Can the Saudis adapt to Obama’s policies?

The US is not likely to act decisively on urgent issues in the Middle East, such as the Syrian crisis.

Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia has not resolved foreign policy differences between the two countries, writes Kabalan [Reuters]

US President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia on March 28 did not solve and was not intended to solve all differences between the two long-time allies. In a way, it was planned to get the Saudis adapt to the change in US policy. Officials on both sides would agree that beside the many common interests, they can talk about as many differences.

While some US analysts may show varying degrees of understanding to the Saudis’ concerns about Obama’s policies, including the possible rapprochement with Iran, others however are indifferent. Here, the prevalent view is that Saudi Arabia is the weaker side in the equation and hence it needs the US more than the US needs it. The Saudis have nowhere else to go, the argument goes on, and that they have to adapt accordingly to the new situation resulting from increasingly divergent interests and policies to pursue them. It is very likely that that was the logic behind Obama’s latest visit to Riyadh, wherein he sought to win support to his new policy approach rather than address the Saudis’ fears or heed their advice.

Indeed, the Saudis are well aware that “pivot to Asia”, Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, means that the future of politics will be decided in East Asia – not in the Middle East or anywhere else, as Washington sees it. They will have to recognise therefore that US concerns and interests and their own are not as close as they used to be in the past.

For the Obama administration, China is America’s No 1 global challenge. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s key regional foe, in this context is a little more than a thorn that can only hurt in as much as it contributes to Chinese power. That is the logic behind the US’ decreasing interest in the Middle East. But retreat and retrenchment will entail readjustment. Some regional arrangements will have to be made in order to handle the ensuing vacuum of power: Rapprochement with Iran is Obama’s answer. Here the Saudis are asked to be realist and instead of trying to prevent the readjustment they may need to adapt and get on-board. But how?

Obama on diplomatic push in Saudi Arabia

In Lebanon, the Saudis have already adapted when, at US request, pressured former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to accept a national unity government with Hezbollah. But in Syria and Iraq, the stakes are much higher. Here the Saudis will find it absolutely difficult to get along with the US thinking.

On Syria, the Obama administration is no more likely to act decisively in the future than in the past against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to Anthony Cordesman, a prominent American strategist, Saudi Arabia may need “to start planning for an Assad victory. They need to consider conditional aid packages that could push Assad towards some degree of reform”. Effectively, the Americans here are asking the Saudis to resign to the fact that Iran has won and that they have to live with an Assad in power in the foreseeable future.

On Iraq, the US position is more or less the same. The Americans consider Iran’s protege Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as indispensable, notwithstanding their reservations concerning his approach, which alienated the Sunnis and the Kurds and helped revive al-Qaeda in Iraq. Here too Saudi Arabia is asked to reach out to Maliki so he would provide “better treatment” for Iraqi Sunnis.

In fact, Obama has so far been resisting all sorts of pressure and temptation to take advantage of the fluid situation in the Levant to help rollback, or at least contain Iranian influence in the Middle East. He furthermore avoided doing anything that might upset rapprochement with Iran. While he was reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition fighting to topple the regime of Assad, he was quick to arm the pro-Iran al-Maliki government with state-of-the-art military technology, including the Apache attack helicopters.

Obama is in fact asking the Saudis to support policies that go against their very intrinsic interests. The transfer of the Syrian dossier from Prince Bandar bin Sultan – who had recently voiced strong public criticism against the US Middle East policies –  to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef ahead of Obama’s visit did not provide enough incentive to change Obama’s thinking. Riyadh’s intention to put a greater focus on combating Islamic extremist groups such as ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and throughout the region may have pleased the Americans but nevertheless has been treated as if the Saudis were doing their due.

Worse still, the Saudis are asked to adapt to the shift in US policy at time when they are having too many foes to deal with. That includes Iran, the Maliki government in Iraq, Assad’s regime in Damascus, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi’s in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups throughout the region, and the Muslim brotherhood and Turkey. It is very difficult to find a single party anywhere who has succeeded in uniting all these different forces against him at one time. Washington knows this fact quite well and is using it to the maximum in order to bring the Saudis on-board.

Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer. He holds a PhD degree in International Relations. He is an Associate Political Analyst at the Doha Institute.