x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Mixed feelings in Saudi Arabia as Obama fails to mention the kingdom

Saudis find Obama speech 'eloquent' and 'powerful' but some fear it skirted a realistic assessment of the difficulties in the region.

RIYADH // US President Barack Obama's speech elicited a mix of responses here in the oil-rich ally of Washington, but primarily one of relief that the US leader did not mention the kingdom directly when it came to the issue of political reforms.

Asaad al Shamlan, assistant professor of political science at Riyadh's Institute of Diplomatic Studies, said: "I think it was a powerful speech … profound and clear.

"Clearly it will define the parameters of US policy towards the region going forward," Mr Shamlan added. "It will not be received easily in many parts of the Arab world … because he's almost saying that the status quo in all Arab countries is unsustainable."

Even though Mr Obama did not mention Saudi Arabia, Mr Shamlan said, "you can read between the lines".

No doubt the toughest topic Mr Obama had to address, Mr Shamlan said, was Bahrain. By saying that the situation is unacceptable, he was making it clear that the US "is not backing the hardliners", Mr Shamlan said.

The US president knew, of course, that by addressing the government's repression of opposition on the island, "he is dealing not only with Bahrain but with the whole GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and these are the closest allies of the United States", he said.

Abdullah al Askar, deputy head of the Shura Council's foreign relations committee, said "the Saudi people appreciate" that Mr Obama took note of the fact that "Iran is putting its fingers into the internal affairs of Bahrain."

However, "people in the Gulf don't think that there is real opposition" in Bahrain that can dialogue with the government because the Bahraini opposition wants "to bring down the government and establish an Islamic republic" influenced by Iran.

On the other hand, Mr Askar thought Mr Obama was too wishy-washy on Syria, saying he "was not taking a real stand with the leadership or with the people".

Mr al Askar said that since the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, had come to power several years ago, he had promised reforms, but done little on that score.

Sociologist Khalid al Dakhil agreed that Mr Obama was not tough enough on Syria. "He knows that reform is almost impossible with this regime. It's incapable to make any political reform," he said.

Mr Dakhil said he heard "the same old story" on the Arab-Israeli conflict from the US president. While Mr Obama professed empathy for ordinary people in Tunisia and Egypt, why doesn't he "care about ordinary people in Damascus and Ramallah?"

Mr Dakhil said the speech left the impression that Mr Obama "was just trying to catch up with events in the region … I am really very disappointed".

One Saudi political analyst who requested anonymity praised the speech for its political idealism but said it skirted a realistic assessment of the difficulties in the region. The source named two trouble spots as sectarian strife and ailing economies in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia where unemployment and corruption are endemic.

Most of the US positions on specific countries mentioned in the speech are previously known, he said.

The Saudi human rights activist Mohammed Al Qahtani thought the speech "eloquent", but questioned if the ideals professed "will be transferred into policy".