Obama’s worldview at odds with Riyadh’s
WASHINGTON - Much has been written about tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in the wake of US President Barack Obama’s semi-successful trip to Saudi Arabia.
Most of the analyses have pointed to policy differences between the two countries:
1) The United States sees the Iran nuclear deal as a victory for stability in the region because it precludes Tehran from developing nuclear weapons; Saudi Arabia sees the deal as giving Iran a pass on the nuclear issue and allowing Tehran to use revenues that accrue from easing sanctions to bolster its destabilising activities in the Arab world.
2) The United States sees the Yemen conflict as a humanitarian disaster that has allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State (ISIS) to make gains there; the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates say they have taken an important stand against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
3) The United States accepts that Syrian President Bashar Assad will likely remain in power for an interim period; Saudi Arabia wants Assad to leave immediately.
4) Underlying these problems is a perception among Saudi officials that the United States is no longer a reliable security partner because of Obama’s focus on Asia.
Although these policy differences have contributed to the strains in the relationship, there are also strong ideological differences between how Obama and the Saudis view the region that received much less attention.
In his interviews with the Atlantic that formed the basis of Jeffrey Goldberg’s article The Obama Doctrine, the US president said sectarianism is a big part of the problem facing the Middle East.
In Obama’s words: “You’ve got a violent extremist ideology or ideologies that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organising principles are sectarian.”
It seems that part of Obama’s problems with Saudi Arabia is his perception that the Saudis are fixated on the Shias in the region and want to lead the Sunnis in an all-out effort to squash them and keep Shia Iran in check.
In Obama’s mindset, such sectarian policies are not only unhelpful to the cause of Middle Eastern stability but detract from the main goal of defeating ISIS.
It was not coincidental that Obama, during his trip to Saudi Arabia, made a strong case for GCC countries to help Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi consolidate power and fight ISIS. Obama was implicitly stating that if the Saudis and other Gulf states simply view Abadi as just another Shia politician who has links to Iran, then the struggle against ISIS will not come to a favourable conclusion anytime soon.
In an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in April 2015, Obama stated that if the Iran nuclear issue is put into a box, “it’s possible that Iran, seeing the benefits of sanctions relief, starts focusing more on the economy and its people. And investment starts coming in, and the country starts opening up. If we’ve done a good job in bolstering the sense of security and defence cooperation between us and the Sunni states… then what’s possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [ISIS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’”
In other words, Obama said that the policy of opening up to Iran not only has the potential to make it a more responsible state in the region but contributes to a lessening of sectarian tensions. However, from the Saudi perspective, opening up to Iran merely emboldens Tehran to carry on its nefarious actions in the region.
In addition, Obama does not see Iran and its assistance to Shia groups as the main problem in the Middle East. In Obama’s view, the chief threats are ISIS and like-minded groups that seek to destabilise the region and the internal problems facing most Arab countries. Obama told Friedman in the same interview: “The biggest threats that they [Gulf Arab countries] face may not be coming from Iran invading [but from] dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”
Hence, despite renewed US commitments to Saudi Arabia’s security and promises of more arms sales to the Gulf states, it is clear that Obama sees the region and its problems from a profoundly different ideological perspective than the Saudis and nothing in the remaining months of his presidency is likely to change this view.