26 March 2014
Tom Phillips
Sir Tom Phillips KCMG
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


US President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, 28 March 2014. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.
US President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, 28 March 2014. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.


This week President Barack Obama will visit Saudi Arabia, at a time when everyone in the region is asking whether the Americans have abandoned their leadership role, and what this would mean for their security.

The elderly King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is a man who judges countries by their leaders, and who has a track record of neither forgiving nor forgetting those whom he reckons have not been as good as their word. That list is an increasingly long one, including of course Tehran’s top tier, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Obama would not welcome being listed in such company. But his fine words are part of the problem. In the Middle East as elsewhere, and from his magnificent March 2009 Cairo speech onwards, the Arab world has noted the gap between rhetoric and delivery.

From the Saudi perspective, Obama defaulted on his commitment to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons and has failed to give the Syrian people the weapons they need to exercise their right of self-defence against the murderous Alawite regime and its foreign backers. The Americans went behind their backs to reach an interim nuclear deal with Iran and in their desperation to avoid a further military confrontation in the Middle East are at risk of being hoodwinked by the Iranians.

While admiring Secretary of State John Kerry’s commitment to resolving the Palestinian issue, they doubt he will be able to broker a sustainable final deal and that Obama will be willing and able to weigh in for him when and if the critical moment comes. And they would mark down the Americans for a simplistic view of the Arab Spring and the prospects for Western-style democracy in a region still riven by ethnic and religious divides, pointing in particular to tangled US policy towards Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They worry too that some in Washington will see the energy independence flowing from the shale gas revolution as bolstering the case for a lessening of US commitment to stability in the Middle East and for the much talked-about ‘pivot’ to Asia. Even if current events in Eastern Europe are a reminder that the Americans cannot completely walk away from the ties of history, they will watch closely to see if Obama in some way fails that test of resolve.

Saudi worries are accentuated by their awareness that for the foreseeable future they have no choice except to rely on the Americans in the event of a major crisis in their region.

Crown Prince Salman’s recent visits to Beijing and New Delhi and elsewhere in Asia may have been designed to signal the range of Riyadh’s friendships, but the Saudis know that there is no immediate replacement to the presence of the American Fifth Fleet in Bahrain or to American assistance on the counterterrorism agenda.

Vladimir Putin may have won some points in the region for the way he is perceived to have stuck by his friends, but those friends remain the Kingdom’s enemies and a total re-orientation of Saudi policy towards Russia looks off the cards, even if they might have spotted that many elements of their conservative social agenda find more resonance in Putin’s Russia than in the West.

Greater defence self-sufficiency with GCC partners may look a logical and attractive option, but the deeply-based fault-lines in the Gulf will limit real world possibilities, and the current very public falling out between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one side and Qatar on the other can give comfort to no one but the Iranians, while also signalling the extent to which the Saudis feel threatened not only by Shia activism but also by the political and ideological challenge of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, not all of this is new, and nor is all the fault on one side: Saudi Arabia remains a tough sell in the West however reformist the current king’s agenda.

Critics would argue that some recent Saudi decisions, including not to take up their Security Council seat last October, have been unusually fitful, even erratic, and that key Gulf countries too must take a share of the blame for the region’s failure to sort out its own problems.

When I arrived in Riyadh in 2010 I was struck by the way Saudi political and business leaders were wondering whether their future lay in their own possible pivot towards strategic partnerships in Asia rather than with the West, only to feel rebuffed when the message came back from Beijing and elsewhere that they were seen by those they were courting as little more than a large pumping station.

Moreover the US star could – just conceivably – shine more brightly in the region by the end of the year. If, for instance, Washington and its partners in the P5+1 process do successfully take away the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran without conceding further ground to Iran in the region. If the Kerry process surprises everyone by offering the firm prospect of a two state solution. If the Americans have found a more sophisticated way to engage with (presumably by then President) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. And – even better for Riyadh – if American frustration with Putin’s behaviour in eastern Europe prompts them to take a significantly firmer stand against Putin’s ally Assad.

So it is not the visit to Riyadh in itself which will count in their eyes, important though that is in signalling US awareness that diplomacy in the Middle East has to be centred on top level contacts and relationships. It is whether the fine words they will expect to hear from a remarkable wordsmith will be translated in the weeks and months ahead into operational policy on the ground.

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