The royal rulers of Saudi Arabia don’t expect much more from President Barack Obama’s second term than they had in is first. When Obama visited Riyadh on June 4, 2009 during his first tour of the Arab world after taking office, King Abdullah honored him with the gold King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit.
As time went by, the Saudis became disenchanted, their relations with the US president weighed down by two large thorns of contention: The US administration’s persistence in approaching the Iranian nuclear menace by diplomatic dialogue; and its championship of the Arab Spring revolutions.
On Iran, Saudi Arabia had initially looked forward to a new US president with the assertiveness and resolve for keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands. Although Saudi officials never called explicitly for American military action to preempt that danger, they were heard privately to be strongly in favor of such US action – or even for an Israeli strike to cripple Iran’s nuclear capacity.
However, Obama’s stress in his inaugural speech this week on resolving conflicts by diplomatic engagement, further deepened Saudi mistrust of US intentions regarding Iran and deepened their resolve to find an independent solution for a nuclear-armed Iran, whether by expanding strategic cooperation with a nuclear ally like Pakistan or other means.
Riyadh is uncertain of Obama’s support against a revolt
The Saudis remain extremely uneasy on another score ever since Washington stood foursquare behind the Arab Spring unrest and the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. They worry about their own fortunes at Obama’s hands in the event of a domestic insurgency. No one has forgotten the US role in the Iranian Shah’s overthrow by Islamist revolutionaries in 1979.
Riyadh’s reliance on the US commitment to the survival of the Saudi crown, the traditional cornerstone of the relationship, has become a cracked vessel.
This is no mere metaphor. The Arab Spring has so far bypassed most of the Middle East monarchies, but the ground is shaking under their thrones, as opposition forces build the courage to rise up against their monarchs and press demands for a stake in power and respect for their rights. Riyadh, mindful of the Egyptian and Iranian precedents, is no longer sure Obama won’t hold the Saudi throne back from suppressing an anti-royal rebellion rather than propping up the ruling order.
They deeply resent what they regard as Washington’s impertinent meddling in their internal affairs, namely the highly sensitive royal succession issue, which was kicked into high gear last year when two crown princes died within a few months (Sultan in October 2011 and Nayef in June 2012).
Since then, unofficial Obama emissaries have been pushing the royal family to lower the age of heirs to the throne by terminating the lateral movement between the ageing sons of the founder Ibn Saud and jumping his grandchildren into the line of succession.
Obama likes “youthful” Prince Mohammed
This policy was reflected in the temperatures of the US president’s welcome for Saudi visitors to Washington.
Obama received Prince Mohammed ibn Nayef, – a spring chicken of 56 in Saudi royal terms – on two occasions. Once, in 2009, when the prince was assistant interior minister for terrorism and the right hand of his father, the late Interior Minister Prince Nayef. That meeting led to expanded Saudi-US cooperation in counterterrorism and the foiling of terrorist attacks in the US.
They met again in December 2012, when Mohammed succeeded his late father as interior minister.
The Obama administration warmed to Prince Mohammed as satisfactory on two counts: his contribution to the war on terror and the fact that he is a royal grandson promoted to high office.
To denote presidential approval, the White House stated after their second meeting: “They affirmed the strong partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia.”
This statement was almost identical to the communiqué issued after Saudi foreign minister Saud al Faisal (aged 73, but a grandchild of the founder) was received at the White House in January 2012.
Those statements contrasted with the cool White House summing-up of a visit in June 2012 by Saudi defense minister Prince Salman, even though he was elevated to crown prince and first in line to the throne, because although he is “only” 78, he is an Ibn Saud son not a grandchild.
The White House therefore commented drily that the two leaders “reviewed the strong historical bilateral relations” between Saudi Arabia and the United States.”
And then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources picked up rumors going around Washington that the Saudi crown prince suffers from dementia and is not fit to hold high office. Riyadh viewed this as unacceptable US interference in Saudi royal affairs.
Good cooperation against terrorism amid mutual mistrust
At the same time, the Obama administration and Saudi rulers cooperate well in matters of shared interest. High-quality Saudi intelligence has given Washington invaluable assistance in recent years for the fight against terrorism.
The second interest is oil. America will be energy-independent within a few years and pump enough fuel from domestic sources to supply its needs. But for now, the US relies on Saudi production capacity to keep oil prices within bounds. A price crash would impact on the profitability of US home production too.
Saudi Arabia benefits from this cooperation by obtaining the most advanced American technologies both for developing its oil and gas resources and for upgrading its industries and military and by student training. It is also necessary for maintaining Saudi Arabia’s international financial and investment position in the United States and the West.
On this score, Riyadh hopes that at the end of the day, Washington will find it worthwhile to keep its military umbrella in place over the Saudi royal palace – even as the Obama administration tries to wriggle out of this security commitment.
Their special relationship will probably transcend their differences. Meanwhile, the Saudis will wait out Obama’s second term in the hope he is followed by a more sympathetic successor in the White House in four years’ time, while Washington will continue to cultivate ties with Saudi opposition agitators including maverick clerics, Shiites and others.
Both sides will continue to keep each other’s actions under microscopic scrutiny out of mutual mistrust.