April 25, 2016
Western media reported that upon arrival in Riyadh on April 20, 2016 for the US-GCC summit President Obama was greeted at the airport by the governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud and the event was not broadcast live on Saudi TV, as is routine with visiting heads of state, quickly generating talk of a “snub” because King Salman personally welcomed the GCC leaders personally on the tarmac.
The previous US-GCC summit was held at Camp David on May 14, 2015. And only four days before the summit Saudi Arabia announced that King Salman would not attend the meeting. This triggered the first round of speculation about a “snub”. The situation was further complicated with the news that only Kuwait and Qatar will attend the summit at head-of-state level. And, this is exactly what happened. UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sultan Qaboos of Oman and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain chose to stay away for different reasons. Nonetheless, on September 4, 2015, King Salman arrived at Andrews Airbase for a bilateral visit to the US. He was greeted there by Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Protocol Courtesy Handbook” issued by the Office of the US Office of the Chief of Protocol says, “A State Department Protocol Officer is present at the airport ONLY when a current Chief of State or Head of Government arrives in Washington, DC, at Washington Dulles International Airport, Ronald Reagan National Airport, Joint Based Andrews Airport or Union Train Station.” So, it would be fair to say that the Obama administration, by having Secretary Kerry at Andrews, did its very best to show the King that he was a special guest. Since the Governor of Riyadh isn’t exactly a match for the Secretary of State, it was clear that the Saudis were determined to show their displeasure with President Obama’s policies and the views he had expressed regarding US’ Middle East partners, particularly Saudi Arabia in a series of interviews.
In Middle Eastern culture, protocol and appearances are considered important and seen as a channel for passing messages. Leaders attach importance to who meets them upon their arrival; where they are going to be accommodated as guests; who gets invited to the state banquet to be given in their honor; how long the meetings with their hosts would last. So much so that sometimes, with a bit of exaggeration, substance becomes a secondary issue. In reality, substance is everything and protocol just a façade provided its basic rules are observed.
President Obama’s reluctance to militarily intervene in Syria to topple Assad has been a disappointment for Middle East’s Sunni leaders. (It may be worth remembering in this connection that the late King Abdullah whom President Bush hosted in his ranch in Texas in April 2005 as a very special guest had denounced US invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation”.) His striking the nuclear deal with Iran has caused further discontent. And, what he has said in various interviews appears to have added insult to injury.
In April 2015 President Obama gave an interview to Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times. While reiterating US commitment to support America’s Arab friends against external aggression he also said: “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
Exactly a year later President Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, in an interview published in the Atlantic magazine that “free riders” aggravate him. According to Mr. Goldberg, in a meeting with Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have adopted the hijab. And, when Turnbull asked why was this happening, he responded by saying that the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country; that in the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family. “Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there,” he said. And when Turnbull asked if the Saudis weren’t America’s friends, Obama responded by saying “it’s complicated…”
“At one point I observed” Jeffrey Goldberg said in his article, “that President Obama is less likely than previous presidents to axiomatically side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with its archrival, Iran. The President he thought didn’t disagree. While the President was against throwing Washington’s traditional allies—the Saudis—overboard in favor of Iran, he did not want a commitment to support them in dealing with Iran to lead to situations where the US had to come in and use her military power to settle scores. He thought this would neither be in the interest of the United States nor of the Middle East.
All of the foregoing must have been more than enough to unsettle the Saudis even without the public debate in the United States Congress about a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held legally responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks if it is established that any officials played a role — a charge Saudi officials have long denied. President Obama has declared his opposition to such a move.
At the end of the GCC-US summit King Salman and President Obama made brief remarks to the press. The King emphasized “the keenness and commitment of the GCC countries to develop historical and strategic relations with the United States of America to serve mutual interest as well as the security and peace of the region and the world.” President Obama said that he had reaffirmed the policy of the United States to use all elements of her power to secure America’s core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against her allies and partners; that a common vision had been reached on how to move forward, together, in key areas. To ensure consistency, he did not fail to add that true and lasting security also depends on governance and an economy that serves all its citizens and respects universal human rights. Later, he took some questions on his own. And, in response to one regarding the strains in the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, the President said that “a lot of the strain was always overblown.”
It appears from the language of the “United States-Gulf Cooperation Council Second Summit Leaders Communique” (*) that GCC countries and particularly Saudi Arabia have been insistent on extensively condemning Iran’s subversive activities and stressing US commitment to their security. The communique refers to Iran’s ballistic missile program and support to terrorist groups such as Hizballah and other extremist proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. It says that the US remains prepared to work jointly with the GCC states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state’s territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the U.N. Charter. But reflecting the US position it also says that GCC countries are willing to build trust and resolve longstanding differences through engagement with Iran. In brief, the communique confirms that Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries deeply worry about Iran, particularly Tehran’s meddling in their internal affairs. However, their threat perceptions may vary.
Looking at his earlier interviews, one may assume that in his meeting with King Salman President Obama may also have said something along these lines reflecting the messages contained in his interviews:
• Countering Iranian subversion and ISIL requires strong societies. Our Gulf partners can be sure of our full support for any effort that they would undertake in this direction. We have our political values and you may have yours. But making sure that individuals have a sense of being part of an inclusive political process always helps.
• As I stated in Cairo the United States is not and will never be, at war with Islam. ISIL, however, is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.
• We all say that ISIL is a terrorist organization. But beyond that there is also the need for you as a whole to challenge ISIL’s interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within your community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.
The Gulf leaders must now be looking at their relationship with the US beyond President Obama. Some may not be happy with him but the future also seems to present uncertainties. In other words, reinforcing US-GGC cooperation would be a priority issue for President Obama’s successor.
After King Abdullah passed away some observers in the West referred to him as a “moderate” or “cautious” reformer. Others contested that. But beyond personalities the need for internal reform remains the biggest challenge facing not only Saudi Arabia but the entire Middle East. This is not just about political, economic and social reform but also countering ISIL’s ideology, its public discourse and its appeal. Since Saudis claim to speak out for Islamic values more than any other nation, they need to rise up to the challenge. They need to do more to improve Saudi women’s status beyond allowing them to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections. Everybody appreciates the extremely conservative fabric of the Saudi society and the risks involved in triggering Arab Spring type of tremors. And, while nobody expects the leadership to bring about dramatic change overnight, everybody expects a continuing effort.
According to some the new Saudi leadership is hawkish and erratic, representing a departure from the discreet and cautious diplomatic tradition identified with the late Prince Saud Al Faisal who was Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister for forty years. The problem for the new leadership is Kingdom’s inability to deal with Iran on its own. The war waging in Yemen was an attempt to show muscle more than anything else and it has not been a success. It may continue to rage drawing wider criticism and causing further embarrassment to Washington. Saudi interests would have been served much better had the new Saudi leadership led a major initiative for regional dialogue rather than widening the military front for the “Sunni bloc”.