Despite smiles, Saudis smarting about US policies
LONDON - Despite obvious tensions and differing tactical outlooks, the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are agreed on the need to deter and confront aggression against the alliance, chiefly from Iran and the Islamic State (ISIS).
Speaking April 21st after the GCC summit in Riyadh, US President Barack Obama said he “reaffirmed the policy of the United States to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners”.
Obama went on to say that the meeting “reviewed important progress” since a gathering at Camp David a year ago. He added that leaders agreed to “build an even stronger partnership between our nations”.
The picture, however, is not as rosy as it appears, with Western media highlighting a perceived snub by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud upon the president’s arrival. Obama was met by a small Saudi delegation but it was Salman himself who greeted arriving GCC leaders.
The state of affairs is tied to issues related to the nuclear deal with Tehran. Relations were further strained by an interview with The Atlantic magazine in which Obama said the Saudis needed to “share the neighbourhood” with Iran and labelled Gulf allies “free riders”.
This prompted a response from Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal rejecting the label and reminding Obama of his pledge to the Saudi king last September on the need to counter Iran’s “destabilising activities”.
Obama and Salman had a one-on-one meeting before the GCC summit, which, according to one White House official, “really cleared the air”. However, a US official told Bloomberg that no apology was made for recent criticism of Saudi policies and that the president insisted that the kingdom must learn to co-exist with Iran.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Faisal, departing from the usual Saudi rhetoric on US relations, said there would have to be “a recalibration of our relationship with America”. “How far we can go with our dependence on America? How much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership? What is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together?” he asked.
However, according to Fahad Nazer, a senior political analyst at JTG Incorporated, there is more to US-Saudi relations than philosophical differences and their bilateral relations have not endured for more than seven decades by happenstance.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that over the past month, three different congressional delegations, headed by senators Lindsey Graham, Ben Cardin and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have visited Saudi Arabia and met with senior leaders including King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz,” Nazer said.
Nazer emphasised that congressional leaders have expressed support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen and publicly praised the close cooperation between the two countries in intelligence sharing and counterterrorism.
“I also think that the recent transfer of nine Yemeni nationals who had been held at the naval detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Saudi Arabia highlights the wide scope of cooperation between the two countries,” Nazer said.
Casting a shadow on US-Saudi relations is a bill in the US Congress that would allow litigation in US courts against the Saudi government over any role in the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir told US lawmakers that if the measure were passed, the kingdom would be forced to sell its US assets, estimated to be worth up to $750 billion.
Nazer said the White House understands the ramifications of enacting such a bill: “It is not only Saudi Arabia that appears concerned about this bill, as recent reports suggest that the Obama administration itself has expressed its own concerns to Congress, arguing that diluting the international norm of sovereign immunity could have serious repercussions for US personnel abroad as foreign governments enact their own legislation [in] reprisal.”