Creating new perspectives since 2009

Why did the Saudis make Obama feel unwelcome?

April 22, 2016 at 2:32 pm

When US President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday on an official visit to Saudi, he stepped out of his plane and on to the red carpet most likely expecting to be greeted by King Salman, or high ranking royals; instead he was greeted by the governor of Riyadh and other lower level officials. This was perceived as a sign from the Saudis to the rest of the world that Obama’s policies have not been welcomed in Saudi and the rest of the GCC.

Before his arrival, it was already obvious that tensions which have been rising over the past year would surface during the visit. The completion of the Iran deal was one of the biggest blows to Saudi. After the deal was signed, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said that he was “deeply concerned” and believes that most countries are “not okay with the Iran deal”. Adding that he believes Iran would use the extra money to fund “nefarious activities.” Al-Jubeir clearly signalled that the official Saudi line on this deal was that it was a threat to their national security and that Obama was compromising the region’s security.

Syria was another issue that had been a platform for dissent for both parties. The point of focus that intrinsically defined the Obama administration’s Syria policy occurred before King Salman came to power. In August 2013, nine days after the Ghouta chemical weapons massacre, Obama declared that the US will refuse to launch airstrikes in Damascus to drive the Assad regime out. From that moment, it was clear that Obama was not willing to get rid of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad at any cost, thus making US policy incompatible with Saudi policy – especially after King Salman assumed the throne.

Over the past year that King Salman has been in power, rather than consistently looking to the Americans for help with the Syria issue, he has decided to take the matter into his own hands by regionalising the conflict instead. Last September, Saudi Arabia and Turkey threatened to take military action in Syria themselves, bluntly stating that there is no room for Assad in Syria’s future. In December, Saudi formed a Muslim military alliance composed of 34 Sunni Muslim states. In February, there were concerns within NATO that Saudi, along with Turkey, may increase its independent military action in Syria to balance the power leverage of the Middle East.

A similar throw of autonomy occurred in March last year when Saudi formed a coalition to intervene in Yemen. Not only did they do so without US consent, they did so without even telling them. Republican Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, said: “These countries, led by Saudi Arabia, did not notify us nor seek our coordination or our assistance in this effort… because they believe we are siding with Iran.” The fact that this took place days after the two month anniversary of Salman’s ascension showed that he had already made up his mind about the Obama administration.

Obama himself showed his direct reservations towards the Saudi regime. In November last year, Obama met with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnball in what many described to be a casual lassiez-faire meeting. When Turnball asked the American president whether Saudi is a friend of the US, Obama smiled and said “it’s complicated.” When asked about the rise of extremism in Indonesia, Obama did not shy away from directly blaming the Saudis. He told Turnball that the rise of extremism is due to Saudi and other GCC states heavily funding schools that teach extremism and an ideology which he believes suits the Saudi monarchy.

Over the past year, King Salman has a lot of effort in creating a distinction between his rule and that of his predecessor. King Salman does not want Saudi to be seen as a mere regional power – he wants to bring his monarchy and his country on to the international stage as a fully autonomous challenger to the global unipolar power structure. With his policies and political and military actions that are becoming more independent, along with openly showing his reservations towards the Obama administration’s doctrine in the Middle East, it’s clear that Saudi under Salman will not compromise what they believe will be a threat to their security, or their hegemony.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.