Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was due to meet US President Barack Obama yesterday as mistrust fueled by differences over Iran and Syria overshadows a decades-long Saudi-US alliance.
Saudi Arabia has strong reservations about attempts by Washington and other major powers to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, and disappointment over Obama’s 11th-hour decision last year not to take military action against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons attacks.
Saudi-US relations, dating back seven decades, are “tense due to Washington’s stances” on the Middle East, especially Iran, said Saudi analyst Abdel Aziz al-Sagr, who heads the Gulf Research Centre.
The recent rapprochement between Tehran and Washington “must not take place at the expense of relations with Riyadh,” Sagr said.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, long wary of Shiite Iran’s regional ambitions, views last November’s deal with Iran as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran.
The interim agreement curbs Iran’s controversial nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief and is aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord.
Sagr said “arming the Syrian opposition will top the agenda” during Obama’s visit, his second since his election in 2009.
Analyst Khaled al-Dakhil spoke of “major differences” with Washington, adding that Obama would focus on easing “Saudi fears on Iran and on regional security.”
Saudi Arabia, which leads the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), fears that a US withdrawal from the Middle East and a diplomatic overture toward Iran would further feed Tehran’s regional ambitions.
Iranian-Saudi rivalry crystallized with the Syrian conflict — Tehran backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while several GCC states support the rebellion against him.
Obama’s stances toward events reshaping the region “have strained [Saudi-US] relations, but without causing a complete break,” said Anwar Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies.
US security and energy specialist professor Paul Sullivan said Obama meeting King Abdullah could “help clear the air on some misunderstandings.”
“However, I would be quite surprised if there were any major policy changes during this visit. This is also partly a reassurance visit,” he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has said that “whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact that this is a very important and close partnership.”
However, Riyadh seems to be reaching out more toward Asia, including China, in an apparent bid to rebalance its international relations.
Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz visited China, Pakistan, Japan and India this month to reportedly “strengthen ties.”
The US-Saudi relationship dates to the end of World War II and was founded on an agreement for Washington to defend the Gulf state in exchange for oil contracts. Saudi Arabia is the world’s top producer and exporter of oil.