Obama’s Sudden Visit to Saudi Arabia

Obama’s Sudden Visit to Saudi Arabia

Right after having mentioned the great success of America’s international strategy and global leadership in his State of the Union address Barack Obama displayed concern over foreign policy issues. Vice President Joe Biden was to take part in the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, but Obama cut short a day his visit to India so that he could travel to Riyadh on January 27 to pay respects to Saudi royals too. His visit program was curtailed against the background of long-term agreements reached between Russia and Delhi during the President Putin’s visit to India. It made Indians feel resentment. The Obama’s rush to the Arabian Peninsula was belated from point of view of ritual and premature from point of view of protocol. It displayed the Washington’s anxiety over the situation in the Middle East. The attempt to impose the US policies on the new Saudi leadership was just too obvious. Michelle Obama appeared before Saudi King with head uncovered. She was wearing long pants and a long, brightly colored jacket, but no headscarf. I believe this display of contempt towards Muslim traditions will be remembered in the kingdom more than anything else related to the President’s visit. 

Saudi Arabia, the world leading oil supplier and a bulwark of US Persian Gulf policy, happens to be in a precarious situation and Washington has a hand in it. The US military bases are located in the neighboring Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh has to fight Islamic fundamentalists «at the distance» while the United States implements the unprincipled policy which envisions using radicals to topple some regimes in the region, for instance, in Syria. It has turned the Middle East Islamists into a serious geopolitical threat to America itself as well as to its allies. The Islamic State formations have moved near the Saudi borders. The Islamic State leader Al-Baghdadi says his main objectives are not Baghdad or Damascus, but rather Mecca and Medina. Addressing people as Caliph he says «We are coming!» The January 5, 2015 attack against Saudi northern city of Arar was a terrorist act carried out by four Islamic State assailants. Al-Baghdadi claims to trace his lineage to the Prophet Mohammed's Quraysh tribe. True, it’s not a proven fact. But his ideas of social equality are more attractive to many Muslims than the calls to loyalty to the Saudi ruling family wallowing in luxury. The dynasty has no relation to the Hashim clan of Quraysh tribe Prophet Muhammad came from. Some experts say the new King Salman has been an Al-Qaeda sponsor. Somehow Riyadh used to find some mutual understanding with Al Qaeda. The Islamic State is gradually taking the place of Al Qaeda as the true heir to Osama bin Laden and its attitude towards the Saudi ruling dynasty is far more hostile. 

The US has gone too far using drones in Yemen, a state situated in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen and Pakistan have been the main targets of US aerial unmanned vehicles – «the most perfect» anti-terrorist weapon in the US military inventory. No matter all the expectations the attacks produced quite a different result. The strikes stubbornly delivered against the «concentrations of militants» without taking into consideration the collateral damage resulted in more volunteers among poor young people to fill the jihadists’ ranks. As a result, the Shiite Houthi fighters took over the Yemeni capital city of Sana'a to topple President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States. It’s too late to bomb them as they have seized all government buildings, including the General Staff of Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense. The group has the capital under its full control. The Houthi are Shiites just like the population of the Saudi Eastern province, home to most of Saudi Arabia's oil production. Riyadh is very much concerned over what is happening. It believes Tehran to be behind the events. The south of Yemen is populated by Sunni Muslims who do not recognize the rule of Houthi. The idea of independence starts to go around. It does not make the life of the Saudi kingdom better because since a long ago the Yemeni South has become an Al Qaeda turf as a result of US ostentatious «fight against terror’. Like in Afghanistan Al Qaeda forces join the Islamic State there. Shiites may get together with Sunni radicals to pose a terrible threat for Saudi Arabia. The population of impoverished Yemen is actually comparable with the population of Saudi Arabia. It has enough human resources for an attack from the south. The question pops up – is it true that Washington could not have done anything to counter the emerging threat to its «loyal ally» in view that finally the turn of events happened to be advantageous for the United States? Wasn’t this situation created purposefully? Is it the implementation of the tried-and-true «divide and rule» method or something else?

In Riyadh Obama tried to dissipate all the fears of the new King acting as a «savior» though to large extent the US irresponsible actions (or, may be, very responsible and well-planned actions) led to turning Saudi Arabia into a «fortress under siege». At the same time Obama wants to ensure the King Salman’s support for his Middle East policy, especially concerning Iran. Experts believe that three pivotal issues defined the agenda of the top level meeting: the situation at the Saudi borders, the Iran’s nuclear program and oil prices. At first glance the new King perfectly suits Washington. Salman closely cooperated with Americans in providing funds for the mujahedeen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Back then the collusion between the United States and Saudi Arabia brought down the world oil prices by abruptly increasing the offer at the world market. Today the history repeats itself. King Salman has already said that he won’t cut production to make oil prices go up. 

Muhammad bin Nayef, a grandson of the dynasty’s founder and a nephew of King Salman, has become second in line to the throne of Saudi Arabia (deputy crown prince). The US is happy about it. He is known to be pro-American and almost a personal friend of President Obama. They met three times in 2014 only. The deputy crown prince is also believed to be a friend of State Secretary John Kerry and CIA director John Brennan. Crown prince Muqrin (70 years old) is the 35th and the youngest surviving son of King Abdulaziz, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia. Taking into consideration his age and lack of influence Americans gamble on Muhammad bin Nayef (55 years old) hoping he’ll take control over the Saudi Arabia’s policy in future. Bin Nayef is the second deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia and the Minister of Interior. He is known to be an irreconcilable foe of Al Qaeda among the Saudi leaders. In 2009 this group tried to assassinate him but failed. The King’s son Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud is appointed Minister of Defense. This way the Sudairy clan becomes leading in the competition for influence as it includes the King himself and two ministers (of the next generation) heading the two principal power agencies. 

Experts differ on what drives the Saudi oil policy - is it following Washington in its efforts to «punish Moscow» or, to the contrary, the desire to undermine the US shale gas industry. Whatever it is, the low prices first of all meet the interests of the United States. It looks more like the repetition of the 1980s-style collusion. The Voice of America, the official external broadcast institution of the United States federal government, says openly that «no matter the United States is energy self-sufficient and needs no supplies from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s desire not to lose its market share by maintaining the same level of production against the background of falling prices facilitated the Obama’s success getting the national economy back on track. It also contributed to his efforts by exercising pressure on two world major oil exporters– Iran and Russia.» 

At the same time the dependence of the country on twists and turns of US policy contradicts the long-term interests of Saudi Arabia. It has a deficit budget. The hopes for diversification of economy vanish. With these prices the kingdom is doomed to remain a backward country - a kind of «Western gas station». The stability is only at the surface, the country’s social fabric is archaic and vulnerable. The alliance with the West will produce iffy results. On the one hand, there is an «unwritten» consensus in the West not «to touch» Saudi Arabia. By the way, during his talks with the king Obama touched upon the problem of human rights. On the other hand, this is the age of information technologies and the kingdom cannot remain in vacuum. The Western influence corrupts elites; it engenders the hopes for better among the educated part of population but gives little to common people dissatisfied with their plight and the expansion of alien culture. Two thirds of Saudi population are the people before the age of thirty, they face unemployment exceeding 30%. If oil prices remain low the unemployment will increase. This is the right environment for recruiting militants to fill the ranks of radical Islamists. The country may implode any time, even when least expected.