The Financial Express

Obama\'s move to mend fences with Saudi Arabia

| Updated: October 19, 2017 14:38:27

US President Barack Obama speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia at Erga Palace in Riyadh on April 20, 2016. US President Barack Obama speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia at Erga Palace in Riyadh on April 20, 2016.

Since the establishment  of  the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdul Aziz in 1932 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and discovery of oil fields, the United States and the Kingdom forged diplomatic relations in 1933. US President Franklin Roosevelt received King Abdul Aziz on board the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, north of the City of Suez, on February 14, 1945. Saudi Arabia and US have been strategic partners in the Middle East from the beginning of their relations. King Saud bin Abdul Aziz  paid his first visit to the US during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957.
However, relations between the two countries flourished rapidly during Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan's stay in the US from the time of President Ronald Reagan to President George W.Bush. Prince Bandar was the longest-serving Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States. There is no doubt that relationship between the two countries was robust. Late King Abdullah paid visits to the US several times including his trip to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas on April 25 of 2005.
President Barack Obama was honoured by late King Abdullah in Riyadh in 2009 on his first visit to Saudi Arabia. Obama also made another visit to the Kingdom cutting short his visit to India to pay tribute to late King Abdullah on his sad demise in January of 2015 and met new King Salman.
The relations between the two countries saw strains when Obama secretly established contact with Iran, a diehard enemy of Saudi Arabia, through good offices of the Sultan of Oman without the knowledge of Riyadh. The comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 caused uneasiness in relations between the US and Saudi Arabia. This happened against the backdrop of arming Saudi Arabia by the US administrations of Presidents Reagan and George W.Bush for security of the Kingdom from Iran. The Saudi administration also did not appreciate backing out from Syria by the Obama administration. This has been reflected by Salman, current King of Saudi Arabia, who did not attend the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council held in Camp David, presidential summer resort on May 15 of 2015 wherein Obama explained nuts and bolts of comprehensive nuclear deal and assured the Gulf countries of protecting their interests. According to Al Jazeera America TV, the summit ended with a "fluffy communique whose mutual courtesies revealed no significant changes in either side's position. The troubling and ironic aspect of this event is that both sides were fixed on new security and military measures to address security in the region---many of which exacerbated and some created by their own military policies and distorted threat perception."
During the tenure of President Obama, conflicts in Syria flared up creating an unprecedented crisis of refugees, rise of ISIS in the Middle East, unstable political situation in Iraq and proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran. All these have made the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia nervous. Having seen the crisis engulfing the Middle East, King Salman launched a costly military offensive in neighbouring Yemen but as of now has failed to defeat the Houthi rebels. Instead, the offensive has empowered Al-Qaeda affiliate in the region. At home, Saudi Arabia executed dozens of men on charges of terrorism, including a Shiite cleric which caused widespread protests in Shiite- dominated countries including Iran. Saudi Arabia also backed out from giving billions of dollars to Lebanon as a result of growing influence of Iran. Saudi Arabia itself is in the midst of economic challenges as a result of fall in oil prices and demography as well.
 On the top of all these, President Obama's comments last month that Saudis have become 'free riders', who accept security help from the US without sharing the burden. This might have caused suspicion that he may be actively undermining Saudis. This statement by Obama was made during conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He also said in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent of the Atlantic that "Saudi Arabia would have to find a way to coexist with Iran by learning to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace."
This has been reflected in comments of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a spokesperson of the Saudi Royal families, who was former Head of Intelligence of Saudi Arabia and former Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the US whom this writer happened to meet at National Day function of the Bangladesh embassy in Washington DC in March of 2006. Prince Turki  replaced Prince Bandar.  
Meanwhile, a bill in the Senate submitted by Senator Chuck Summer, a Democrat and John Cornyn, a Republican, opens the door to sue foreign states and financial partners of terrorism. Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel Al-Jubeir told Secretary of State John Kerry in April of this year that Saudi Arabia would withdraw hundreds of billions of dollars of American assets if the Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in US court for any role in 9/11 attacks. Despite a request by the Saudi government, President George W. Bush refused to release a 28-page report by 9/11 commission which is said to have focused on the role of foreign governments in the plot. Meanwhile, families of both victims and survivors in 9/11 attacks filed a lawsuit against the Saudi government but it was thrown out last year by a federal court because of immunity enjoyed by foreign governments.
The Obama administration, however, is persuading the Congress to abandon the bill in the interest of the US, but frontrunner of Democratic Party in presidential race Hillary Clinton and another presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders asked the President to support the bill.
Amid such a tense situation, President Obama visited Riyadh and met King Salman, apart from meeting leaders from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) as well on April 20. This was Obama's fourth and last visit to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by Defence Secretary Ash Carter and CIA Director John Brenn. The Defence Secretary separately met GCC defence ministers in Riyadh. Obama met separately Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin-Zayed Al-Nahyan, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar and Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait.
Obama's chilly reception in Riyadh by the Governor of Riyadh reflected the tense situation existing between the two countries but his meeting with King Salman appeared to have removed the cloud as he discussed a wide range of subjects including ensuring protection of Saudi Arabia. Obama also attended the GCC summit which was chaired by King Salman. Obama pledged to exert joint efforts in their campaign to destroy DAES (ISIS) terrorists and added, "Iran must be held accountable for interference and meddling in the region" while Saudi King stressed the "keenness and commitment of GCC states on developing historical and strategic relations between GCC and the United States to serve common interest to bolster security and peace in the region." By interference, it seems that Obama succeeded in removing irritants between the US and Saudi Arabia.

The writer is a retired  Bangladeshi diplomat.

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