Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obama and Salman

The US-Saudi relationship has changed, but more so on specifics than the broader strategic horizon, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

Much has changed in Saudi-US relations during the span of the Obama administration that overlapped with the last years of the reign of King Abdullah and the opening years of the reign of King Salman. The period began with Obama’s affirmation of the importance of the alliance between the two countries when he met King Abdullah during his first visit abroad after he assumed office, just over seven years ago. Obama stressed the same message during his recent visit to the region, which will probably be his last, at least as president, as his second term is due to end in nine months. Both the contexts and climates then and now could not be more different.

Saudi Arabia, today, is directing a regional project through which it seeks to elevate itself to the helm of the Arab world after a long period at the helm of the Gulf. At the same time it has begun to harbour doubts about the US’ intentions with regard to its security and defence commitments to Saudi Arabia and, hence, with regard to sustaining the same level of historic “alliance” between Washington and Riyadh. Other major aspects of the regional/international contexts have changed. One of the most significant is the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 and consequent US-Iranian “rapprochement” which the Saudi kingdom finds very worrisome. More generally the region is now teeming with conflicts and crises, and Riyadh (along with other Gulf countries) does not see eye-to-eye with the Obama administration on these issues either, the Syrian question above all.

Last week brought a burst of activity in Saudi-US bilateral relations and at the broader level of US-Gulf relations. In fact, it was perhaps one of the most intensely active periods in these relations in Obama’s time in office. Though the outputs of his many meetings vary, we can say that on the whole they were an extension of the formula of the traditional relationship, but not an extension of the same strategies. To obtain a deeper insight into the nature of the changes in the Saudi-US relations, Al-Ahram Weekly conducted an extensive interview with Saudi political analyst Jamal Khashoggi, a specialist in Saudi foreign policy.

In response to the question as to whether the US-Saudi relationship is headed in a new direction, based on the outcomes of the recent US-Saudi summit in Riyadh, Khashoggi said: “The US changed and Europe has too. There is a new mood that has had various impacts in the international sphere. Saudi Arabia is aware of that change. It, too, has begun to pursue a new policy, quickly, in order to keep pace with those changes in the international mood. This was manifested, for example, in Saudi intervention in Yemen. That is not just a military operation in order to reinstate legitimacy. It is also the mode of the new policy of Saudi Arabia that, today, is taking the initiative to build new coalitions. Some of these coalitions are in the Arab world and others are in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is also keen, in its new policy, to remain close to international allies, the US in particular. On the subject of Yemen, as well, Saudi Arabia has obtained international support from the Security Council and logistical support from its international allies.”

The part played by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during the visit best describes the contours of the three tracks of the US-Saudi relationship. His visit resulted in security arrangements on three chief issues and had the effect of, firstly, reaffirming US commitments to the Gulf; secondly, clarifying the position on Iran in the period following the conclusion of the agreement between Tehran and the P5+1; and thirdly, promoting cooperation on the war against IS (Islamic State) terrorism in Syria. Following his meeting with GCC defence ministers, Carter stressed that the US is as dedicated to its commitments to GCC nations after the nuclear accord with Iran as it was before. “In our posture, our preparedness, our planning, and our partnership, the US military remains committed and capable of responding to Iranian malign and destabilising activities, and deterring aggression against our regional friends and allies, including all GCC nations,” he said.

The US defense secretary, in his remarks, also underscored intensified maritime security measures in the Arabian Gulf to prevent Iranian arms smuggling to Yemen and noted that Gulf nations “collaborated in nearly 40 exercises to practice integrated air and missile defence, combined arms, tactical air operations, special operations, and maritime operations”.

Meanwhile, on the other bank of the Persian Gulf, there have been leaks to the effect that Iran has received the first delivery of the components of a Russian S-300 air defence system now that the Kremlin has lifted the ban on the delivery that came into effect with the UN resolution of 2010 prohibiting arms exports to Iran. News of this deal first surfaced in 2007, when Moscow and Tehran signed an $800 million deal in which the latter purchased five S-300 systems.

In addition, the Fars news agency cited Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi as saying that Iran is holding talks with Russia to sell it about 40 tons of heavy water from its nuclear programme. Araqchi added that the United States had been the first buyer of Iranian heavy water and some other world powers, including Russia, were now showing an interest. The deal is said to be worth more than $2 million.

So, in practical terms, has the nuclear agreement with Iran affected US-Saudi relations? How does this relate to reports regarding the so-called Middle Eastern defence forum in which Washington seeks to incorporate the Gulf countries and Iran on the basis of new regional security arrangements? Hossam Ibrahim, director of the American studies programme at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, told the Weekly, “There is an impression that the US administration is promoting the 6+1 idea to merge the six GCC countries and Iran. However, clearly there are major technical difficulties involved. At the same time, some believe that Washington is withdrawing from this region in favour of new arrangements in the region in view of the understanding with Iran. Therefore, from the perspective of the Gulf there is a need to review the process of arranging relations with Washington. In the final analysis, there are two tracks in the US approach to the region in the current phase: the US-Gulf track and the US-Iranian track.”

Saudi political analyst Khashoggi broached the matter from a different angle: the US “withdrawal” and its impact on its allies. “This is the more salient dimension in the scene; not the Iranian-US rapprochement, which I believe has been built up out of proportion. For example, from the formal standpoint, the alliance between Riyadh and Washington is a traditional one, even in people’s minds. Look at the pictures of Obama in the streets of the kingdom when he arrived as a visiting guest. That would not happen in Iran. It would be hard to imagine pictures of an American president in the streets of Tehran before another decade, at least.”

Khashoggi noted the unequivocal condemnation of Iranian behaviour in the region during the Riyadh summit and the Gulf-US conference as well as the agreement on maritime security arrangements that were forged with Iran in mind. He then turned to the question of the regional security forum. “I can say that it would have been possible to develop propositions of this sort in order to solve the problems of the region, if the Saudis and Iranians could agree. However, there are certain matters we need to bear in mind when considering these ideas. For example, Obama’s concept of Iran certainly differs from his concept of Egypt or Turkey, for example. Egypt and Turkey are countries that respect international law. They don’t have militias that are distributed in the region wherever there is a crisis and whose first loyalty is to the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution. Such behaviour is not suitable for modern states. Saudi Arabia has indicated that it could thaw relations with Iran if Tehran puts an end to this militia situation. Once it does it will have withdrawn from Yemen and other Arab countries. Have we heard of other countries, such as Egypt, Turkey or Algeria, with militias in Yemen? No, we have not. But we have heard that Iran has militias and these rebelled against the legitimate authority and drove the country to collapse and civil war due to Iranian meddling. The question then is: can Tehran relinquish such behaviour, in order to make rapprochement with it possible?”

In light of statements by Obama, Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, there is no definitive indication of the US “withdrawal” from the region that Khashoggi mentioned. Rather, it appears that US is restructuring its presence in the region in a manner that strikes a balance between the Gulf and Iranian tracks in its foreign relations while simultaneously promoting more intense counterterrorism efforts. Responding to this suggestion, Khashoggi said: “I do not think that there are new bases for either Saudi Arabia or the US to seek to reformulate their relationship. However, the mood that currently prevails among world powers is such that they want this part of the world to foot the bill for its security and stability. This is the new factor.”

So is Saudi Arabia now seeking to become a great power through its own means, such as militarising its foreign policy, sending its fighter planes on missions abroad and intervening militarily in other nations?

“I would not go so far as to say that the kingdom is becoming a great power,” Khashoggi replied. “It is an influential regional power. Also, it does not intervene in the affairs of other countries in this region and it does not support sects. The minimum common ground between the US and Saudi Arabia is clear in this regard, as could be seen in the Riyadh summit. It states that the role that Saudi Arabia is currently playing is to fill the security vacuum caused by the US withdrawal. That vacuum has to be filled because the failure to do so will cause many problems in the region. This is Salman’s doctrine, which shares a common denominator with the Obama doctrine, namely that it is time for this region to bear the costs of its national and regional security on its own.”

Khashoggi believes that a “moral framework” reconciles the two visions. “The US has supported Saudi Arabia on the Yemeni question in Geneva and now in Kuwait, as is clear from the decisions adopted by both sides. Such things are moral matters first and foremost.”

Might the new strategic “mood” also explain some of the disparity between the US and Saudi Arabia in spite of the broader heading beneath which they converged in the Riyadh summit? Khashoggi acknowledged that the new Saudi policy of assuming defence and security burdens did not mean that it would always meet with sufficient success. Difficulties can arise. “In Syria, for example, the kingdom has not been successful because the US has a different concept and the Russian presence in Syria has imposed its particular context. Also, the Obama administration does not want to risk jeopardising the nuclear deal with Iran. Such developments rendered Obama’s handling of the Syrian question weak. This has been the subject of an open discussion between Riyadh and Washington in the past and in the present.”

Evidently, the devil is in the detail. The US and Saudi Arabia are in general agreement about the situations in Yemen and in Syria, Khashoggi said. However, they differ on specifics. “We, in the kingdom, have said that [Bashar] Al-Assad cannot stay and Washington agrees. A president responsible for 400,000 dead cannot remain in the future political process. However, in spite of this agreement, there remains the question as to how far the Americans will go with us. We proposed sending in troops for a ground offensive against IS. It is also important to bear in mind that the kingdom has influence with the parties, as was evident in the conference of the Syrian opposition that was held in Riyadh. However, the kingdom does not have a relationship with IS or extremist militias, as is the case with Iran. In all events, the US does not favour a ground offensive scenario. In other words, it does not go with us all the way when it comes to the details. On the other hand, there is the logistical coordination that we have seen in the operations in Syria and in Yemen. This process will continue, because these countries need decades in order to be reconstructed and stand on their own feet again. The situation is similar to that of Germany after World War II. The US has a role to play in this process in coordination with countries like Saudi Arabia, to ensure that the final results harmonise with regional circumstances, in contrast to what happened in Iraq. In Iraq, Iran moved to fill the vacuum created by the Arab absence and the Arab countries are paying the price of this today. We do not want a repetition of that tragedy.”

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