During his trip (April 20-21) to Saudi Arabia US President Obama held a private meeting with King Salman and attended a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit focused on regional stability, Iran and counterterrorism. His entourage included US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, demonstrating the focus on security.
The visit was overshadowed by Gulf Arab countries’ exasperation with the US approach to the region. The group of monarchies comprising Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, are sorely disappointed by Obama's presidency, regarding it as a period in which the United States has pulled back from the region, giving more space to their rival Iran for expanding its influence.
Stepping off of Air Force One earlier at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted not by King Salman but by a lower-ranking royal, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Ahead of Obama's arrival, Saudi state television showed the king personally greeting senior officials from other Gulf nations arriving at the Air Base. Unlike previous visits, this time his low-key arrival was not shown live on Saudi television.
The tensions are aggravated by the congressional report suggesting that the Saudis may have played a role in the 9/11 attacks. US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is reviewing the 28 classified pages from the 9/11 Commission report to see whether they can be released. A bill that could make Saudi Arabia liable for any role in the terrorist attacks is drawing support from both Republicans and Democrats, despite the administration’s opposition. Saudi Arabia is angry about the possible revival of the matter believed to be settled long ago (fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens). Riyadh has reportedly warned it could sell off hundreds of billion dollars’ worth of US assets if the bipartisan bill passes.
More recently, Obama was quoted in an Atlantic magazine interview describing some Gulf and European states as "free riders" who called for US action without doing enough themselves.
Ahead of Obama's trip, a group of US senators called on the President to press Saudi Arabia on human rights issues and raise the cases of two imprisoned advocates, blogger Raif Badawi and human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair. Fearing subversion from outside, the Saudi government has cracked down on Sunni and Shia dissidents alike, jailing writers, journalists and human rights activists. The falling price of oil has greatly reduced the government's budget. These are not the best times for the kingdom.
The summit addressed regional stability, counterterrorism efforts, and Iran – the country seen as a destabilizing rival in the region by the meeting’s participants. Obama and the Saudi leaders have diverged over the sectarian tensions in the region, the wars in Yemen and Syria, and the Iranian deal. The GCC members urged the US to do more to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. Formally, the US and Gulf allies agreed that the conflict-ridden nation must have a transitional government, a new constitution, and free elections to move away from President Bashar Assad’s «regime».
Obama also said, the leaders and the United States oppose Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. US President Barack Obama defended the Iran nuclear deal his administration had long lobbied for, but also pledged vigilance against Tehran. «We will remain vigilant to make sure Iran fulfills its commitments, just as we fulfill ours», Obama said at the closer of the meeting with the GCC. However, he noted there is a need for a «dialogue» as well, highlighting his administration’s keenness for diplomacy. «None of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran», Obama added.
The GCC leaders were openly skeptical of Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran. The Sunni-ruled Gulf states believe that Tehran’s backing of Shiite militias throughout the region, especially in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, is the main source of sectarianism and instability in the region. Disputes over Iran were a major part of Obama’s talks with Saudi King Salman and the GCC summit.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter had separate talks with his Gulf Arab counterparts on ways of countering Iranian influence and fighting the Islamic State group. They agreed on joint cooperation towards improving the Gulf missile defense, special forces and maritime security, but no new deals were announced. There was nothing new agreed on to give impetus to the cooperation.
No document was signed and nothing was agreed in practical terms. This is a failure.
Actually, the US administration has no clearly formulated Middle East policy, apart from the Iranian nuclear deal that exasperates the GCC countries so much. US politicians on both sides are tired of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia knows it well. The kingdom is gradually distancing itself from the US. It has formed its own coalition of 34 states to counter terrorism. Saudi Arabia is fostering closer ties with Egypt, the largest Arab Sunni state dissatisfied with the US policy.
And Egypt's failing economy is forcing it to cling to Saudi Arabia and the other rich Gulf states.
On April 8, Saudi Arabia and Egypt announced the construction of a bridge which will connect the Sinai Peninsula to the Arabian Peninsula for the first time. The announcement was made at a ceremony in Cairo at the outset of the Saudi monarch's five-day visit in Egypt.
The bridge will span between seven to ten kilometers (about four to six miles) and will cross the Red Sea just south of the Straits of Tiran. The project will generate billions of dollars in annual revenue, and the construction will create thousands of jobs for Egyptian workers. Before that, Egyptian President Abel Fatah al-Sisi signed the deal to hand over Tiran and Sanafir, the disputed islands under Cairo’s control, to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabia-Egypt rapprochement is a new factor to influence the situation in the region. The two large Arab states with the long history of being close US allies are dissatisfied with Washington’s policy and they are forging an alliance.
While the US-Egypt relations hit snags on the way, Cairo boosts cooperation with Russia.
The relationship is close enough to include defense matters.
Saudi Arabia is also set on building pragmatic relations with Moscow. After King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud came to power last year, Riyadh has adopted a more assertive line in its global and regional policy. The kingdom started to develop closer ties with Russia, despite existing differences. Last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman, a son of the Saudi king, to discuss the prospects for cooperation in Syria. A delegation from the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia was on an official visit to Moscow to discuss regional and bilateral problems and ways to boost relations. A thaw in relations between Moscow and Riyadh signals that US influence in the region is waning.
«Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with Russia surely speak of the waning regional influence of the US, with which the kingdom has been closely allied for 70 years. After Barack Obama started a thaw in US relations with Iran through last year’s nuclear deal, and Mr Putin stormed into a Syrian war the US President has sought to avoid, the Saudis seem to have decided to work with Moscow, in the belief that it can influence Tehran. Syria, in all its gore, is the cockpit of the current Middle East», writes David Gardner, an international affairs editor at the FT.
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This was President Obama’s last and most futile visit to the Middle East.
Washington and Saudi Arabia with its allies look differently at the problems of the region. The landscape is changing. The US Middle East policy is in doldrums with its influence greatly dwindling against the background of Russia’s growing clout. Other actors’ policies also change; new alliances are being formed. The region will never be the same; it is being reshaped. Looks like the US century in the Middle East is nearing the end.