Obama sends signal to Saudis

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President Obama will arrive in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to send a signal of U.S. support and reassurance for the kingdom after the death of King Abdullah.

The trip — which will cut short the president’s visit to India — comes as the Saudis face deep security uncertainty on multiple fronts, and amid some tensions with the Obama administration.

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The president’s visit, the White House says, is primarily intended to pay respects to Abdullah, who died on Thursday. But aides also made clear that Obama would use the opportunity to discuss top policy matters with the country’s new ruler.

“It will be a chance for us to make sure that we’re in good alignment going forward where we have overlapping interests,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Monday. “I think you saw the king send a signal that he’s committed to continuity in terms of Saudi Arabia’s approach to those issues.”

Obama’s trip is a significant gesture by the administration that underscores the kingdom’s importance as a U.S. energy- and counterterrorism ally in the Middle East.

The collapse of the pro-Saudi government in neighboring Yemen has embarrassed the kingdom, prompting new questions about its reach and influence. And the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has heightened terrorism concerns and threatened regional stability.

Saudi support for the counter-ISIS campaign and efforts to stabilize Yemen would be among the items on the agenda, Rhodes said.

The transition also comes as oil prices have hit their lowest prices in nearly a decade, and amid renewed criticism of Saudi Arabia’s civil rights record after a crackdown on dissenters and the media.

The Saudis and the Obama administration have also been at odds over Syria, where Saudia Arabia has been disappointed that the U.S. has not done more to push out President Bashar Assad.

The newly crowned King Salman, Abdullah’s brother, has moved quickly since assuming the throne to signal that his government would not be undertaking any significant, immediate policy changes. 

He’s largely retained Abdullah’s cabinet, including the oil, finance and foreign affairs ministers. And he appointed Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, known primarily for his anti-al Qaeda efforts, as a second deputy prime minister, while his son — a longtime aide — will take over his job as Defense Minister.

“With the Arab world facing its worst crisis in decades the royals will want to present an image of stability and strength,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute

That’s especially key for the White House, which has relied on Saudi support for its campaign against ISIS. 

Saudi jets have participated in airstrikes against the terror network, lending the alliance credence within the Arab world. And the Saudis have agreed to provide a base to train and equip the moderate Syria opposition, the cornerstone of Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy.

“This is an area and a time where we’re cooperating very closely with the Saudis,” Rhodes said.

Saudi attention has shifted demonstrably from Syria to anti-ISIS activities since the terror group began working to infiltrate the kingdom. Earlier this month, ISIS-affiliated suicide bombers attacked a border station between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, killing three Saudi guards.

Despite the close collaboration in fighting ISIS, relations between Washington and Riyadh have been rocky in recent years, and there’s some sense the president’s visit could be an attempt to turn the page.

The Saudis were angered by the administration’s decision to abandon Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally, in the midst of mass protests, although that tension has dissipated some since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power.

But the regime remains wary that the ongoing nuclear negotiations with rival Iran could precede efforts to enlist Iran as a regional security partner.

“They're very concerned that, were there to be an agreement, it would end up in rapprochement between the U.S. and Iranians, so Obama will certainly be looking to reassure them,” said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

And concern over the collapse of Yemen’s government — and the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite government — has only deepened Saudi fears of Tehran’s regional and global influence.

“Yemen was a real blow to the Saudis,” Ottaway said. “This is in their backyard, this is the country they thought they could work the best in because they knew the tribes and factions. To see the Iranian-backed Shiite government emerge there is really embarrassing to the Saudis.”

On Monday, the State Department announced it was closing its embassy in the capital city of Sanaa over security concerns, warning in a statement that American citizens were vulnerable to kidnappings and terrorist attacks.

The United States has also bristled the Saudis through criticism of their human rights record, and Obama will feel renewed pressure to do so during his visit after the kingdom sentenced opposition blogger Raif Badawi to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes.

Rhodes was evasive when asked whether Obama planned to raise the case with the Saudis during the visit.

“Without knowing exactly what the extent of the meetings and consultations will be and what the precise agenda will be, I can’t speak to individual cases,” he said. “But I think it will certainly be the case that human rights will be on the agenda with Saudi Arabia going forward, and we raise these types of individual cases with Saudi Arabia on a regular basis.”

Obama is likely to approach the subject delicately, if at all, given the Saudi transition and a focus by the administration to maintain good relations at this moment. 

Saudi support has been crucial to counterterrorism efforts in the region, but the kingdom’s decision to maintain oil production in the face of declining prices has also had far-reaching and profound political benefits for Obama.

Domestically, lower oil prices have coincided with polls showing rebounding confidence in the American economy — providing Obama a much-needed boost after the devastating November midterms.

And internationally, Russia’s oil-dependent economy has entered a free-fall, ratcheting up pressure on the Kremlin after its incursion into Ukraine. The declining oil prices have also helped exert pressure on Venezuela (and, in turn, Cuba), as well as Iran — providing the administration’s ongoing diplomatic negotiations with much-needed leverage.

The White House has declined to speculate how the transition could affect the Saudi oil strategy, aside from saying that it would be a topic of discussion.

“I wouldn't want to speculate about any sort of decisions that the Saudi government will have to make along these lines,” press secretary Josh Earnest said. “But these and other issues are among the priorities with which we closely coordinate with our partners in Saudi Arabia.”