Obama's fence mending trip to Saudi Arabia
President Barack Obama has undertaken the Riyadh visit (April 20-21) at a time when US–Saudi relations are in the doldrums. Saudi Arabia is considered a key US ally in the Middle East, but lately several developments have left the Saudi royal family in a tense situation.
First of all, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on January 4, 2016, following an attack on its embassy in Tehran. Iranian zealots attacked the Saudi missions after Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir on January 2. This happened at a time when Riyadh was urging Washington not to go ahead with the nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington's reaction to this incident was apathetic. President Obama's recent comments that he resented "free riders" among Arab allies, and his gratuitous suggestion that Saudi Arabia and Iran "find an effective way to share the neighbourhood" and that there should be "cold peace" between Iran and Saudi Arabia, had further ruffled Saudi feathers.
Secondly, despite strong opposition from Riyadh and other Gulf countries, Washington's outreach to Tehran, after four decades of antagonism, led to the signing of a nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on January 17, 2016. Through this deal Shiite Iran, the traditional adversary of Sunni Saudi Arabia, shook off its isolation from the rest of world, thereby feeling more emboldened than it ever did in the recent past.
Thirdly, the US Congress is pushing a draft bill called "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act" that would make it easier for families of the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre to sue foreign governments perceived to have aided al-Qaida. If enacted, victims' families can go to American courts demanding millions of dollars in compensation from the Saudi government, provided that the said government's complicity to the attack is proven. 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers were Saudi citizens.
While Saudi Arabia has persistently denied any involvement in the attack, the possibility of the bill being passed by the Congress has infuriated Riyadh. Riyadh sees this development as a hostile American act towards the Kingdom, and has threatened to sell off over $750 billion of US treasury securities amidst fears that American courts may freeze them. If it comes to that, the recovery of the American economy since the 2008 recession will surely be in jeopardy. Families of 9/11 see this threat as a blackmailing tactic by Riyadh. But policymakers in Washington have taken the threat seriously.
While US lawmakers are pushing the bill, they want parts of the 2004 US Government report, which is is believed to detail possible Saudi connections to the attack, declassified.
What has bothered President Obama is that both Republicans and Democrats are behind this legislation. Though no individual country is mentioned, Obama said he is "opposed" the bill. "This is not just a bilateral US-Saudi issue. If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being sued by individuals in other countries," he said. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, "The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake. And it is one that has more significant consequences for the United States than any other country."
Indeed, passing of the bill will undermine international legal norms that have benefitted the United States on the world stage. It will have major repercussions on the international legal system, as the US government can be sued for all the misdeeds it commits overseas. Suing the Saudi government will set a precedent that will definitely haunt the American government.
To mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, President Obama flew into Riyadh to a cool reception on April 20. He was received by the Governor of Riyadh rather than a senior level royal, which demonstrated Saudi Arabia's annoyance at American policies towards the Kingdom. Normally, US presidents are received by the King at the airport, and in cases the king is unable to do so, a senior level royal is usually the first to greet the American president. The funny thing is that earlier in the day, King Salman was present at the airport to receive the leaders of other Gulf nations. Obama obviously had to swallow the snub.
There were two events that marked President Obama's visit to Saudia Arabia – a bilateral meeting between him and King Salman (80), and the US-Gulf Cooperation Council meeting held this year. King Salman had not attended the first US-GCC meeting held in Camp David in May 2015, which was convened by President Obama.
Interestingly though, the Saudis and Gulf States are wary about the Iran deal - in the Communiqué, issued after the Riyadh meeting, both sides reiterated support for the JCPOA, however, the GCC still considers JCPOA as US abdication of its role as security guarantor of the region. President Obama has reassured once again that America would cooperate for the security of the region, through various means, such as ballistic missile defence, military preparedness, transfer critical military capabilities etc. However, strengthening the coalition against ISIL, cessation of hostilities in Yemen, and political transition in Syria, to which the GCC agreed, was high on Obama's agenda.
Throughout President Obama's term in office, relations between Washington and Riyadh had been tense. The conservative countries of the region were outraged by US support for the Arab Spring, the perceived root of many upheavals and instability in the region.
Actually there was neither any major agreement on security nor any condemnation of Iran at the meeting, which is what the GCC wanted. Obama wanted every country to do its part, meaning American allies must develop their own capabilities to defend themselves. With Obama's disengagement policy in the Middle East, a new regional order seems to be emerging, in which Israel figures prominently.
It seems that with his fourth and final visit to the Kingdom, Obama has succeeded in allaying some of King Salman's fears, but gaps in the fence remain. Saudi-US relationship is a complex web built on military and energy links. Despite strains, neither can afford to dump the other. However, the future of Washington-Riyadh relations hangs on the outcome of the proposed anti-Saudi bill in the US Congress.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary.