Saudis wait for Obama’s exit

Saudis wait for Obama’s exit

President Obama’s departure from the White House will lead to a change in the United States’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which the Persian Gulf nation is likely only too eager to see.

Obama has been at odds with the kingdom throughout the last eight years, most notably through his spearheading of a nuclear deal with the Saudis’ regional rival, Iran.

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The estrangement was on full display earlier this year, when the royal family snubbed Obama by skipping his arrival in Riyadh for a Gulf summit.

Foreign policy experts say Saudi Arabia’s leadership is likely yearning for Obama to leave and looking forward to what may be a fuller embrace from the next president. Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton‘Prosperity and peace’ is the winning Republican theme for midterms Mueller recommends Papadopoulos be sentenced to up to 6 months in prison Poll: Dem opponent leads Scott Walker by 5 points MORE, in particular, is expected to take a warmer tone with the Saudis if she becomes president.

Despite her support for the Iran deal, Clinton’s past actions put her more in line with the Saudis, and she would be likely to strengthen the bonds that were a hallmark of her husband Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPioneer of modern redistricting dies at 75 To reduce urban violence, let's consider the real causes — not guns, police or 'low' taxes Political analyst: Trump's attorneys 'should be disbarred' if they allow him to talk to Mueller MORE’s presidency.

“From the Saudi side, a Clinton [presidency] would seem more palatable than the current relationship that has developed under President Obama, which is more strained, at least from an outward perspective,” said Sanam Vakil, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  

“A Clinton presidency would be seen as probably returning American foreign policy to that of what we were seeing pre-Obama administration.”

GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller MORE, meanwhile, appears to be more of a wild card.

Few foreign policy experts were willing to predict how a Trump administration might act, though some of his proposals — such as a plan to bar foreign Muslims from entering the U.S. and demands that American partners do more to support international security — are likely to stir up anxiety in Riyadh.

However, he has promised to tear up the Iran deal, and history suggests he may be inclined to support the Saudi role as regional power.  

A BuzzFeed News investigation found four companies incorporated by Trump that could be part of an upcoming hotel in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second most populous city. And Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, had lobbied on behalf of the kingdom in the U.S. in the 1980s.

But no matter who enters the White House, it’s likely to be a relief for Riyadh. 

Obama has sold hundreds of billions of dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia, backed Saudi-led strikes in Yemen and taken other steps to continue the U.S.’s decades of support for the kingdom. Yet he’s nonetheless found himself on the outs.

The Iran nuclear deal has been contention No. 1. Saudi Arabia was deeply opposed to the accord, which it saw as empowering its regional archrival.

The administration viewed the deal as a possible avenue to reframe U.S. engagement in the Middle East and potentially rely less on the Saudis.

The Saudis need to “share” the region with Iran, Obama told The Atlantic in an interview published earlier this year.

“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians — which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen — requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said.

The Obama administration had previously alienated leaders in Riyadh during the wave of democracy movements starting in 2010 known as the Arab Spring, during which Washington took the side of protesters standing up to Saudi-aligned strongmen.  

Clinton has in many ways modeled her campaign as an extension of Obama’s time in office, but she is likely to break in discrete ways on the issue of foreign policy.

In particular, she is expected to take a harder line on Syria, where Saudi Arabia has advocated for a stronger U.S. presence to counter the army of Russia- and Iran-allied President Bashar Assad.

“She’s also going to be much less enamored of outreach to Iran than the Obama administration has been,” predicted Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “And probably far more oriented toward repairing those traditional relationships with the Israelis and with the Saudis.” 

Clinton’s personal history also suggests a warmer relationship.

While Bill Clinton was in office in the mid-1990s, the Saudi kingdom provided a $20 million endowment to fund the creation of what is now known as the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas, in Bill Clinton’s home state.

“That speaks to, I think, the very warm and cordial relations,” said Nader Hashemi, the head the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies.

“They do have a history here that goes back to Bill Clinton.”

The Clintons’ family foundation has received millions of dollars from the Saudi government, which critics contend is evidence of long-standing and improper influence in the family’s decisions.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton has been harsh on Saudi Arabia in some instances.

This year, she supported passage of legislation that would allow victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue the kingdom over suspected support for the terrorists, which Riyadh has long opposed.

Trump has also appeared to support the bill and has suggested that the kingdom was responsible for the attacks despite the lack of clear evidence. The White House has promised to veto the bill, which passed unanimously in both chambers of Congress. 

In a secret 2009 diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks, Clinton offered a blunt criticism of Riyadh’s efforts to halt terrorists and support for extremists from within its borders.

“[D]onors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” she wrote.

No matter who is elected president, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are likely to be tied to each other for no other reason than their mutual distrust of Iran. 

“The Saudis are kind of fated to have a relationship [with the U.S.], because neither one of them wants to see Iran dominate the oil region,” said F. Gregory Gause III, the head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University.

“It does seem to me that despite all the problems, Washington and Riyadh are kind of fated to be on the same side of some of these issues.”