x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Obama hosts Jordan’s king amid concerns over changing US approach to the region

Critics say the US president has not engaged in enough personal diplomacy with his Arab allies and has not done enough to reassure them where policy objectives appear to diverge, such as with Syria.

NEW YORK // Barack Obama’s meeting today with Jordan’s King Abdullah II is the first in a series of high-profile talks aimed at reassuring Washington’s Arab allies that it is not abandoning the region.

Washington’s outreach to Iran over its nuclear programme and its approach to the war in Syria have caused concern in the region’s Sunni governments.

The US president and King Abdullah are set to meet at the private Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California, for an informal summit.

Next week, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, will travel to Abu Dhabi, followed by Mr Obama’s trip to Riyadh to meet King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud next month.

“One message through all these meetings will be to reassure the region that what has been bouncing around in the media about the US abandoning the region is not true and that the US stands by its commitments,” said Wayne White, a former senior intelligence official at the State Department and a fellow at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.

Critics say Mr Obama has not engaged in enough personal diplomacy with his Arab allies and has not done enough to reassure them where policy objectives appear to diverge.

His last visit to the region was last year when he visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan but he has not been to Saudi Arabia since 2009.

The negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme and Mr Obama’s refusal to intervene more forcefully in the Syrian war have angered and alarmed Washington’s traditional partners, especially Riyadh.

Mr Obama’s personal meetings “inevitably will increase trust”, and Arab leaders will want to “sit down with the president and get some assurances”, Mr White said.

On Syria in particular, Mr Obama’s partners will be asking the US leader what he plans to do if the Geneva II negotiations that the US has backed fail to make headway and Damascus continues to drag its feet in delivering its chemical weapons.

So far, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said that only about 11 per cent of the vast stockpile of poison gas has been handed over, and it appears likely that the March 1 deadline of delivering its entire arsenal will be missed.

“US strategy is treading water while the chemical weapons issue resolves itself,” Mr White said. “Leaders are going to want to know from Obama is this just going to go on and on? How many times are these deadlines going to be broken before the US resorts to something?”

Jordan’s King Abdullah will likely press Mr Obama on how the US will help ensure that the growing Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan does not overwhelm the country or become a security issue.

Mr Obama on Tuesday acknowledged that his diplomatic strategy was failing, but it is not clear beyond continuing to support the political opposition in the talks, what the US will be prepared to do. Because of the increasing influence of extremist militants in the opposition, the US has essentially stopped sending light weapons to rebels, which has frustrated Riyadh.

“On the other hand the Saudis, who were sending substantial aid, are becoming increasingly nervous about just how dangerous a threat they might pose to Saudi Arabia eventually,” Mr White said.

Mr Obama’s Arab allies are deeply suspicious of Iran’s intentions in nuclear negotiations, and he will have to convince them that what he hopes will be his hallmark policy achievement in the Middle East will not come at their expense.

tkhan@thenational.ae