The biggest news about President Barack Obama’s summit this week with Gulf leaders has been who’s not coming. Pundits and critics alike have described Saudi King Salman’s no-show as a diplomatic slap in the face at the Obama administration.
Various commentators speculated that the king was displeased with President Obama’s negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities, his failures to intervene decisively in Syria, and his call for domestic reforms in the Arab world. Somehow — left unexplained — those concerns did not stop Salman from greeting Obama warmly in January.
Addressing the king’s decision to send his Crown Prince instead, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told MSNBC, “It’s an indicator of the lack of confidence that the Saudis and others have. . . . This administration feels that they can somehow make agreements with Iran throughout the region when these countries view Iran as a direct threat.”
Back in March, McCain similarly read into Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen a signal that “the countries in the region no longer have confidence or are willing to work with the United States of America.” (Of course, conservatives have also taken President Obama to task for showing too much respect for Saudi Arabia. After his polite bow to then-Saudi King Abdullah at the Group of 20 summit in 2009, the Washington Times denounced Obama’s “shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate.”)
Almost unnoticed amid all this speculation about the summit was a statement by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister: “The idea that this is a snub because the king did not attend is really off base. The fact that our crown prince and deputy crown prince attend an event outside of Saudi Arabia at the same time is unprecedented.” Maybe the 79-year-old king, who has serious health problems, simply didn’t want to fly more than 10,000 kilometers for a second meeting with Obama in five months.
Snub or not, the suggestion that a U.S. president should alter national policies to please a foreign king is bizarre, particularly coming from politicians who wear American flags on their lapels and evoke American exceptionalism at every opportunity.
Just as dubious is the suggestion that President Obama has irresponsibly let U.S.-Saudi relations sour after years of close friendship. The notion that “For over 40 years, the United States has walked hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia through the thicket of Middle Eastern crises,” in the words of two Brookings scholars, is simply nonsense.
The two countries have repeatedly clashed in the years since Saudi-led oil embargoes caused American drivers to curse OPEC. Those disputes have reflected deep and longstanding differences over perceptions of national security, human rights and other interests. President Obama did not create those differences.
Consider the George W. Bush years. True, the Bush administration did many favors for Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 attacks — including classifying 27 pages of a congressional report that, according to one U.S. official, described “direct involvement of senior [Saudi] government officials in a coordinated and methodical way directly to the hijackers.” In many ways, however, relations between Washington and Riyadh suffered worse strains under Bush than they do today.
A major point of contention — then more than today — was the fate of the Palestinians. Abdullah was reportedly shocked by President Bush’s unstinting support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and instructed his ambassador to tell top White House officials to expect a freezing of relations: “Starting from today . . . you [Americans] go your way, I [Saudi Arabia] go my way. From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America’s interests lie in the region.”
Abdullah also broke with Bush early by opposing an invasion of Iraq, and, ironically, by supporting better relations with Iran. “Saudi Arabia has achieved a new detente with its traditionally hostile neighbor, Iran, which the United States still considers a hostile power,” noted Washington Post reporters David Ottaway and Robert Kaiser in early 2002.
President Bush rebuffed Saudi concerns and invaded Iraq a year later. Within a month, the Saudis forced Washington to agree to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from their country, a dramatic sign of Riyadh’s displeasure.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, clueless U.S. occupation forces put pro-Iranian Shiites in charge of the new regime. Its subsequent repression of many Sunnis led to an uproar among Saudi Arabia’s conservative clerics, who formed a major part of King Abdullah’s power base.
Reported the London Times, “Saudi religious scholars have caused consternation in Iraq and Iran by issuing fatwas calling for the destruction of the great Shi’ite shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, some of which have already been bombed. And while prominent members of the ruling al-Saud dynasty regularly express their abhorrence of terrorism, leading figures within the kingdom who advocate extremism are tolerated.”
Saudis soon began funding the Sunni uprising in Iraq, with deadly results for U.S. troops. Associated Press reported in 2006 that Saudi citizens were “giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles.” A study by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center determined that more than 40 percent of the foreign al-Qaeda insurgents battling U.S. forces in Iraq were Saudi nationals.
U.S.-Saudi relations continued to worsen in early 2007, as King Abdullah publicly blasted America’s “illegitimate foreign occupation” of Iraq. According to the Washington Post that March, “The king is reported to have canceled a state dinner that Bush had planned to hold in his honor next month — though officially the White House says no dinner was ever scheduled.”
The split only widened over time. In July 2007, Helene Cooper of The New York Times reported that “Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive role in the Iraq war.”
Most disturbingly, the administration learned that the Saudis were urging other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to give more financial support to the rebellious Sunnis in Iraq. Cooper added, “Senior Bush administration officials said the American concerns would be raised next week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates make a rare joint visit to Jidda, Saudi Arabia.”
Summing up the state of U.S.-Saudi relations, Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, said the Bush administration “thinks the Saudis are no longer behaving the role of the good vassal,” while the Saudis “see weakness, they see a void, and they’re going to fill the void and call their own shots.”
So they did, and today’s bloodthirsty Islamic State — born out of the remnants of Saddam’s army and the Saudi-funded Sunni insurgency — is the result. In the words of veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn, “Saudi Arabia has created a Frankenstein’s monster over which it is rapidly losing control.”
In view of this history, Saudi Arabia’s alleged snub of the Obama administration is small beer indeed. Memories in Washington must be short indeed if anyone really believes the two countries had smooth relations in times past. On the contrary, many of America’s most difficult foreign policy challenges today reflect the deadly consequences of our profound disagreements with Saudi Arabia.
The real question, then, isn’t what the White House has done lately to displease Riyadh, or what President Obama must do to regain the King’s favor. It’s why the United States, with its unmatched power, remains so reluctant to publicly challenge Saudi policies — ranging from the funding of terrorists to the mass bombing of civilians in Yemen — that jeopardize regional peace and U.S. security.