Despite the 39 years dividing them, inter-generational chemistry was strong between the 86-year old Saudi King Abdullah and his youthful American visitor when they met in Riyadh Wednesday, June 3 – just as it was when they first met at the G-20 summit in London two months ago.
The king bestowed lavish honors and a warm show of affection on US president Barack Obama, including a rare invitation to spend the night at the royal farm outside Riyadh (an honor also according President George W. Bush). But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report that their agendas remained as wide apart as ever, especially on their main bones of contention, Iran and Iraq.
Just as Obama believes fervently that his policy of diplomatic engagement with Tehran is right, King Abdullah and his court and military establishment are absolutely certain that it is wrong. Unlike some Israelis, Saudi leaders frown on the possibility of an American or Israeli military offensive against Iran and its nuclear sites. They are afraid of an Iranian military reprisal – but not less of the political backlash of from attack, especially if it comes in the form of an outpouring of popular sympathy across the Sunni Muslim world for the embattled Shiite Muslim nation.
At the same time, Riyadh also fears Obama will be trapped in the toils of Tehran's bazaar haggling and by the time he extricates himself it will be too late: Tehran will have a nuclear bomb.
“It's past time for dialogue,” Abdullah told Obama when they talked Wednesday. “It was always too late – even before the talking began.”
Why let Saudi youngsters fight Americans?
According to our Gulf sources, the king pressed the American president to have harsh sanctions ready to impose – at the very least – before engaging Tehran in talks that were bound to fail: a naval blockade or a unilateral US move like stopping the supply of gasoline and other refined oil products to Iran. The Saudis have no expectation of the UN Security Council managing to get together on tough sanctions.
To Abdullah's chagrin, Obama stuck to his guns: First negotiations must begin, he insisted, and allowed to run to the end of the year before a serious evaluation of progress is conducted.
The president's obstinacy on this point was met with the Saudi king's obduracy on Iraq.
He turned down Obama's demand to stop young Saudis swarming into Iraq for suicide missions against US forces. This influx has been a bone of contention between Washington and Riyadh for six years. Abdullah said his government was doing as much as it could. “We keep the border shut from our side. What can we do if the Iraqis cannot or will not close the border on their side?” he asked.
The US president was forced to accept that the king would not lift a finger to stop the traffic of young jihadis into Iraq.
Ever devious, the king did not share with Obama his real reasons for letting them through.
In the first place, Abdullah can't stand Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki personally. The last thing he wants next door is another Shiite-ruled government under Tehran's sway. Its destabilization might pave the way for a Sunni ruler amenable to Saudi influence.
In the second, he knows the Iraqis well enough to suspect that a strong government in Baghdad, whether Shiite or Sunni, would spell trouble for all its neighbors.
Middle East peace bid draws enthusiastic accord
The Saudi king was no more helpful on two more burning issues raised by the US president:
Both were forced to agree they had missed the boat in Lebanon and could no longer prevent the puppets of Iran and Syria sweeping to a major election victory on Sunday, June 7.
(See a separate article on Lebanese election prospects in this issue.)
The king admitted the Saudis had lost too much ground with the Taliban to hope to persuade its leaders to stop fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gone are the days of 2008 and early 2009, when Saudi undercover agents were able to invite Taliban delegates to the kingdom and try their hand at brokering differences between them and the Americans. This negotiating channel has now passed exclusively to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the only statesman in Asia and the Middle East in direct contact with the Taliban.
Its worry over the deteriorating situation in Pakistan has given Riyadh further impetus to distance itself from Taliban. The Saudis are now bent on rescuing the central government in Islamabad, hoping that the return to power of the pro-Saudi Nawaz Sharif will prop it up. Obama made no objection to this proposition.
Where the two rulers found the most fertile ground for common assent was the need to revive the Middle East peace process with all possible speed.
King Abdullah would dearly love to go down in the history of Middle East and Muslim-Jewish relations as the author of the successful 2002 Israeli-Arab peace plan which brought the Arab-Palestinian conflict with Israel to an end.
President Obama, for his part, is willing to make the Saudi plan the centerpiece of his plan for a Palestinian state.
Saudi-Israeli ties develop by inches
Ironically, the Saudi peace plan has strong American origins. It was conceived and composed by a Washington PR firm hired by Riyadh to repair the damage to the Saudi image suffered from the presence of 15 Saudi nationals among the al Qaeda hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The biggest fly in their shared ointment is Hamas which is implacably resolute on its course and whose popularity rises every higher among Palestinians.
In the interests of progress, both Washington and Riyadh are prepared to set the Hamas problem aside, much as they ignored the impediments facing them in Lebanon.
Beneath these main currents, a strong under-swell has yet to break surface: the discreet, cautious development of Saudi-Israeli relations.
So far, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources have detected three steps leading in this direction:
- Since 2006, the heads of Saudi and Israeli secret services, Prince Muqrin Abd al-Aziz and Mossad chief Meir Dagan have been meeting regularly for coordination and an exchange of views.
- On the quiet, Israeli firms participate in Saudi development projects, to which Riyadh turns a blind eye.
- The Saudi royals permit entry visas to be granted to Israelis with dual nationality, European or American.
Twenty-four hours before his epic speech to the world's Muslims in Cairo, President Obama tried – and failed – to persuade the king to go public with Saudi-Israeli ties. But he did obtain his consent to their gradual expansion, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources disclose.
For the first time, therefore, Riyadh will accept a Jewish-American ambassador. And Israeli commercial flights bound for Bangkok will be granted over-flight permission through Saudi air space.
These ice-breakers helped gave President Obama somewhat of a confidence lift for his address to one-and-a-quarter billion Muslims in Cairo next day.