President Barack Obama, having decided to cut short the third day of his India visit, will arrive in Riyadh Tuesday, Jan. 27 with the First Lady, to offer US condolences on the death of King Abdullah and hold critical talks with his successor, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz.
He will want to clear the air most urgently on three controversial items of burning interest to both leaders: Riyadh’s flat opposition to the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and skepticism in the face of Obama’s conviction that a comprehensive accord will curtail the Islamic Republic’s drive for a nuclear weapon.
Next, the US leader will try and persuade the new Saudi ruler to slow down oil production in order to put the brakes on plunging prices, an example which other OPEC members are sure to follow.
Finally, Obama and Salman must decide how to handle the fall of Yemen into the hands of Shiite Houthi rebels, who have seized the capital Sanaa with Iranian support and brought down the US-Saudi-sponsored president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Two secondary issues will be the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the oil kingdom’s back yard, in which the US and Saudi Arabia are coalition partners; and the situation in the Syrian conflict.
Since this is an outsize agenda for one meeting, debkafile’s sources in Washington and the Gulf expect Obama to focus in his initial encounter with Salman on the broad lines of the nuclear Iran dispute and oil prices. Detailed discussions on these and other issues will be set aside for US and Saudi officials of lower rank to hammer out in the coming weeks, as the new king begins to take hold of the reins of government.
A number of Middle East leaders will be following the outcome of this Riyadh summit with bated breath. Many are worried that Obama may persuade the new monarch to play ball with his Middle East policies, so effecting a radical reversal of the late Abdullah’s stance of flat opposition to Obama’s tactics in the region, aside from isolated cases.
A decision by Salman to accept America’s lead on the Iranian nuclear question and oil prices would be a serious blow for the anti-US Arab front, spearheaded hitherto by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some of the Gulf emirates. It would also be a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s fight against Obama’s nuclear diplomacy for Iran. This policy was underpinned by the Saudi-Egyptian political and military partnership that aimed at stalling the deal crafted by Washington, which purported to lay to rest the nuclear controversy with Iran.