President Barack Obama on Friday traveled to Saudi Arabia for what had long been anticipated as a fence-mending visit, after months of increasingly public disagreements between the US and its traditional Gulf allies over Washington’s posture towards Shiite expansionism, on the one hand, and political Islamists within the Sunni world, on the other.
The Saudis have yet to forgive him for turning his back on Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They actively opposed US policy in post-revolutionary Egypt, and supported the ousting by the military of the elected Islamist President, Mohammed Morsi, last summer.
Saudi Arabia felt further betrayed when it turned out that US and Iranian officials had for months been conducting secret negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme that helped pave the way to the interim deal reached at talks in Geneva in November…Mr Obama will try to make the case to the Saudis that he will not accept a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran that would be bad for them, and that an agreement putting clear limits on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions is also in the interest of Riyadh.
But the Sunni royals feel encircled by Shia Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, and are worried the US is indifferent to the anxiety this causes for the kingdom. The Saudis may not be entirely wrong.
The Telegraph described Washington and Riyadh as “at loggerheads over every burning issue in the Middle East.” The Hill described the administration as “at odds with all” of America’s key Middle Eastern allies. A New York Times article from last December had already quoted former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal blasting the administration for inaction against Iranian clients in Syria, describing President Obama’s red lines against the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime as having become “pinkish as time grew, and eventually… completely white.”
However, comments from administration officials on the eve of the visit downplayed reports that the President would seek to substantially ease Riyadh’s concerns. The Daily Caller conveyed comments from White House foreign policy chief Ben Rhodes brushing off suggestions that President Obama would agree to take a tougher line with Iran or change his stance regarding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Reports of the visit will be closely scrutinized as signals regarding Washington’s broader approach to the region. Recent years have seen the emergence and hardening of three regional blocs in the Middle East, with Washington’s Arab and Israeli allies aligned opposite Iran and its clients, and both aligned opposite a radical Sunni camp composed of Turkey, Qatar, the Brotherhood, and their allies. Observers have at various times expressed frustration over what they insist is Washington’s refusal to decisively side with its traditional allies.
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