The snub President Barak Obama received at the Riyadh airport when he arrived for a regional summit has once again supported the claims that the relations between the two countries have moved from strategic to strange.
When the US President’s Air Force One touched down at the Riyadh Airport on Wednesday April 20, the cold welcome was obvious. The message was clear: Saudi Arabia’s friendship is not for granted but it needs to be earned. To welcome Obama on his last official visit to the kingdom, there was no King Salman on the tarmac. The Saudi government, instead, sent the foreign minister. Earlier in the day, the 80-year-old King himself was present at the airport to welcome Gulf countries’ leaders who arrived for the same summit that Obama was to attend.
This was not the first time that Obama had Saudi egg on his face. In January last year, when Obama came for the funeral of King Abdullah, the new King, Salman, left him standing on the red carpet in the midst of a protocol ceremony and went for his evening prayers.
Some say, the action of the new King could be diplomatically brushed aside as part of a tradition in Saudi Arabia, where citizens abandon whatever work they do and go for their five-times-a-day prayers. But the rightwing US media saw the incident as Saudi Arabia’s lack of respect for the president of the world’s most powerful country.
Then in May last year, there was another Saudi snub to Obama. This was when the Saudi monarch cancelled at the last minute his visit to the United States to attend a Middle Eastern summit Obama had convened. Even a day before the summit at Camp David, the US officials were counting on the King’s visit and arranged a one-on-one meeting between the two leaders.
While political commentators were busy analysing the insult, White House spin doctors tried hard to show the snub as a smooch. But the Saudis appear to be keeping the spin doctors busier by the day. Last week, White House officials were busy painting a picture to claim that the US President and the Saudi king had “cleared the air” after an hour-long meeting.
US President Barack Obama gestures as he walks with Saudi Arabia’s King, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, after a photo-shoot for the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh on April 21. AFP
But far from their claims, the relations between the two countries are not as warm as they used to be. Acknowledging this, a prominent Saudi royal family member last week said the ties needed a total recalibration.
The snub Obama received last week stands in contrast to the welcome the Saudis gave Obama’s predecessor – George W. Bush the hawk, one of the main architects of the present mayhem in the Middle East. Unlike Obama, for whom last week’s visit was his fourth to Saudi Arabia, Bush did not make the journey to the kingdom until it was his last year in the White House. With his domestic popularity at an all-time low, Bush as a lame duck president visited Saudi Arabia in January 2008. The Saudis accorded the internationally discredited and despised war monger a right royal welcome and sendoff and inundated him with lavish gifts.
What has Obama done to sour relations with Riyadh? Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in 1943 that “the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States,” the relations between the two nations had been one of strategic and symbiotic, except perhaps during the reign of King Faisal who gave leadership to the Arab boycott of selling oil to the West.
When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger held out a veiled threat that the US would bomb Saudi oil fields if the kingdom did not end the boycott, King Faisal reportedly told him, “You are the ones who can’t live without oil. You know, we come from the desert, and our ancestors lived on dates and milk and we can easily go back and live like that again.”
In a series of recent interviews with the widely read Atlantic magazine, Obama slammed Sunni states that are long allied to the US for fomenting sectarian hatred and seeking to lure the US into fighting regional wars on their behalf. Diplomatic exigencies prevented him from naming names. But it was obvious that the broadside was directed at Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The undercurrents were obvious: Instead of a convergence, there is a clash of policies in US-Saudi relations. The cracking point was when Obama refused to get militarily involved in the Syrian crisis, though he had vowed to do so if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. In spite of claims by Saudi Arabia and even some Western nations that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in August 2013, Obama stayed put. Obama was right. It has now transpired that in that particular incident, chemical weapons were used not by Assad but by the Saudi-backed rebels. Besides, Obama, who saw the chaos in Libya after the regime change, did not want to turn Syria into anther chaotic state for Islamic radicals to occupy the political vacuum.
Angered by the Obama snub, the Saudis decided to go it alone in directing the Syrian conflict but in the process drew criticism that they are indirectly supporting ISIS and other terror groups. Relations between the two states came under further strain when the Obama administration started contacts with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival – Iran – to sort out the dispute with the Islamic republic over its nuclear programme.
In protest against the US policies on Syria and Iran, a dejected Saudi Arabia refused to accept a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013.
Disputes also arose in the field of oil. While the Obama administration backed the shale oil industry at home, Saudi Arabia saw it as a threat. In a bid to undermine the US shale oil industry, Saudi Arabia glutted the market and brought down the price of oil. Washington is also not so happy with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
As though these disputes were not enough, new problems have arisen in recent months. The Obama administration is expected to release a secret chapter from a congressional inquiry into 9/11. Withheld from the main report on the orders of President George W. Bush, the chapter is expected to shed light on possible Saudi connections to the attacks carried out by 19 hijackers -- 15 of them from Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, the Obama administration is vowing to veto a congressional bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged financial support of al-Qaeda. The threat of a presidential veto is not because of any love for Saudi Arabia but because of fears that the US economy would suffer if the Saudis sell their dollar bonds in retaliation.
Saud al-Faisal, a former Saudi foreign minister, described the post-9/11 relations with the US as “a Muslim marriage, not a Catholic marriage”, with Washington being just one of Riyad’s “wives”.
It appears that the marriage is on the rocks. But a divorce is not on the card. For better or worse, they stick together, like a couple in an unhappy marriage, despite the problems.