr. Muhammad Al-'Owein accused the U.S. of pursuing a policy conforming to the Iranian and MB interest to fragment the region. Writing in the Al-Jazirah daily, he claimed that there is evidence of an Iranian-American conspiracy to disintegrate and re-divide the region that dates back to 1916, and that today the MB is party to it as well. This plan, he said, began with the colonial period and continued with the Balfour Declaration, the 1967 Nakba, the 1973 war and the West’s position regarding it, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the subsequent exportation of this revolution, and eventually the Iran-Iraq war. As part of this plan, Iraq is meant to be annexed to Iran, in order to allow the latter to control the region alongside Israel. Al-'Owein added that the MB has joined this plan by supporting any step that can lead to its success. The MB is the third party in the three-sided pact with the U.S. and Iran, and its true role in weakening and dividing the region is being revealed. The MB supports "any move that promotes the success of the American-Western-Iranian plan," he said.[29]

The hopes previously pinned on Obama now gone ('Okaz, Saudi Arabia, March 25, 2014)

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] On the Saudi criticism of U.S. policy, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis no. 1032, “Saudis Infuriated, Insulted By U.S. Efforts At Rapprochement With Iran,” November 1, 2013. Jamil Al-Dhiyabi, editor of the London-based daily Al-Hayat, wrote in the daily on April 1, 2014 that the smallness of the reception in Obama's honor reflected this Saudi disapproval of American policy. The London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the president was welcomed only by four Saudi princes: Foreign Minister Sa'ud bin Faisal; Crown Prince Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz; his deputy and second deputy to the prime minister Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz; and Prince Salman's personal advisor, royal court chief Muhammad bin Salman. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 29, 2014.

[3] Al-Hayat (London),, March 29, 2014.

[4] Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor to the U.S. President, said with regards to Egypt that "we have a shared interest in stability." Rhodes however added that this stability would be served by "Egypt sticking to a democratic road map.", March 29, 2014.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), April 1, 2014.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), March 30, 2014.

[7], March 28, 2014.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 28, 2014.

[9], March 28, 2014.

[10], March 28, 2014.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 28, 2014.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (Saudi Arabia), March 28, 2014. In photos from his meeting with Obama the king seems to be breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. See for example, March 31, 2014.

[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 31, 2014.

[14], March 29, 2014. On Obama's decision to refrain from discussing this matter, see, March 29, 2014.

[15] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 28, 2014.

[16], March 30, 2014.

[17] Teshreen (Syria), March 30, 2014. A similar claim was made by the Iranian website Basirat, associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which stated that the Saudis had asked Obama during this visit to arm the Syrian rebels with advanced weapons immediately, in order to shift the military balance of power in Syria., March 31, 2014.

[18] Teshreen (Syria), March 30, 2014.

[19] Teshreen (Syria), March 30, 2014.

[20] Teshreen (Syria), March 30, 2014.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1, 2014.

[22] Al-Hayat (London), April 1, 2014.

[23] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 31, 2014.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 30, 2014.

[25] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 1, 2014.

[26] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 30, 2014.

[27] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 31, 2014.

[28] Al-Hayat (London), March 30, 2014.

[29] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 29, 2014.

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