President Obama waves goodbye as he departs from the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on June 4, 2009. (Pete Souza/The White House)

What’s On Obama’s Agenda for the Saudi Arabia Summit?

March 29, 2016
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

When President Barack Obama was last in Saudi Arabia 14 months ago, a new king had just taken the throne, the country had not yet intervened in Yemen, and the U.S. nuclear agreement with Iran — Saudi Arabia’s chief rival — was still being negotiated in secret.

On April 21, Obama will return to the kingdom for a summit with Arab leaders. While officials in both governments emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the nuclear accord and other recent events have strained ties between Washington and Riyadh. That tension could have a big impact on the talks, which the White House has said will “provide an opportunity for leaders to discuss additional steps to intensify pressure on [ISIS], address regional conflicts and de-escalate regional and sectarian tensions.”

In advance of the trip, FRONTLINE asked two experts — Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Gary Sick, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a former member of the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan — what they expect to be on the agenda for Obama’s trip. Here’s what they told us.

1. The balance of power with Iran

For decades, steadfast U.S. support for Riyadh was seen as one of the few givens in the Middle East, but a recent interview President Obama gave to The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg has rattled the relationship. The president told Goldberg that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their rivals in Tehran, adding:

The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians — which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen — requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.

“I would not underestimate the psychological impact of the Goldberg article,” said Nasr. “In the region — I was there recently — I think they read it as a statement of policy that the U.S. is declaring very clearly a very different view of the Middle East.”

The fear, experts say, is that president’s comments signal a shift away from America’s long-standing policy of containing Iran, and a step towards rapprochement.

That may be hard for Saudi Arabia to hear. The kingdom “really took it for granted that the United States was there and was going to stay there as the container of Iran,” said Sick. “They like it when we see their interests and our interests as totally congruent, and they’re not always. They’ve resisted that, but that’s the message that Obama is going to deliver, and I don’t think he’s going to change his mind about that.”

2. What’s next for Syria?

Nasr and Sick agreed that the path forward in Syria will dominate much of the agenda. Since late February, a fragile ceasefire has been in place between the Assad government and opposition fighters on the ground, but now comes the hard work of finding a political solution to the crisis that has left an estimated 470,000 people dead.

The sticking point, according to Nasr, is where to focus diplomatic energy. Should it be on removing President Bashar al Assad from power, as Saudi Arabia and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would prefer, or should the focus be on defeating ISIS?

The massive flood of Syrian refugees into Europe, as well as the spate of recent ISIS attacks in Paris, San Bernadino, Calif., and Brussels have changed the calculation, Nasr said.

“Once the refugee flow and the terrorist attacks happened, it became very clear for the U.S. that job No. 1 was to defeat ISIS and stop the fighting, not to remove Assad from power,” he said. “Whereas the Saudis and GCC continue to argue that every problem in Syria is because Assad is there, and if Assad is removed then the other problems would solve themselves.”

3. An end to the war in Yemen?

In Yemen, where government forces backed by Saudi Arabia are fighting Houthi rebels who are believed to have the backing of Iran, an end to hostilities could be in sight. The warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire starting on April 10, followed by peace talks in Kuwait one week later.

The United Nations says that more than 6,000 people — half of them civilians — have been killed since the start of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen last March. The goal of the campaign was to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power, but the fighting there has also created conditions that have allowed anti-American extremism to thrive in the homeland of one of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“I think one of the big problems in Yemen has been the fact that while [the Saudis] were fighting the Houthis and bombing everything in sight, AQAP and ISIS have been making huge gains in the south and taking over hunks of territory, which is not something that the U.S. would really like to see,” said Sick. “They would love to see the Saudis basically reduce their military activity in Yemen … and apply that in a variety of ways together with their financial resources to the battle against ISIS and AQAP overall.”

4. Saudi leadership in the fight against ISIS

While ISIS’ most high-profile atrocities have come in Iraq, Syria and Western Europe, the group carried out 15 attacks in Saudi Arabia last year, killing at least 65. As The Guardian‘s Ian Black recently noted:

ISIS clearly threatens Saudi Arabia. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed caliph, has singled it out for abuse and designated the Nejd and Hijaz regions as Islamic wilayat or provinces. The ruling Al Saud family is vilified as Al Salul, a reference to a seventh-century figure depicted as outwardly embracing Islam while conspiring against the prophet Muhammad.

In 2014, the kingdom launched airstrikes against the group as part of President Obama’s anti-ISIS coalition, but abandoned them at the start of its intervention in neighboring Yemen. In December, the nation’s deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, announced the creation of an anti-terror alliance of Sunni states, but experts say the administration will likely press the Saudis to do more.

But help isn’t just about supporting coalition military efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said Nasr. It’s also about “help with organizing Arab forces,” and Sunnis in particular, “to fight against ISIS.” And because Saudi Arabia carries more credibility with those allies, its involvement is critical, Nasr noted.

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