Prince Bandar Prepares Obama-Abdullah Summit. Washington Picks Its Favorite Prince
US President Barack Obama will have to pick his way through a minefield in his forthcoming fence-mending trip to Riyadh next month. It will be his second Saudi visit in five years since arriving as a newly elected president in June 2009. Then, an enthusiastic welcome awaited him as befitted a gesture of high honor and warm friendship by the new American president. To mark the epic event, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz awarded him a royal medal.
Royal enthusiasm abruptly cooled when on June 4, the US President selected Cairo for his groundbreaking speech to mark his administration’s outreach to the “moderate” Muslim world.
Outright mistrust and antipathy set in at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 when Obama roughly told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down “immediately.” For Riyadh, his patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood rule was the last straw.
The Saudi monarch never forgave President Obama for promoting the overthrow of Mubarak, who was then the senior Saudi and American ally in the Middle East. In the subsequent five years, the falling-out between Riyadh and Washington deepened progressively from one crisis to another.
Successive fallings-out over Syria, Iran, Egypt
The Saudis seriously faulted US administration policies for their effect of keeping the brutal Bashar Assad in power in Damascus and Iran’s nuclear program afloat. They were incensed by US criticism of Riyadh’s armed intervention to rescue the neighboring Bahraini throne from Shiite subversion.
King Abdullah found a personal bone of contention in Washington’s icy attitude toward the Egyptian strongman Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, after he deposed President Mohamed Morsi and removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power last July.
During his first term in office, Obama paid state visits to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In his second term, he steered clear of most Middle East capitals except for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. He did visit Afghanistan three times as US president – twice in 2010 and once in 2012.
DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf and Washington sources say that Obama decided he needed to visit Riyadh now for two reasons: One, King Abdullah at 91 or 92 is past his days of foreign travel to a place as distant as Washington; and two, he sensed the urgency of laying out his Middle East policy, especially on Syria and Iran, before the Saudi monarch in the hope of smoothing over their differences.
Mutual advantages from special relationship
This urgency was stoked by the running Saudi offensive against US regional policy, which is well-orchestrated by Princes Bandar Bin Sultan, Director of Intelligence and National Security Adviser, and Turki Bin Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington and London.
They brought the king’s deep disappointment and displeasure with Washington out in the open and made it clear that the oil kingdom was considering optional strategic partners other than the US.
At the same time, both governments recognize the substantial advantages of their special relationship.
Saudi Arabia benefits from a US security shield, i.e. an American military commitment, which is traditionally renewed from one US president to the next, and on which Washington has made good a number of times. For instance, in 1990-91, President George Bush Sr. deployed half a million US troops to terminate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
The Saudi side of this partnership is a standing commitment to keep oil prices on an even keel and synchronize its supply strategy with Washington to avert a world energy shortage.
Even now, as the Obama administration leads America toward energy independence, the Saudis play a pivotal role on energy markets. They know that irregular supplies from the Gulf would impact world oil prices and, indirectly, the continued development of new domestic energy sources in the US.
Prince Bandar, leader of Syria intervention, also arranges the Obama visit
Before headway can be made toward healing the rift, the Saudis insist on Obama talking in person to King Abdullah. Secretary of State John Kerry has made frequent trips to Riyadh in the past year to brief the king on the state of US-led Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and other regional affairs. Each time, he picked up disapproving vibes and was told that nothing less than a summit was needed to clear the air.
Since hearing that Obama was on his way to Riyadh, the Saudis have tempered their criticism of his policies. Just last week, at the Munich Security Council, Prince Turki, Washington’s most outspoken critic, sang Kerry’s praises for his tireless efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
That was the first kind word the White House had heard from a Saudi official in many a month – and it came just weeks after the same prince accused the US of underhand steps behind the kingdom’s back.
So far, the media reports of the Obama visit have not been officially confirmed. Might this time lag be due to dickering over the final communiqué the two leaders expect to release after their summit?
Prince Bandar is taking care of arrangements for the visit.
(DEBKA Weekly 619 of Jan. 17 reported that Bandar would be visiting Washington after a long absence.)
Some sources in Riyadh and the Gulf attribute Turki’s change of tone to Bandar having secretly traveled and returned from a successful preparatory trip to Washington.
Bandar is the architect and executor of the desert kingdom’s backing for Syrian opposition militias fighting the Assad regime. It was not moderated an iota by the convening of the Geneva II conference in Montreux last week. His strategy is fully espoused by the king and such senior figures as Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, his brother Turki and Prince Muhammad bin Nawaf, ambassador to Britain, although others entertain some reservations.
Washington tips Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as coming man
Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, for example, warns that by his all-out support for the Syrian opposition Bandar is giving Al Qaeda and other jihadist elements fighting Assad added potency and this will eventually ricochet against the kingdom itself.
He points to the rift in al Qaeda’s anti-Assad front between the indigenous Jabhat al-Nusra and the Iraqi Al Qaeda (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIS), which has also made inroads on western Iraq in pursuit of a broad Islamic goal.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts, Bandar is not the go-between Washington would have chosen to set up the Obama-Abdullah summit, because his uncompromising fight to remove Assad from power is at odds with Washington’s halfhearted acceptance of his rule. The Obama administration would have preferred to see Prince Muhammad, who is closer to their own views, making the arrangements.
They have been cultivating the 52-year old prince in the past year, as an up-and-coming “young” (in Saudi terms) contender for high office in the royal hierarchy.
In January, Prince Mohammed was invited to the White House to meet Obama and top administration officials, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and John Brennan, then National Security Advisor and currently CIA director.
In Riyadh, the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia often turns to the Interior Minister for cooperation. Last November, Secretary Kerry went from a meeting with the king to see Prince Nayef.
Riyadh furious over US interference in succession race
The favors Washington showers on Prince Mohammed strongly irk Riyadh where they are regarded as crude American interference in the highly sensitive race for the succession – especially as he does not appear on the top list of contenders as a frontrunner. This has been another irritant in the relations between Riyadh and the Obama administration. And so, the succession issue will be deliberated left off the agenda of the March summit, despite its critical importance to future strategic ties between Riyadh and Washington.
The big question still unanswered is this: Have the White House and the Saudis found common ground on the thorny Iran issue? All the indications are that they have not – which doesn't mean the summit won't take place.