x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama adviser meets with Saudi Arabia king in effort to ease tensions

Tom Donilon, who heads Barack Obama's National Security Council, is the second high-ranking US official to meet Saudi Arabia's king in less than a week as the allies try to ease tensions stemming from the turmoil in the Middle East.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, meets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last week. The two allies have experienced a rough patch in relations recently, but many analysts say the leaders of both countries agree on most of the major issues confronting them.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, meets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last week. The two allies have experienced a rough patch in relations recently, but many analysts say the leaders of both countries agree on most of the major issues confronting them.

RIYADH // Barack Obama's national security adviser met King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz here yesterday amid acute bilateral tensions stemming from differences over how to respond to the region's uprisings.

Tom Donilon, who heads the White House's National Security Council, is the second senior US official to meet the Saudi monarch in less than a week. The US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, had a 90-minute meeting with King Abdullah last Wednesday.

The political disagreements come as the allies are on the verge of sealing an arms package that would see Saudi Arabia spend as much as $60 billion (Dh220.3bn) over the next decade on US-made weapons - potentially the single largest US arms deal ever.

Mr Donilon's arrival so soon after Mr Gates's visit suggested to some observers that there is unease at the highest levels in the Obama administration about the strained relations and an apparent desire to relieve them.

"The timing is interesting," said Thomas Lippman, a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and author of several books on Saudi Arabia. "It indicates some concern or alarm … [that] the president has sent his national security adviser ... to deal with these people at the highest possible level because of some issue or combination of issues."

The Saudi Press Agency said that "a number of issues of common interest were reviewed" during the king's meeting with Mr Donilon, who delivered a message from Mr Obama to the Saudi leader.

Most analysts believe three topics were on the agenda. Besides the perennial matter of dealing with Iran, the two probably conferred about what to do next in Yemen, where the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is ignoring calls from Riyadh and Washington to step down.

Bahrain is also a priority, but here the two sides fundamentally disagree. Saudi Arabia, which sent 1,200 troops to Bahrain in response to a request by the Gulf state, is resistant to political reforms under which the Bahraini Sunni royal family would share power with the island's Shiite majority.

The US, whose Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, regards the government's treatment of the Shiite majority as unsustainable and prefers to see a political opening to ease tensions.

Washington would like to know "how long the Saudis are going to stay in Bahrain and what is the end game there?" said Mr Lippman, who is on a visit to the kingdom.

The bilateral relationship has suffered recurring cracks in recent months. The first involved differences, still not fully explained, over Lebanon's political crisis in January that led to the downfall of the US-supported government of Saad Hariri.

A frank statement in Doha by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, criticising Arab governments for not making economic and political reforms was not well-received in Riyadh.

That was soon followed by Mr Obama's decision to pressure Hosni Mubarak to step down in Egypt. King Abdullah reportedly told the US president in phone calls that he was concerned at what he viewed as the dumping of a long-time US ally.

A few weeks later, there was more angst in Riyadh after a state department spokesman, PJ Crowley, commented that the United States regards peaceful protests as a universal right that should be respected, even in Saudi Arabia.

Pique at Mr Crowley's remark was still evident in an interview last week when a Saudi official said that "we are not the United States that we give ourselves the right to interfere in other people's affairs."

Signalling their displeasure at Washington's efforts to nudge Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa into enacting political reforms, the Saudis put off requests for visits to Riyadh by Mrs Clinton and Mr Gates in mid-March. They also did not bother to officially inform Washington of their decision to send troops into Bahrain until shortly before they were dispatched, a Gulf diplomat said.

Four days later, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, national security adviser to King Abudllah, was in China, where he handed a message to the Chinese president, Hu Jintao dealing with "ways of enhancing relations between the two countries in all fields," the Arab News reported.

Mr Bandar's mission was seen as a subtle reminder to Washington that Saudi Arabia has other important friends.

And on Monday, Riyadh announced that it plans to sign a nuclear co-operation agreement with China, the Arab News said.

Saudi Arabia, which plans to build nuclear plants to meet its growing domestic energy needs, has similar agreements with France and the US.

Several sources said that the political disputes had not affected other aspects of the relationship, such as counter-intelligence co-operation and training for the Saudi military.

Asaad Al Shamlan, assistant professor of political science at Riyadh's Institute of Diplomatic Studies, said there "has been some exaggeration" in the media about the current strains, noting that the bilateral relationship "rarely has been free of moments of tension".

"Yes, there has been a divergence of views on Egypt, but that's behind now, and even on Bahrain the American view now is closer to that of the" Gulf Cooperation Council, Mr Al Shamlan added. "When all is said and done, both sides look at the core of the relationship and that core is very solid."

cmurphy@thenational.ae