x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obama faces tough task on fence-mending Saudi visit

US president plans to call on King Abdullah in March, but analysts say differences between Washington and Riyadh are difficult to bridge.

NEW YORK // President Barack Obama’s attempt to repair strained relations with Saudi Arabia by visiting King Abdullah will face major hurdles, analysts said, as fundamental differences persist on key regional issues.

Washington’s relations with Riyadh, historically its closest Arab ally, have frayed significantly over the past year as the United States struck an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear programme – after rounds of talks kept secret from Saudi officials – and Mr Obama’s decision not to use military force against Syria following a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

Saudi leaders have voiced deep concerns over the thaw in US-Iran relations and fear it could herald a shift in Washington’s strategic posture in the Middle East away from its traditional allies and towards Tehran.

Arab officials told the Wall Street Journal that Mr Obama’s planned trip to Saudi Arabia in March was a bid to reassure Riyadh that the US is not abandoning its Arab allies, and also aimed to forge a closer personal relationship with King Abdullah. Saudi officials have long said the lack of personal bonds was damaging trust in the US leader.

“The main purpose is to reassure Saudi allies that this relationship is very important and is not going to be replaced by a US-Iran relationship should the nuclear deal actually occur,” said Becca Wasser, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in Washington. “This is probably the biggest move the US has made to date to reassure the Saudis.”

Analysts doubted that the trip, which would be Mr Obama’s first to the Middle East since visiting Israel, the West Bank and Jordan last March, and the first to Saudi Arabia since 2009, his first year in office, will produce an alignment of policy objectives on the question of Iran or the Syrian war.

“I don’t think the objective is deliverables, I think it’s … setting the stage for better communication as the US moves forward on issues that are a priority to it in the region,” said David Andrew Weinberg, a senior expert on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

“That being said, there are enormous obstacles in the way of a real understanding between the two leaders,” Mr Weinberg said.

“There is only so much that can be achieved on a trip like this and on the issues of substance, President Obama really isn’t in the position to provide the sorts of changes to US policy that would really satisfy the Saudi leadership.”

Aside from issues involving Iran, Riyadh has been pushing the US to do more militarily to tip the scales in favour of rebel factions fighting the Iranian-backed forces of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

While the US resumed non-lethal aid to moderate rebels last week, the Obama administration has so far been unwilling to provide enough for rebels to depose Mr Al Assad, fearing that Al Qaeda-linked extremists could fill the power vacuum. Instead, Washington supports negotiations that would lead to a political settlement, but the first round of talks between rebels and Damascus ended last week with almost no results.

“These are two leaderships that have fundamentally different priorities and have been trying for two and half years to get on the same page and don’t really have enough common ground to do it,” Mr Weinberg said.

Saudi officials have indicated publicly that they will look for new international allies if the US fails to bring its policies closer in line with Saudi interests, but analysts said that a major break with Washington was unlikely. Underscoring this point, in December Riyadh purchased nearly $7 billion (Dh26bn) in weapons and related material and training from the US.

“The undoubtedly high-profile visit of Obama to Riyadh may well be intended – in part – to make sure that the inevitable disagreements between the two countries are dealt with quietly and privately rather than through public statements,” Ms Wasser said.

But without tangible indications of Washington’s sensitivity to Saudi concerns, it will be difficult to repair relations no matter how much better Mr Obama’s communication becomes.

“One possible indication would be expanding the trip to other countries in the region including the Emirates,” Mr Weinberg said. “I think adding a few days to the presidential itinerary would be a very strong demonstration of the administration’s intent.”

Mr Obama’s Saudi visit will be tacked on to a previously scheduled trip to Europe, during which he is due to attend a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, an EU-US meeting in Brussels have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. It will follow soon after he hosts Jordan’s King Abdullah at an estate in California for informal talks.