RIYADH // King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's apparently relaxed and successful meeting with the US president, Barack Obama, in Washington on Tuesday underscored how US-Saudi relations have recovered from their post-9/11 setback, although the two allies continue to have differences in some key areas.
Indeed, the absence of specifics in the two leaders' summation of their talks during a brief photo opportunity at the White House appeared to signal that they were more intent on reinforcing their partnership than launching new initiatives. "There was good body language, good statements re-emphasising the strategic importance of the relationship, all of which is important," said Hussein Shobokshi, a businessman and columnist with the Saudi-owned Asharq al Awsat newspaper.
It cannot be ignored, however, that each side "has its own priorities, which are sometimes different", said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "For the Saudis, it's the Israeli-Palestinian peace process." Yet, Mr Alani noted, on that score, "nothing has been delivered and it's unlikely that anything will be delivered". As US presidents usually do, Mr Obama stressed the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in remarks to reporters after his meeting with King Abdullah. "We discussed the importance of moving forward in a significant and bold way in securing a Palestinian homeland that can live side by side with a secure and prosperous Israeli state." With Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, scheduled to meet Mr Obama next Tuesday in Washington, it was unlikely that any "significant and bold" initiative would have been issued after the president's meeting with King Abdullah. Still, it is evident that Saudi-US bilateral relations have bounced back from the nosedive they took after al Qa'eda's 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, whose perpetrators were mostly Saudi nationals. The Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq further soured relations. But starting in 2003, after al Qa'eda launched a bombing campaign against foreign residential compounds and Saudi security forces in the kingdom, things began to change. Relations started to improve during the Bush presidency, a trend that accelerated after Mr Obama took office. The recovery is visible in tangible ways, most notably in the bilateral co-operation on counter-terrorism. The Saudis, who were initially reluctant to share information immediately after September 11, are now working closely with the United States. "This is one of the strong suits of our relationship," said Janet Sanderson, the US assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Gulf and Maghreb, in an interview with the Saudi Gazette. In addition, the US visa process has been streamlined, eliminating long waits by Saudi applicants. There are now about 27,000 Saudis studying in the United States, more than ever before. A recent Saudi-US business forum in Chicago drew about 1,000 attendees, more than organisers had anticipated. But despite agreement in substance on many regional issues, the two sides often differ in approach, tactics and priorities. Iraq is a prime example. The Saudis have failed, despite pleas from Washington, to put aside their deep animosity towards Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, whom they regard as too sectarian and too closely allied to Iran. Riyadh still has no embassy in Baghdad, and is watching events there from a distance. Perhaps a matter of far deeper concern to both Saudi Arabia and the United States is Iran's assumed pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. On this issue, Mr Alani said, "there are no differences and both agree it's urgent and important" to deal with Iran's nuclear programme. But while the United States has been focusing on economic sanctions against Tehran to make its point, the Saudis would like to see more effort go into promoting the creation of the Middle East as a nuclear weapons-free zone. Washington's failure to aggressively embrace this proposal is disappointing to the Saudis, as Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington, noted in a recent speech in which he scored US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "confusing signals" on nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East as "unacceptable". Iran's advance to the status of nuclear power would be deeply troubling to the Saudis. "The main problem, said Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, "is if Iran would send tactical nuclear weapons to Hizbollah. It would definitely be a big problem for the whole Middle East." This may be an unduly alarmist scenario, but it highlights the deep wariness and concern with which Riyadh is watching developments in Iran. Those developments are why it wants more attention and effort put into moving Israel and the Palestinians to a peace pact, which the Saudis believe would vastly undercut Iranian influence in the Arab world. In that regard, Tuesday's bilateral summit was a disappointment. "I think the Saudis expected some sort of initiative to force Israelis to adhere to halting settlements and meeting their demands but none of that happened," Mr Shobokshi said. "In that department things are messy and depressing." firstname.lastname@example.org