Obama Faces Challenge Of Shaping Saudi Arabia’s Role In Middle East Strategy


President Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the White House in 2010

President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week comes at a time of significant uncertainty in the region. The big ticket items on Obama’s Middle East policy — Iran’s nuclear program, advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and responding to Syria’s civil war and the Arab uprisings –- remain a work in progress and incomplete at best.

Expect few fireworks between President Obama and King Abdullah — Saudi Arabia and the United States will likely put the best face on things publicly during this visit. After several public tantrums and head fakes to align with countries like Russia from Saudi officials last fall aimed at showing discontent with Obama’s decision not to conduct targeted military strikes in Syria and the interim nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi leaders seem to have realized that no other country — not Russia, not China — is willing and able to fill the leadership role that the United States plays on security and diplomacy in the Middle East and the Gulf region.

In addition, President Obama’s visit is the culmination of a months-long campaign to reassure Gulf partners that the United States intends to remain in the region as a leader. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s speech last December in Bahrain, a speech earlier this year by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns outlining a renewed agenda for partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council, and visits earlier this month to the region by U.S. national security advisor Susan Rice and top counterterrorism and homeland security official Lisa Monaco all were designed to send the message that the United States seeks cooperation and partnership with Gulf countries.

But beneath that surface message of comity lurks serious tactical and strategic differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia. As I wrote last fall before the public criticisms of the U.S. coming from Saudi Arabia, differences had already emerged between the two countries on how to best deal with the challenges of the Arab uprisings, especially Egypt’s uncertain transition, the international diplomatic attempt to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, and Syria’s civil war all produced strains on the relationship. Still, the two countries continued to closely cooperate on key issues, including counterterrorism and Yemen’s transition, among other issues.

When the trip is over, the gaps between the two countries on key issues like Egypt’s shaky transition will remain –- with Saudi Arabia backing the current interim authorities and the United States expressing more skepticism and hesitation. Keeping Saudi Arabia on board with Obama’s strategy for Iran and the peace talks will be no small task in the coming months — the Iran nuclear negotiations have showed modest signs of progress as the self-imposed six-month clock near the midpoint, and the Israel-Palestinian peace process remains apparently nowhere close to the other self-imposed deadline for a framework agreement between the parties.

The biggest long-term challenge, however, will likely be how the two countries might come to grips with the continued wave of Islamist extremism and terrorism that is central to Syria’s civil war and how it is impacting the security and political situation in many other countries in the region. Saudi Arabia issued a recent public ban on some Islamist terrorist and political groups, but Saudis inside and outside of government continue to back all sorts of Islamist groups throughout the region — all raising questions about whether these investments are achieving progress towards stability and inclusive politics so direly missing in the region.

Another U.S.-Saudi cooperation issue is the basic challenges that Saudi Arabia has internally — not only the internal discontent, but also the very slow and opaque decision making process in the kingdom. Events are moving quickly in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia has faced a considerable challenge in advancing a coherent and unified policy — and as a result, it has punched far below its weight, as I argued on a recent panel on Saudi Arabia with Elliott Abrams at the Hudson Institute.

Saudi Arabia plays a central role in the region, and it is a major factor. After the visit, the main challenge for the Obama administration is making sure that it is straightforward with the Saudis about what we see as our interests and values informing our overall strategy for the region, clear in our policies in the region, and honest in telling our partners like the Saudis when we disagree as well as agree.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia.