Saudi King Abdullah can be a strong partner for President Obama

King Abdullah can be a true partner for President Obama because this popular Saudi monarch has those rare qualities sorely missing in today’s leaders: honesty and reliability. King Abdullah says what he means and means what he says. For example, on the issue of good governance within the Arab world, he does not shy away from telling his fellow Arab leaders their shortcomings because he is viewed as the wise elder-statesman of the Muslim world.

On Feb. 14, 1945, President Roosevelt laid the foundations of U.S.-Saudi relations with King Abdullah’s father, King Abdulaziz, on board the USS Quincy. That relationship was — for the most part — based on energy and security. Saudi Arabia would provide an uninterrupted flow of crude oil to the U.S. while America’s security umbrella would guarantee the security of Saudi Arabia.

Sixty-five years later the challenges facing both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia require a new strategic bargain between Washington and Riyadh. While the presidents of the U.S., Russia and China wield tremendous military, political and economic power, King Abdullah can arguably play an equally significant, albeit different, role from President Obama, Russian President Medvedev or Chinese President Hu Jintao.

On at least four key issues King Abdullah wields more influence that China and Russia. First, a Marshall plan for Gaza and the West Bank. While much of the press has been focused on the recent flotilla incident off the waters of Gaza, the broader issue is how the Gaza strip can be decoupled from the terrorists of Hamas. In partnership with the U.S., the king can lead this Marshall plan (emaar-al-amal in Arabic, or the hope of rebuilding) that can be the prelude to the two-state solution envisioned by President Obama.  

Second, King Abdullah is committed to tackling the pressing issue of global climate change and has offered billions in research to help save our planet. The king views the challenge of global warming in the context of mankind’s moral obligation to save the earth. It is no surprise that according to his daughter, the king’s favorite music is the sound of rain. The king is an environmentalist at heart. President Obama cannot have a better partner in tackling the scrooge of carbon emissions like King Abdullah.

Third, fighting extremism and the cancer of religious inspired terrorism is something the Saudi monarch has no rival on the global stage. Shortly after becoming king, he delivered a speech in Mecca about his vision for the Muslim world: “Fanaticism and extremism cannot grow on an Earth whose soil is embedded in the spirit of tolerance, moderation and balance. Good governance can eliminate injustice, destitution and poverty.” While opponents — religious zealots with little or no education — use Islam as a tool to attack the West, King Abdullah believes that “We are progressives (taqaddumiyun) by virtue of our Islam.” In short, as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, the king has the religious authority to challenge the extremists within the Muslim world. Imagine for a moment what the consequences would be if, instead of King Abdullah, the Muslim world was led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when the Dutch cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad came out. Indeed, as Iran’s despotic rulers create the arc of instability in the region, King Abdullah has created an arc of stability; one the American president would be wise to acknowledge, embrace and promote.

Fourth, establishment of a rapid response force to respond immediately to natural disasters worldwide is a concern near and dear to the Saudi monarch. He sees homelessness as inexcusable, and here, too, President Obama can offer U.S. logistical support in creating a Saudi-U.S. joint disaster relief team to help victims around the world.

Is Saudi Arabia a genuine democracy? No. Nonetheless, President Obama does not need a democratic Saudi Arabia to tackle some of the issues his partner can offer. While some may express frustration with the pace of the king’s reform agenda, there is little doubt that it is anchored in a vision never before seen from the royal family.

In recognition of the enormous potential a new strategic bargain between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia offers, King Abdullah should be invited to lay out his vision of peace, stability and religious tolerance to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D., is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and author of the book “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence.”