Obama remarks prove controversial before Saudi visit
London - A week after remarks were published in which US President Barack Obama labelled a number of America’s traditional allies, including Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf states, “free riders”, the White House announced he would be visiting the Sunni kingdom in April.
According to a White House statement, Obama is to participate in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit led by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The statement emphasised the security nature of the visit, adding that it would “provide an opportunity for leaders to discuss additional steps to intensify pressure on ISIS, address regional conflicts and de-escalate regional and sectarian tensions”. ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
King Salman recently met with a US congressional delegation led by US Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, a vocal opponent of the Iran nuclear deal.
The US delegation also met with Saudi Minister of Defence Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, according to the Saudi press agency.
The congressional meeting and the president’s upcoming visit come at a challenging time for US-Saudi relations.
In an in-depth interview with the Atlantic magazine, Obama said a number of US allies in the Gulf region and in Europe were “free riders”, adding that Saudi Arabia needed to share the region with Iran.
The first rebuttal came from Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Washington and London. In a strongly worded open letter carried in Saudi media, Faisal refuted the “free rider” tag. “No, Mr Obama. We are not ‘free riders’. We shared with you our intelligence that prevented deadly terrorist attacks on America.
“We initiated the meetings that led to the coalition that is fighting Fahish (a pun on “Daesh”, meaning “vile”) and we train and fund the Syrian freedom fighters, who fight the biggest terrorist, Bashar Assad, and the other terrorists, al-Nusra and Fahish. We offered boots on the ground to make that coalition more effective in eliminating the terrorists.”
The former intelligence chief also addressed the sectarian accusation levelled at the kingdom, saying: “You accuse us of fomenting sectarian strife in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism and which you promised to counter its ‘destabilising activities’.”
Although he currently holds no official portfolio, Faisal’s comments are usually in line with kingdom policy.
Obama’s interview surprised Washington insiders. Describing friction between Obama and the US Gulf allies as a “not-so-well-kept Washington secret”, former under-secretary of defence in George W. Bush’s administration Dov Zakheim, commenting in Foreign Policy magazine on Faisal’s letter, wrote: “The list of ways in which the Saudis have supported American interests is actually longer and is simply too exhaustive for Obama to dismiss them and, for that matter, their Gulf partners, as ‘free riders’.”
Kuwait National Security Bureau President Sheikh Thamer al-Sabah said: “When we share intelligence, when we open our air, land and sea, when we spend billions of dollars in trying to combat terrorism and trying to help the Syrian refugees, how is it free?”
Sabah also said the nuclear deal between world powers and Tehran did not lessen Kuwait’s concerns, which include militant sleeper cells, espionage and the safety of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. He pointed out that Kuwait is the closest major population centre to the facility.
The GCC summit Obama is to attend on April 21st is a follow-up to last May’s Camp David meeting, an attempt at the time to set GCC leaders at ease over the Iran nuclear deal.