Will Salman’s visit fix relations with Washington?
Sometimes it is the absence of something that makes one notice there might be an irregularity — not unlike the chief engineer on a vessel who is woken by the absence of noise when the ship’s engines fail.
Similarly, it was the absence of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia from the summit that US President Barack Obama had in May with Arab leaders at Camp David that gave a clear indication that something was seriously amiss between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which had been close allies since the end of World War II. Salman is now to meet Obama in Washington.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have, by and large, withstood the test of time, even if there were tense moments when it appeared the relationship was about to crumble.
On his way back from the historic meeting in Yalta with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1945, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt boarded the US Navy cruiser USS Quincy and sailed to the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal where he met with Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, the Saudi monarch.
The agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and the United States was entirely a marriage of convenience; there never was any real affection flowing either way. Indeed there could not have been two more different cultures.
It was day meeting night or vice versa, if you prefer. But it was business. And it was a business deal from which both sides came away content, feeling they had something to gain. The Americans were guaranteed cheap oil in return for safeguarding that very oil.
For the Saudis it was a convenient way of buying protection in a part of the world where it was much needed.
In time the Saudis became dependent on the United States for their security.
Then came 9/11 when 15 of the 19 terrorists who brought the planes down on the twin towers, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania turned out to be Saudi nationals. But with time relations were patched up. Saudi Arabia still needed protection and the United States still needed cheap oil.
But then came the Syrian civil war and things really started going bad between Riyadh and Washington. The Saudis favoured regime change in Damascus.
They, much like most Gulf countries, wanted to see Syrian President Bashar Assad removed. The Obama administration preferred inaction. Washington lacked a policy on what to do with Syria.
The little action it took, such as planning to provide training for some opposition groups, was inadequate and far too little in the face of the mounting opposition from Islamist groups that were growing in size, power and resources.
The Saudi leadership became more frustrated with Washington’s lethargic response to the killing of Sunnis in Syria. The Saudis started turning towards Moscow for weapons and munitions. Until now they had traditionally purchased almost their entire arsenal from the United States and Western Europe.
But the Middle East began to change as never before. The violence emerging is on a scale rarely seen in modern history. Everything was put into question, including borders established after World War I.
Still looking for a response from Washington, the visit of the Saudi king could be a good sign whether the Obama administration has answers to the questions that no doubt will be asked.
Whether the US government will have answers the Saudis want to hear remains to be seen.