x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obama can expect tough talk in Saudi

The US president has been very disengaged, taking a piecemeal approach when what is needed is joined-up thinking.

When Barack Obama touches down in Saudi Arabia’s capital next month, he will be greeted by much pomp and ceremony, but plenty of frosty tones. And with some justification: the US has lately proved a less than reliable partner for the GCC’s largest country. Indeed, the US president’s trip seems like an attempt to smooth over the differences between the two countries. But the differences run deep. What Riyadh is most concerned about are not issues that affect only the kingdom. On the two biggest issues that the US and Saudi Arabia disagree on, the perspective of Riyadh is also the perspective of the region.

Start with Syria. The Saudis are angry that the US, despite a great deal of talk, has so far been unwilling to support the Syrian rebels sufficiently to tip the scales against Bashar Al Assad. Worse, the US has also been reluctant to let its partners in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, provide the rebels with heavy weaponry. This is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the superpower but it is also a failure to consider how important to the region the fate of Syria is. The lack of stability in Syria is affecting Lebanon and Jordan, with which the Saudis share a long border.

On the second big issue, the rapid rapprochement with Iran, the Saudis are justifiably aggrieved that the background to the current deal with Iran over its nuclear programme was conducted behind Riyadh’s back. This is simply unacceptable. Iran’s role in the region is, first and foremost, a question for the region. After all, it is the Gulf and the Middle East that are primarily affected by it. The three islands that Iran occupies belong to a GCC country, not to the United States. It is the Gulf that would feel the (literal and metaphorical) fallout from any problems with Iran’s nuclear reactors. It is the Gulf that was threatened by the belligerence of Iran’s previous president. And it is the Gulf that feels the impact of Iran’s meddling, whether in Iraq, or in Yemen, where the Iran-supported Houthi rebels operate close to the Saudi border.

All of which means that Mr Obama is likely to face some tough talk. The region feels that this US president has been very disengaged, taking a piecemeal approach when what is needed is joined-up thinking. If Mr Obama is expecting glad-handing and fine speeches to be sufficient when he arrives in Saudi, he is likely to be disappointed.