x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

All eyes on Obama for speech

The US president makes his first stop in the Middle East when he lands in the Saudi capital to meet King Abdullah.

JEDDAH // Barack Obama, the US president, makes his first stop in the Middle East today when he lands in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to meet King Abdullah. Many will be watching the visit as an exhibition that his policies and attitude towards Islam and the Middle East differ from that of his predecessor, George W Bush, ahead of a much-anticipated speech he is expected to deliver in Cairo on Thursday.

Denis McDonough, an aide in the White House's National Security Council, tried to play down expectations that the speech would detail a new peace plan. He said the hour-long address was simply part of Mr Obama's continuing effort to "change the conversation with our Muslim and Arab friends". In Israel, there is concern that Mr Obama would use tomorrow's speech to increase pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion and thus undermine the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who refuses to stop the settlement construction or endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

Today, Mr Obama's meetings will be shaped by economics as much as regional politics, analysts say, as the United States looks to Saudi support to revive its damaged economy. "The US needs economic security through stable [oil] prices and Saudi looks for political stability in the region through a toughening American grip on Iran," said John Sfakiankis, the chief economist at the Riyadh-based SABB bank.

Saudi Arabia, which has more than a fifth of the world's oil reserves, is the largest producer in Opec and, as such, plays a significant role in lowering prices because it is the only country that has spare capacity. The US president said last week it was not in the interest of Saudi Arabia to have "huge spikes" in oil prices. "From a strategic point of view, Obama seeks in his visit a Saudi commitment to help in stabilising oil at reasonable prices as the recession in the US is slowing," said Omar al Mershedi, a professor of economics at the Riyadh-based Alfaisal University.

Saudi Arabia is also expected to support the US financially by investing its petrodollars in US equity markets and through buying more government bonds. "Saudi Arabia is very cautious in investing its sovereign wealth outside the country at the moment due to global conditions and there is a big possibility that Obama will encourage the Saudis to increase their investments in the US," Prof al Mershedi said.

In return for economic and other support, Saudis will look to the United States to take a stronger line against Iran, which they fear is extending its influence in the region by backing such groups as Hamas and Hizbollah. But Mr Obama is presumed to have a wide range of objectives in the visit beyond economics and security. "Mr Obama will try in his visit to achieve three primary objectives: first, to revitalise the Middle East peace plan on a greater scale; second, to support the interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians; and third, to seek Saudi support in stabilising oil prices," said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor in chief of Saudi Alwatan daily.

Closing Guantanamo Bay is another topic both sides will discuss. Saudi Arabia has indicated it would accept some of the detainees in its rehabilitation programme, Khashoggi said. The kingdom, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, is concerned that an eventual US deal with Iran would make the Shiite power part of a new political and security order. But with no clear strategy on how to tackle Iran, the Saudis can only rely on Washington to halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, analysts and diplomats told Reuters.

"The Saudis are in a very, very tough spot," Rochdi Younsi, a political risk consultant at Eurasia Group, told the news agency. "They don't know what they want. On one hand they want the US to pursue a policy of strict containment of Iran. At the same time, they don't want the situation to escalate to an armed conflict." Mr Obama is perceived well in Saudi Arabia and people are positive about his new policies in the Middle East.

"Saudis are optimists about Obama and the reason for this, in my opinion, is the end of the Bush era, which damaged the US image in the country, and the new message that Obama sent to the Arab world that he will build relations on mutual respect," said Saleh al Khathlan, a political analyst and university professor. He said there were some concerns, however, that Mr Obama's proposed peace plan did not differ much from Mr Bush's.

"It still asks for normalisation of Arab relations with Israel," he said. The Obama administration will have its work cut out for it in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa, where regional approval of US leadership is just 15 per cent, according to a Gallup survey published in January. The approval rate in the Middle East was the lowest among all regions in the survey that included samples from 143 countries.

According to the survey, a majority of Saudis rated withdrawal from Iraq (59 per cent) and closing Guantanamo Bay (56 per cent) as actions the US could take that would significantly change their opinion of the US government. "I think the results of the Gallup survey represent the views of the mainstream Saudis as the withdrawal from Iraq remains the top priority for Arabs," Prof al Khathlan said.

wmahdi@thenational.ae With additional reporting by Craig Nelson in Cairo and Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv.