Middle East instability a test for relations between Obama and new Saudi leader

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Je suis Abdullah.

In the late 1980s, a U.S. diplomat in Riyadh went to ask a small favor from then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who replied: A friend who doesn’t help you is no better than an enemy who does you no harm.More foreign leaders flocked to Saudi Arabia paying their respects to King Salman Sunday, as the normally gridlocked streets of Riyadh turned quiet on a day of mourning for his predecessor Abdullah.Saudi citizens declared loyalty to their new ruler, King Salman, as global leaders poured in to the world’s largest oil exporter to offer condolences on King Abdullah’s death.

An anti-terrorism march in Paris honoring victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks didn’t register at the White House as something to scramble President Barack Obama’s or Vice President Joe Biden’s schedule to attend. Now the United States and Saudi Arabia need each other’s help as much as ever as the Middle East shudders from instability that stretches from Syria to Iraq to Yemen, spawning terrorist threats as well as threats to the legacy of American intervention in Iraq and the Saudi leadership role in the Arab world. Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean arrived, as did Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, and Libya’s internationally-recognised Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. Regional governors received pledges on behalf of King Salman and his declared successors, Crown Prince Muqrin and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the official Saudi Press Agency reported today, without saying where it got the information.

This week’s royal succession in Saudi Arabia got the opposite treatment: White House aides upended plans for both to show as much respect to the new Saudi king as they could. President Obama, who arrives in India on Sunday morning to attend Republic Day celebrations, will drop plans to visit the Taj Mahal and make a detour Tuesday to Riyadh. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed Abdullah as “a man of wisdom and vision” and a “revered leader.” Similar statements were made by other Western leaders. Saudi Arabia has long been a key United States ally and last year joined the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group. By contrast, aides were taken by surprise when 44 heads of state turned up to lock arms amid “Je Suis Charlie” placards on just two days’ notice—so surprised that they were forced to apologize.

Restaurants in the capital, Riyadh, were packed with Saudi parents and their children, a contrast from the somber mood that prevailed Friday after the announcement of the 90-year-old Abdullah’s death. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Shiite-dominated Iran was among the guests, making a rare visit as Tehran tries to improve relations with its Sunni regional rival. Both Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko joined the well-wishers, even as pro-Kremlin rebels announced a major new offensive on a strategic government-held Ukrainian port. Ironically, given Saudi contempt for “godless communism”, the situation there is reminiscent of nothing so much as the gerontocracy that was the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Other guests included French President Francois Hollande, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, European royalty and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Lagarde did qualify her comment, saying Abdullah was a reformer “in a very discreet way,” credited with initiating a number of measures aimed at it giving women a bigger stake in the country’s economic and political life. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has resurged in another Saudi neighbor, Yemen, as rival militias have seized the country’s capital and deposed the U.S.-friendly president.

And with his administration deep in nuclear negotiations with Iran, Obama needs to reassure Saudi leaders uneasy over the United States’ rapprochment with its geopolitical and religious rival. Outside, a helicopter patrolled and four lanes of cars — everything from luxury Bentleys to everyday models — inched towards the palace grounds carrying Saudi well-wishers past guards with pistols strapped to their thighs. Abdullah’s reforms, writes one commentator, have “all the substance of a Potemkin village, a flimsy structure to impress foreign opinion.” Closer to home, moreover, there are a few women related to the late monarch who may object to the praise being heaped upon him.

But the most pressing challenge for the new collective leadership — one that will be hamstrung by the existence of strong political fiefdoms and a relatively weak centre — is how to deal with a strategic environment that has deteriorated markedly from the Saudi vantage point. King Abdullah’s funeral was Friday, and Biden’s office swiftly announced that he’d lead the American delegation to pay respects during the traditional Saudi mourning period on Tuesday.

Away from the palace and nearby roadblocks, life continued with shops open and almost no indication a new era had begun, except for billboards expressing condolences for Abdullah’s death. Salman’s quick appointments “really tamped down all the talk about a possible struggle over succession,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia. The latest blow is Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south, where Iran — Saudi Arabia’s principal rival for influence — has the upper hand. A low-key way of mourning and Abdullah’s burial in an unmarked grave reflect the kingdom’s adherence to the austere teachings of 18th century Muslim scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab.

They’re expected to be on the ground for just a few hours. “We determined that the window when the vice president would be on the ground in Riyadh coincided with the president’s departure from India,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, announcing the change-up early Saturday. The plight of the Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala, Maha attracted attention last spring, when details emerged of their supposedly dire condition living in captivity in Saudi royal compounds in the city of Jeddah.

The kingdom’s austere form of Islam dates to a 1744 pact between the Al Saud family and Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a religious scholar who denounced the practices of the era’s Muslims as impure. World leaders have praised Abdullah as a key mediator between Muslims and the West, but activists criticised his human rights record and urged Salman to do more to protect free speech and freedoms for women. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “That has mitigated their enthusiasm for the Syrian revolt.

Fayez claims her daughters’ supposed incarceration, which has gone on for some 13 years, was both a mark of Abdullah’s vindictive streak and intolerance of his daughters’ modern, independent upbringing. Now much more attention is being paid to inoculating the home front and criminalizing those aiding the jihad.” The emergence of a new common foe, however, might not be the best way to rebuild a relationship, especially since the foe has emerged from Iraq. Jordan, arguably Saudi Arabia’s closest partner in the region, has its hands full with millions of refugees that have crossed its borders, while Bahrain’s minority Sunni regime is having difficulty maintaining order among its Shia majority population.

Saudi officials are understandably worried about the country’s nuclear programme , and also have a perpetual concern about Iran’s ability to stir up trouble among the kingdom’s own Shia minority of some 3m people, many of whom live in the oil-rich eastern province. Since then, say some former American diplomats, the relationship with the kingdom has changed, from one in which favors, mutual understanding and personal ties play important roles to one comprising a litany of case-by-case requests.

The British TV network Channel 4 News ran a video, which included footage allegedly taken by one of the daughters that depicted the depths of their neglect at the hands of Saudi authorities. In another interview with an Arabic channel, the princesses described how they were being punished for championing women’s rights and resisting the kingdom’s strict rules mandating male guardianship over women.

The danger is not simply terrorist attacks in the classic sense, although that threat is significant, particularly if they demonstrate the regime’s inability to provide security to pilgrims making the journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Rather, there is the likelihood that Isis, which seeks to bring about a modern day caliphate, will try to gain control of the country that is home to Islam’s two most important holy sites.

When confronted with the daughters’ claims, Saudi authorities have been tight-lipped, insisting that the situation “is a private matter.” The women have not been formally charged with any crime. The internet, more than bombs, could be the government’s undoing, especially as resentment of the kingdom’s thousands of cosseted princes is both broad and deep.-Saudi relationship has been strained under Obama, particularly after the president chose not to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in 2013—leaving Saudi leaders doubting Obama’s resolve and his commitment to Middle East security. Roosevelt met for five hours with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on the deck of a U.S. destroyer in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake to plot out a post-war order for the kingdom, where an American company had discovered oil in 1938. But muddling through what could be years of relatively low oil prices against the backdrop of a restive population and a chaotic and dangerous neighbourhood will require a leadership both united and capable.

On the one hand, the Saudis provide crucial counterterrorism assistance and have managed to preserve stability at home despite the Arab Spring’s regional upheavals. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the shah, President Jimmy Carter vowed to do whatever was necessary to protect Saudi Arabia and the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

When Hala began to work as an intern at a hospital in Riyadh, she discovered political prisoners thrown in psychiatric wards, drugged and shamed to discredit them. Their vast oil reserves also give them huge and sometimes very helpful influence over global energy markets: the kingdom’s willingness to keep pumping crude amid falling oil prices has hammered the Russia and Iran’s oil-dependent economies, much to Washington’s delight. The country’s strict religious conservatism, which it also promotes abroad, bars women from most workplaces and from driving cars; women often can’t leave their home without a male escort. But the kingdom continues to be criticized for human rights abuses and oppressing women — who famously are not allowed to drive and need male escorts most of the time they leave the house — which can make for some uncomfortable diplomacy. “You’re always operating in a place where you can’t stand anything they do,” said one former Clinton administration official.

Meanwhile, the more moderate groups in which Saudi Arabia invested most of its energies have suffered a string of defeats, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition has proved unable to present a meaningful political alternative to Assad. Earlier this month, Saudi-backed candidates lost to ones backed by Turkey in elections for positions in the opposition’s leadership, further shrinking Saudi’s influence in Syria. Whether Salman, who is believed to be in ill health, can continue to provide stability remains to be seen; for now, Western officials have broadly welcomed the “swift succession,” said a senior adviser to one Western president. As news of her ex-husband’s death spread around the world, Fayez issued just one short tweet on Friday, quoting a Quranic verse: “We belong to Allah, and to Him we will return.”

Later, when the Obama administration cut aid to Egypt, Saudi Arabia pledged to provide the lion’s share of a $12 billion Persian Gulf aid package to help new Egyptian leader Gen. With a pro-Western mentality and frequent meetings in Washington with Obama’s homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and others, presidential advisers see him as “our guy.” Whether bin Nayef will join Salman in the room with Obama is still being worked out. Obama’s March 28 visit last year came amid these tensions. “It was less intended to accomplish something than to preclude bad things from happening,” said Freeman, “and I think it worked on that level. The Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi movement now exercises de facto control over Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor, compounding a sense of encirclement that began with the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite majority after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Gause said that the new generation “learned at their fathers’ knees that America was their big relationship.” Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief.

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