President Barack Obama will find a very different Saudi Arabia when he arrives in Riyadh later this month compared with his first visit in 2009.
For one thing, his welcome will be a lot cooler. For another, he faces a clash of wills. The warm old pre-Arab Spring alliance is gone for good.
Obama is looking forward to repairing the damage wrought by his policies on relations with the oil kingdom and a breakthrough that encompasses the entire Arabian Gulf region.
His hosts, in contrast, hope to capitalize on their poor relations with him and the foreign policies they have forged independently of Washington, to boost their bargaining position vis-à-vis the US, and also as fodder to fight off the opposition groups clamoring to end the alliance with the US.
Fallout from the turbulent Arab Spring which changed the face of the Middle East so radically since Obama’s last visit caused most of the damage to US-Saudi relations..
Riyadh’s best friend Hosni Mubarak was overthrown as president of Egypt in 2011 and his successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi elected and ousted by the army two years later. Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, is now frontrunner as next Egyptian president. He belongs to the new breed of Middle East leaders which declines to respect Washington’s wishes as the mainspring of their policies.
In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi’s demise at the hands of NATO left an unruly country split into three tribal provinces and an impotent central government in Tripoli.
Riyadh blames Obama for breaking up the old Mid East
In the Syrian war, Bashar Assad’s army, after losing large tracts of land to rebel control in 2011 and 2012 reversed the tide in mid-2013 and has since steadily reclaimed areas essential to his regime’s survival. This year, he began carving the country up in line with his future plans. (See a separate article on his gift of territory to Hizballah.)
The Navy Seal operation on March 16, mounted from two destroyers, the USS Roosevelt and USS Stout, to commandeer a runaway oil tanker escaping with stolen Libyan oil, may have been an attempt by the Obama administration to demonstrate that the US military option was still alive and kicking if needed. The Gulf was not impressed.
The Saudis hold the US president responsible as the main culprit for causing the familiar Middle East to slip away. They don’t forgive him for supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their resentment on these scores is not tempered by the recent warming of ties between Washington and Riyadh.
It was vented eloquently by Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Direct of General Intelligence and ex-ambassador to the UK and the US, in an interview with Edward Luce of the Financial Times published on March 14.
The reprint of that interview in Saudi newspapers on March 18 was seen as a mark of its approval by the top Saudi royals. The point Turki made most strongly was that Saudi-US relations "have rarely been worse." He added… "there is mistrust of the Obama administration, particularly over its pursuit of nuclear talks with Iran… people are talking about the American retreat… in the Middle East."
Turki faulted the US for focusing “exclusively” on the Palestinian and Iranian issues and leaving others to worry about themselves. In his view, Saudi Arabia either should rely on its own resources or reach out to others in the region to help it overcome the challenges it faces.
His conclusion: "We are adjusting to the reality of a retreating America."
This interview gave President Obama advance notice of the attitudes to expect when meets King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh
Can China take over US role as strategic partner?
To underscore Riyadh’s independent stance, Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz arranged a state visit to Beijing on March 13-16, shortly before Obama was due in Riyadh. While there, he stressed Saudi Arabia’s strong interest in strategic ties with China.
Meshing in with Turki's advice for Saudi Arabia to adjust to America’s retreat in the region, the Saudis are testing China to see if it fits into the frame as substitute strategic partner.
Vast China could use Saudi oil and might be ready to pay for it with military products, especially missiles.
Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi accompanied Salman on the visit to China, indicating that oil was high on the agenda of Salman’s bilateral talks with President Xi Jinping.
The prince is reported to have concluded a number of secret cooperation accords before flying out of Beijing.
Time will tell what comes out of Crown Prince’s Chinese venture, whether long-term contracts for the sale of oil, the purchase of missiles and other strategic weaponry, or if Beijing is prepared for a role in the defense of the kingdom’s national security – or all three. But the visit certainly moved Saudi-Chinese relations up a notch or two and expanded the areas of bilateral cooperation.
Still it would be premature to conclude that they are about to proclaim the upgrade of their strategic ties to a strategic partnership on the same level as the traditional Saudi-US alliance and a suitable replacement.
For now, DEBKA Weekly’s sources say China is cagey about jumping in with both feet for a role in safeguarding Saudi Arabia's national security.
The King reshuffles intelligence elite for Obama's Visit
Ahead of the Obama visit, King Abdullah reshuffled his intelligence board in line with the latest regional turnabouts – especially in Syria, where Assad has pulled ahead of his enemies with Hizballah’s strong assistance to recapture the entire Syria-Lebanon border region and drive the rebels out.
Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, who dropped out of sight some weeks ago, is still around, albeit somewhat diminished. The king pulled him last month from the Syrian arena, after the anti-Assad Islamist rebels he championed failed to make the grade, and the Americans turned him down on substantial aid for the Syrian opposition in the field.
Prince Bandar is down, but not out. He still holds the post of Director of General Intelligence, and he traveled to Beijing ahead of Salman to handle the Saudi bid for Chinese ballistic missiles.
But he was also relieved of his job as coordinator of Saudi polices against Qatar. This issue and Syria were passed to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who espouses a tough hand against Qatar for backing the Muslim Brotherhood and abandoning Islamist opposition forces in Syria.
Riyadh won’t budge on Egypt and Brotherhood, but on Syria – maybe
The recall of the Saudi ambassador to Doha on March 3 and the Brotherhood’s designation as a terrorist organization on March 7 were the work of Prince Nayef and stand out as a signpost to Saudi policies in the near future.
The interior minister is also a favorite of Obama administration officials in the White House and the intelligence community, especially the CIA. They tag him as a future monarch, although his name is nowhere near the top of the royal line of succession.
Giving him charge of the two most sensitive foreign policy issues was a gesture by Riyadh to show the visiting US president that the Saudis can be amenable to adjustments on their approach to Syria and that the two governments can see eye to eye in certain areas.
But there will be no compromise in Saudi Arabia’s relentless pursuit of the Muslim Brotherhood, because of the threat it poses to the kingdom’s stability. Neither, DEBKA Weekly's Saudi experts say, will Riyadh consider reviewing its all-out support for Gen. El-Sisi and his war on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Riyadh and its Gulf partners will persist in their campaign to contain the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the Gulf emirates.
Syria and Qatar will therefore be leading items of discussion on the agenda of Obama's visit.
What does Obama think he can achieve in Riyadh?
Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia will be his only repeat trip to a Middle East country in the course of his presidency, signifying the high importance he ascribes to the oil kingdom and his pressing desire to put their relations on a friendlier footing.
The administration knows how negatively his regional policies sit with Saudi leaders. In his talks with King Abdullah, Obama will try to explain – rather than recant – those policies, especially with regard to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Qatar – and allay concerns over his sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The US president’s dialogue with Saudi rulers will not significantly slow America’s retreat from the region. Nor will it shift Saudi attitudes in any substantial measure. At most, the two governments may agree to be more considerate of the other’s points of view and, perhaps, coordinate their actions rather more.
This might suffice to calm Saudi forebodings about Washington potentially stirring up domestic opposition, especially among groups identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, to fight for change in hidebound Saudi Arabia.
Oil is central to both their policies. The US effort to attain energy independence in the next two to three years hinges heavily on Riyadh’s commitment not to sabotage this drive by bringing oil prices down below $80 the barrel as well as preserving the stability of the global oil market.
The Saudis may be ready to play ball, but will demand a quid pro quo after the US is self-supplying of all its energy needs. They are respecting the US request to maintain more than 2 million barrels per day of spare capacity to keep supply steady, but will not agree to carry this entire burden on their own in the longer term.