Middle East

Obama-Abdullah talks may ease friction

U.S. President Barack Obama (front L) is escorted from Marine One to Air Force One as he departs Saudi Arabia to return to Washington March 29, 2014. Obama sought to reassure Saudi King Abdullah on Friday that he would support moderate Syrian rebels and reject a bad nuclear deal with Iran, during a visit designed to allay the kingdom's concerns that its decades-old U.S. alliance had frayed. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

DUBAI/RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s leaders hope U.S. President Barack Obama and King Abdullah understand each other better after talks and can stabilize a close regional security alliance after months of rockiness over Mideast policy, diplomats said. Friday’s two-hour exchange at Abdullah’s desert camp did not yield a shared statement or any evidence of policy changes, leading some Saudis to question whether differences over Syria’s war or Iran’s nuclear program were closer to being resolved.

But diplomats said the mere fact Obama made the effort to visit and discuss issues “frankly” – in a U.S. official’s words – with the king should reduce the margin for public spats and counter an impression that both sides value the alliance less.

Obama visited the world’s top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam aiming to soothe Saudi fears that the United States was retreating from its commitment to the security of Middle East allies and allowing Riyadh’s rival Iran more influence.

Those concerns, revolving particularly around the cautious United States approach to the war in Syria, where Riyadh and Tehran back opposing sides, had led top Saudis to warn of a “major shift” from Washington and that they might “go it alone” in future.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said before Obama and Abdullah met late Friday night that the relationship had improved since the autumn thanks to better coordination on assisting Syria’s insurgents.

But the comments made by a senior administration official later Friday did not indicate any shift in areas where the two sides have disagreed.

“It’s too early to judge whether the meeting is successful. Judge and jury on this is if the American policy on Syria changes quickly enough,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the kingdom’s Interior Ministry.

That point was echoed by Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council, a body appointed by King Abdullah to discuss policy issues and advise the government.

“As you know, before the visit the relationship was a cold one, but not to a degree where it was in danger,” he said, adding that he was speaking in a personal capacity and did not have direct knowledge of what Obama and Abdullah discussed.

But Askar added that although the meeting had appeared to go smoothly, it was not yet possible to judge its success. “We can figure out on the ground ... if there is a change [in U.S. policy], it means the Americans now understand the real story.”

Saudi faith in Obama was shaken by his approach to the Arab uprisings in 2011, when they wanted him to do more to protect shared allies who were unseated by popular protests, and by his failure to press Israel into ending settlement construction in occupied territory that Palestinians want for a state.

Last year their anger boiled over when Obama backed away from airstrikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad after a poison gas attack in the country’s civil war, and when Washington and five other world powers agreed a preliminary deal with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

Washington’s early reassurances that it would not allow Iran more scope to be involved in Arab issues in exchange for a nuclear deal were met with suspicion in Riyadh. But as the interim nuclear accord has shown little sign of being broadened into a permanent settlement, their concerns have diminished.

Nevertheless, Riyadh had hoped for concrete developments on improving the weapons flow to Syria’s rebels, especially after U.S. media reported last week that the White House was considering a new plan that involved providing more arms and stepping up training efforts.

But a senior administration official said after the meeting that U.S. reluctance to provide anti-aircraft missiles, seen by backers of the rebels as indispensable if they are to start turning the tables of the stalemated conflict against Assad, had not changed.

Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03, said that normally such summits produced action on concrete measures.

In this case, the former ambassador said, “it’s not clear to me that either side got very much other than words and reassurances.”

A Saudi source said the lack of tangible action was “expected” and that the kingdom’s rulers had lost their trust in Obama when he backed away from military action against Assad.

Alani said:

“The question is how fast he [Obama] is going to deliver on his promises. This is a major issue now. Especially on Syria. They will give it a month or two to see if there’s a shift. If it isn’t happening, we’ll go [back] to square one.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 31, 2014, on page 9.




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