Obama visit to Riyadh may not correct miscalculations
US President Barack Obama’s trip to Riyadh has been overwhelmed by regional security concerns, including growing threats from the Islamic State (ISIS), Iranian military activities in the Gulf and Russia’s intervention in Syria.
The visit marks a renewed attempt to reverse deteriorating Saudi-US relations. In Riyadh, the US administration must seek to alleviate deepening Saudi and wider Arab suspicion of a US-Russian sponsored plan to divide the Middle East among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish spheres of influence.
For the Saudis and other Sunni-majority, as well as multi-sectarian, countries, the US rapprochement towards Iran is a grave concern. The US-sponsored nuclear deal removed economic sanctions, lifted an arms embargo and freed frozen Iranian assets worth billions.
At the same time, the United States sought closer military and political cooperation with Iran in the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the drive to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency in Iraq and stabilise the Iranian-sponsored Haider al-Abadi government in Baghdad.
Even more alarming to Saudi and Arab allies is a perceived US softening of criticism of Iran’s growing military encroachments in Syria and continued support of the Houthis in Yemen, in addition to Hezbollah military and clandestine activities in various Arab states.
At the same time, strains in American anti-Saudi relations have grown during the Obama administration. Congressional attempts to investigate allegations of possible Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks mark the latest episode in the fraying process.
Both have concerns about this fallout. The kingdom receives substantial political and military assistance from the United States that is vital for its security. The United States benefits hugely from Saudi-US economic and military cooperation. Substantial gains are received by the US economy, including more than $700 billion worth of Saudi-owned US assets, more than $90 billion of US Foreign Military Sales (FMS), access to $18 billion of annual US exports and billions worth of benefits from services provided to Saudi sectors such as education, environment and health.
The United States has reaped strategic benefits from the kingdom’s pivotal role in helping defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia also led efforts to contain the Iranian Islamic revolution during the 1980s and to articulate the war campaign against Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Most importantly, Saudi Arabia has remained the world largest reserve, producer and exporter of oil, making it arguably the most crucial country to global and US economies.
Obama’s Middle East policy seems to have been shortsighted about the strategic relevancy of Saudi Arabia. Some US foreign policy architects argued against taking sides in the Sunni-Shia power struggle. This policy outlook placed Iran and Saudi Arabia on equal footing and has anticipated a fighting match in which the United States may ultimately emerge as the winner.
For Saudi Arabia, such an articulation of foreign policy perspective boils down to an acceptance of expanded Iranian regional influence and the cultivation of US foreign policy based on a Sunni-Shia regional division of influence.
Such a foreign policy has not gone according to plan. Russia, rather than the United States, emerged as the dominant player in Middle Eastern affairs, in a series of events that marks a startling post-Cold War comeback.
Europe has become increasingly unsettled by the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees. US support for the Kurds has aggravated Turkey, a NATO member. Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear to have begun a search for alternative security provisions other than that typically provided by the United States.
The Obama administration may have underestimated the Saudis’ ability to manoeuvre amid regional struggles and to sway to its favour the balance of power. Miscalculations may have been responsible for the emergence of the largest military and political alliance among Islamic countries under Saudi-Turkish leadership.
Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia represents a desperate move to retain the confidence of key allies in his administration. This may not be accomplished by solely encouraging the Gulf states to buy US missile defence systems while allowing Iranian threats to proliferate. The Obama administration may no longer be able to ride two horses at once.