William Faulkner once said: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” President Barack Obama might find this helpful to keep in mind as he prepares for his trip to Saudi Arabia next week. In a region known for contending with the ghosts of things long past, President Obama will need to grapple with more recent history as he seeks to shore up Saudi–US relations at a time of increasing tension between the two allies.
Foremost on the minds of senior Saudi officials are the devastating civil war in Syria and the uncertain nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 major powers, which includes the United States. Riyadh is both confused and disappointed with Washington for its failure to act more forcefully on Syria, including its failure to support the arming of moderate rebels. The Syrian crisis is both a humanitarian disaster and a geopolitical one. The winners thus far have been Iran and Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia harbors no permanent antipathy toward Iran or the Iranian people. Indeed, President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have demonstrated a serious commitment to outreach to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But here is where recent history comes in: we have seen that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps still have decisive power in Iran, and neither have demonstrated the attitude in favor of détente shown by the globe-trotting foreign minister or the smiling president. In fact, they have demonstrated the opposite, pouring oil on Syria’s fire and supporting radical groups across the region, to the detriment of US allies.
Saudi officials will be eager to hear how President Obama intends to connect the dots regarding Iran and the dual nature of its system, wherein Iran’s president has little real control over the bomb, foreign policy, or the Revolutionary Guards. Saudi officials will also be keen to understand President Obama’s thinking on Syria. Early on in the war, President Obama held back from supporting the rebels because of fears that jihadists might be in their midst. His hesitation has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Washington’s weak response created a vacuum for jihadists, and we in Saudi Arabia and the entire region will be forced to contend with those jihadists for a generation.
Of course, as the regional diplomatic heavyweight, the Kingdom also notes with concern the resurgence of terrorism in Iraq, Yemen and Egypt, and the social strife engulfing those Arab states that experienced the 2011 uprisings. The region is in the throes of a deep crisis, and yet Washington seems to be proceeding in an ad hoc manner, failing to consult strategically with its allies, and potentially chasing false messiahs in Tehran. As a result, several of Washington’s Gulf allies are concerned—although the talk from some corners of a “break” in relations or of a “turning away” is overheated and overstated.
Both official and public opinion in places like Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama are critical of what is perceived as a US policy shift in Tehran’s favor. Whether this an accurate assessment or not, the perception is taking hold.
Although senior officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi downplay their differences with the Obama administration, behind closed doors there is sense of being let down in what is considered a Cold War between some GCC states and the Iran–Syria axis. Just consider this: as the US administration promised to block any further sanctions against Iran so as to not undermine the nuclear deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who has the final say in Iran’s state affairs—condemned the US, arguing that the nuclear deal is a “waste of time” that would lead “nowhere” and urging radical Shi’ites to resist the US in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. In his latest address, during the Nowruz festival, Khamenei dismissed the Holocaust by claiming it was “an event whose reality is uncertain and, if it happened, it’s uncertain how it happened.” That statement is an echo of the discourse of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it contradicts the perception of the Iranian regime as “strategic,” “not impulsive,” and not seeking “suicide” that President Obama put forth in a recent interview.
Despite all of this, it is important to acknowledge that the United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy an enduring alliance that has stood the test of time over and over again. The US has found in Saudi Arabia a reliable partner to secure a stable global oil market and to stand by its side during every crisis. Saudi Arabia is a confident and honest yet independent partner to the United States: just consider the war on terrorism and the key role the Saudis have played in securing their state and aiding their Western allies with intelligence and logistical assistance. But tensions and differences will still surface from time to time, though the two sides have, in most cases, learned to work past it. There have been differences in the past over the Palestine–Israel peace process, Iraq, and Iran, just to name a few. This time shouldn’t be any different. On this visit, there is a great opportunity for the two sides to readdress these issues, as well as to redefine their areas of cooperation and new alternative approaches to critical issues—most importantly Syria, where a compromise can be reached.
On Syria, Washington cannot continue to stand idly by while Assad and Hezbollah regain land by destroying thousands of innocent civilian lives. In the face of this tragedy, the US must build new momentum and offer new ideas that focus on Assad’s departure and that secure the future of Alawites and other minorities in their homeland, as the Dayton Accords did for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As for Iran, President Rouhani may be a fine man with good intentions, and his foreign minister has been busy trying to engage with the Gulf states, but in reality they have very little real control. There is a keen understanding of this in Riyadh, and President Obama will need to address this issue directly.
In working on these issues, Mr. Obama should take advantage of some positive developments happening in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has expanded the fight against terrorism by issuing tough laws to deter Saudi nationals from joining armed groups abroad and by urging Saudi citizens to combat radical and intolerant views propagated by some Islamist preachers of hate. This has led over a hundred brave Shi’ite scholars in Saudi Arabia to issue a statement in support of this step, condemning the use of violence by a small group in the Eastern Province. These new Saudi terror laws are also an effort to criminalize the actions of those members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are exploiting Sunni–Shi’ite tensions in Syria and elsewhere. The Saudis understand that the old animosities do not die, but they know they should do their best to protect their citizens, regardless of race or sect, from those evils.
President Obama’s visit to Riyadh will be a good opportunity for both sides to present their cases. In Riyadh, the disappointment with Obama’s policies is palpable, and Saudi Arabia is keen to understand Washington’s views on Syria and Iran. The recent past has not been good to the region, partly because of the malign actions of those two states. How Washington handles those two files will be critical to the long-term interests of key US allies, including Saudi Arabia.