Obama Prefers Arabia to Taj Mahal (I)

Obama Prefers Arabia to Taj Mahal (I)

Misfortunes never come singly

Just hours before the US president Barack Obama took off from Washington for his three-day state visit to India beginning on Sunday, he ordered to simply chop off a poignant slice of his tour itinerary – a memorable visit to the Taj Mahal with his wife and children that his hosts had prepared with great attention and touching care, as his most memorable takeaway. 

Obama decided that he also urgently needed to be in Saudi Arabia and, therefore, once the transactional part of his India visit was over, he would head straight for Riyadh. 

Such brusque rescheduling of state visits at the penultimate hour are highly uncommon and even if in this case it doesn’t hint at any displeasure with his Indian hosts, it cannot but dampen their spirits somewhat, as it underscores where the United States’ foreign-policy priorities would lie at the moment. In fact, US vice-president had already been named to attend King Abdullah’s funeral on Friday. 

Clearly, Obama intends to engage first hand at the very earliest the new Saudi leadership under King Salman. A criticality arises, since King Salman who is in the late seventies is known to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, and according to the Wall Street Journal, US officials do not consider him to be a strong or healthy ruler in his own right, which inevitably raises the possibility of others in the royal family coming to the forecourt in a matter of time. 

In fact, the early reports are that even before the deceased king’s funeral has taken place, the calculus of power in Riyadh may have been shuffled, as indicated by Salman’s decision within hours of taking over as the new ruler to appoint Mohammed Bin Nayef, the interior minister, to be his deputy crown prince (somewhat overshadowing the incumbent crown prince appointed by the late king) and Salman’s own son as the new defence minister. 

Saudi politics is difficult to decipher and it is ponderously formal to outsiders. Obama would be terribly interested to take a close look because Nayef is known to him personally (having received him thrice in the White House last year – in February, October and December) – and the possibility arises that the Saudi policies may begin to change sooner or later in a direction that harmonizes with the US’ regional strategies. Evidently, Obama is losing no time to confer with Nayef in private.

Saudi Arabia is «weaker internally and surrounded by enemies as never before,» to quote well-known British journalist David Hearst, editor of Middle East Eye and a longtime observer of the region. 

For Salman himself it could be an impossible task at such advanced age and poor health to preside over reforms and change. But, as Hearst wrote, «there may be people around him who see the need for a fundamental change in course». Nayef, therefore, becomes one of the most crucial decision-makers in Riyadh in the coming period. Which works fine for Washington. 

This is a high-stakes game for the US since Saudi policies under King Abdullah have not been aligning with the US regional strategies – as they should have between two close allies – and a sort of ‘cooling-off’ between the king and Obama became apparent lately. A widow of opportunity now arises for Washington to improve the climate of the US-Saudi relations. 

Across the board, King Abdullah felt disenchanted by Obama’s passivity toward the overthrow of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak and the US’ ambivalent stance toward the ‘Arab Spring’ and the Muslim Brotherhood; Obama’s lack of resolve in attacking Syria in 2013 and the US’ overall lackadaisical and inconsistent approach to arming the Syrian rebels; and, most important, Obama’s decisive move to open direct contact with Iran with the good offices of Oman and without even taking Saudi Arabia into confidence. 

The Saudi policies impact a host of other problems as well that impinge upon the US interests, including some core interests. One principal area will be, no doubt, the Saudi stance in the world oil market. But the issues also include the Saudi role in the US’ fight against the Islamic State, in ending the Syrian conflict, in encouraging political reconciliation in Egypt and Bahrain, and, of course, in constructively approaching the US-Iranian normalization – in sum, issues affecting the remaking of the Middle East which is on the cusp of a historic upheaval. 

In the meantime, Yemen has surged to the centre stage as a first rate crisis affecting the US strategies and a huge political embarrassment for Obama politically. His hurried trip to Riyadh underscores it. Yemen brooks no delay. Suffice it to say, the Paris attacks are traceable to Yemen. 

The Shi’ite Houthis’ push for a takeover in Sana’a, which has been in the making for months, could not have come at a worse time for Riyadh and Washington, coinciding as it does with the death of King Abdullah compelling a complex transition. The Saudi-brokered transition in Yemen from Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 (with a view to stymie the stirrings of Arab Spring), lies in ruins. Ironically, many believe that Saleh is helping the Houthis from exile in the current scramble for power. 

In sum, Yemen is tottering between a power vacuum that could create civil war conditions or sheer anarchy. The Saudis allege that the Houthis are backed by Iran, but on the other hand, it is the al-Qaeda that is projecting itself as the defender of the Sunni Muslims of Yemen. Simply put, the security implications are profound for Saudi Arabia – and for the US’ counterterrorism strategy. 

(To be continued)