Saudi Arabia's Newfound Middle East Activism Pushes Obama to the Wall

Saudi Arabia has its own assets that make it an essential American ally, and the soon-to-be-lifted sanctions against Iran, as well as Iranian regional influence, concerns them.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
President Obama and King Salman meeting in Riyadh, January 2015.Credit: AP

Nearly eight months have passed since Salman Bin Abdulaziz was crowned king of Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, he left the luxurious Le Mirage hotel in Tangier (where he has three homes) and began traveling to Washington for his first visit to the American capital. The king spent a month at the Tangier hotel after leaving the French Riviera amid public outrage over the closing of a beach for him and his entourage. Three planes were packed with his belongings and landed in Morocco, a country where they know how to appreciate kings, particularly the Saudi king.  

Washington, too, like Tangiers, always enjoys a kingly visit. They are generally easier negotiating partners than the democratic leaders who have to satisfy their parliament, protesters or other organizations. But this time, it seems that U.S. President Barack Obama will more resemble a small-town official who has to explain to the visiting noble the state of his investments.

Unlike Egypt, Jordan or Israel, Saudi Arabia has no need for American aid. Saudi Arabia is preparing to purchase two frigates at a cost of $1 billion each, ten helicopters at a cost of $1.9 billion, as well as Blackhawk helicopters and pac-3 missiles for $5.4 billion and a ballistic missile defense system to boot. These are just the most recent deals Saudi Arabia has made during its recent spending spree, and they do not include the tens of billions of dollars worth of goods already in production.

In short, not only is Saudi Arabia buying weapons, their purchases help bolster the American economy, and so they expect the appropriate diplomatic remuneration. Also unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia doesn’t need to tout itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, especially after it turns out that democracy has become a burden on the Obama administration. Saudi Arabia has its own assets that make it an essential American ally. 

That alliance has lasted a long time, dating back to the start of the united Saudi kingdom. The ties between the two countries have known mostly good times, but have also taken serious hits, primarily after the attacks of September 11, 2001, as most of the terrorists were of Saudi origin.

Although Salman will not stick around for the ceremony in New York to commemorate the attacks later next week, his presence in the country so close to the 14 year anniversary shows that the ties between the two nations have certainly recovered over the years. Saudi Arabia has managed to paint itself as a combatant of Islamic terror, fighting in the coalition against ISIS, as well as a defensive wall, holding back the spread of Iranian influence in the region. 

In contrast, the U.S. is seen as a confused country, that lost to Iraq and Iran, that doesn’t know how or isn’t able to solve the tragic crisis in Syria, that failed to advance the peace process among Israel and the Palestinians, that took a mistaken path with Hosni Mubarak at the start of the Egyptian revolution, and was hesitant to throw support behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and topped it all off with the deal that will remove international sanctions on Iran.

As far as the Saudis are concerned, this package deal of failures obligates them to ensure that their ally’s Middle East policies won’t fall apart, whether unintentionally, due to naiveté, or inexperience – characteristics that Saudi analysts are quick to slap on the United States these days. Toward his end, King Abdallah said that Saudi Arabia must go from being a background player that let other states (like Egypt, for example) stand at the forefront, and become an initiator, primarily because the Middle East – especially after the revolutions of 2011 – lacks Arab nations that can wield the wand of leadership and power. Egypt is neck-deep in its own problems, Iraq is crumbling and Syria has totally fallen apart. 

But while Abdallah’s policy was characterized by containment, Salman’s policies indicate that he has a different strategy in mind - like the aid he gave to Sissi’s regime (the boycott he implemented on Qatar until it stopped attacking Egypt), distancing himself from the Muslim Brotherhood, developing Islamic but not extremist militias in Syria and even offering initial overtures aimed at thawing ties with Iran. Containing Iran remains the primary strategic goal, but making that happen relies on active policy that does not totally rule out direct military action.

Thus, Salman created the “Sunni axis,” which includes Egypt and the Gulf states, as well as Turkey, which Egypt sees as an enemy. Sissi is forced to swallow that pill and understand that unlike Abdallah, who loathed Turkey and distanced himself from the Middle East, Salman has other priorities. Saudi Arabia is also now less disapproving of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even views Hamas as a legitimate tool for purifying the Sunni Arab world which has fallen under Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia purchases Egyptian obedience with large monetary sums which allow Sissi to stabilize his regime, but not set the regional agenda.

The high point of Saudi Arabia’s new, more active policy has been ongoing on Yemeni soil since March. Saudi ground and air forces, along with local militias and contingents of the Yemeni army have succeeded in conquering the cities of Aden and Taiz, and by the fall, they promise to have retaken the capital, Sanaa, from the Houthi militias.

Although the Houthi revolt there was not launched by Iran, (Tehran even warned them not to try and conquer the country), Saudi Arabia has managed to frame the conflict in Yemen as a war against Iran, and has painted the Houthis as Shi’ites that are operating in the name of the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia embraced Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, who resides temporarily in Riyadh, and sees Yemen’s reformist party, with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, as a chief political ally, again, to Egypt’s dismay.

Thus, Saudi Arabia has managed to put the U.S. in a particularly tough spot. Washington still regards the war against Al-Qaida as important, and sees potential strategic allies on the Saudi peninsula, including even the Houthis. Syria also aspires to play the game of diplomacy in Syria, reflected in statements claiming that Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot continue on in that role, even as part of an effort to form a transitional government. Sissi declared a few weeks ago that in order to be part of the solution, Assad must calm himself and accept the Saudi position. 

Yemen and Syria will take center stage during the upcoming meeting between Obama and Salman, and the Saudi king will demand clarifications of the U.S.’s backing, which will limit Washington’s wiggle room. Saudi Arabia knows that the pact with Iran is a done deal, but, unlike Israel, they aren’t counting centrifuges or weighing enriched uranium stores – they’re more worried about the soon-to-be-lifted sanctions and Iran’s regional status and influence, and those are the topics likely to be discussed during the U.S.-Saudi talks.

From here stems critical importance Saudi Arabia attributes to American policy decisions in Yemen and Syria, as the Saudis see the war on ISIS as a conflict that can actually bolster Iran. The unofficial cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, and the voices in Washington that see Assad as a potential helper in fighting ISIS in Syria bolster Riyadh’s suspicions regarding the U.S.’s true interests. Salman comes to Washington after Obama has already secured the most important foreign policy achievement of his presidency.

At age 80, with a medical file full of various diseases (including Alzheimer’s, according to some repots), Salman is forced to fight an uphill diplomatic battle. He faces off against a young president, who has retroactively justified his Nobel Peace Prize, but a president who will have to use all of his rhetorical and diplomatic talents to ensure that his “victory” in Iran will not lead to him losing the Arab Middle East.