By Justin Sink - 03/28/14 06:00 AM EDT
The United States is at odds with its three most important allies in the Middle East, raising fundamental questions about the White House’s ability to shape regional events as President Obama arrives in Riyadh on Friday.
Under Obama, a chill has settled on the U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both opposed U.S. efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran. And in Egypt, Obama has an uncertain partner, given the toppling of two governments since 2010.
No one thinks U.S. influence in the Middle East is over as a result of the tensions, but Obama has some fence-mending to do to augment American power.
Experts say Obama doesn’t have the strong personal relationships past U.S. presidents shared with leaders of the three crucial U.S. regional allies.
“I don't think it’s unique to this part of the world, but it is true of this part of the world — these interpersonal relationships are important to diplomacy,” said Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. “The president hasn’t traveled a lot … so this is a very important opportunity to forge stronger interpersonal relationships at the top level.”
Obama’s relationship with Israel’s leaders is fraught with tension.
Democrats openly worried that Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu would meddle in the 2012 presidential election, and earlier this month, Israel’s defense minister apologized for a speech that criticized Obama’s foreign policy as weak.
Some observers have argued the U.S.-Saudi relationship has never been worse.
In December, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington criticized Obama, saying his country had seen “several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white.”
The criticisms emanated from U.S. reluctance to get involved in Syria’s civil war and worries about Obama’s entreaties toward Iran.
In Riyadh, Obama will seek to reassure King Abdullah on both fronts.
Abdullah’s government has expressed concern that the initial deal with Iran does not do enough to limit Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon, while the easing of economic sanctions will increase the ability of Tehran to project its influence across the region.
Syria might be an even tougher issue.
The Saudis want the U.S. to provide more backing for groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
But it will be difficult for Obama to come to any agreement with the Saudis on Syria, given U.S. reluctance to back some of the shadowy groups fighting Assad.
“I am at a loss so far to figure out where the common ground they can actually work on in Syria,” said Henderson.
“The Saudis are looking for a more engaged, involved U.S., but President Obama has been very clear he doesn't want to get enmeshed in the Syrian conflict,” Wittes said.
On Egypt, Saudi Arabia was unnerved by Obama’s decision to abandon President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, when his government was toppled in the Arab Spring.
The administration subsequently embraced Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader viewed in Saudi Arabia as an ideological enemy.
Since Morsi was overthrown and imprisoned by Egypt’s military, the Saudis have thrown their support behind Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who announced his bid for the presidency earlier this week.
Sisi is eager to restore a close relationship with Washington but has also been critical of the Obama administration’s lack of support following Morsi’s ouster last summer. Abdullah will almost certainly look for signs of White House support for Sisi during his meeting with Obama.
President Obama is thought to be looking to build Saudi support for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the rejection of a travel visa for an Israeli member of the White House Correspondents' Association traveling with Obama signaled that the Saudis were not interested in that type of endorsement, Henderson said.
“It would seem to me that it's unlikely we would see any initiative on the peace process,” he said. “They prepared the ground wrong for that sort of activity.”
And the State Department on Thursday appeared to acknowledge Obama faced a steep climb on calming regional concerns over the Iran nuclear deal.
“We understand why countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Israel [have concerns] — this is their backyard,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “We understand why they are so keen on getting this resolved so that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. We share the same goal here. So we're going to keep having the discussions.”