Obama to cut short India trip to visit Saudi Arabia

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In succession drama, Saudis prize stability above all else.

President Obama will cut short his three-day trip to India to travel to Saudi Arabia to pay respects after the death of King Abdullah, U.S. and Indian officials said Saturday, hours before the U.S. president was to depart for New Delhi.When the late King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al Saud was taken to hospital in December, the rumour mill began churning with tales of royal infighting and succession intrigue. And yet, while much is wrong with Saudi Arabia’s royal family, one thing that it proves time and again is its capacity for unity when the stakes are high.

Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhi arrived in the Saudi capital and offered their condolences to new King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Salman, a half-brother of the former king, is the new ruler, while the recently named deputy, Crown Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, has moved up in line. Pradeep Bhatnagar, a top state official based in the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, said U.S. security officials informed him of the cancellation Saturday. The president was due to arrive in India on Sunday for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then attend Monday’s annual Republic Day festivities, which mark the day in 1950 that India’s constitution came into force. But the announcement of his passing came only when the designated successor, now King Salman, was prepared to show that the House of Saud was in order.

Vice President Joe Biden was originally to lead a U.S. delegation to the kingdom, but Earnest said the White House changed plans after determining that Biden’s trip coincided with Obama’s departure from India. 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. 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.

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. The president’s visit is expected to be heavy on symbolism and lighter on substantive advances, though climate change, economics and defense ties are all on the agenda. This sets the stage for considerable intrigue in the future, given the large number of grandsons and great grandsons vying for the crown, and no rule yet as to how power will be transferred after Prince Mohamed.

Yemen is already a staging ground for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; on Thursday, the president resigned after the capital was brought to a halt by rebels. While military cooperation and U.S. defense sales have grown, Washington has been frustrated by India’s failure to open up to more foreign investment and to address complaints alleging intellectual property violations.

India’s liability legislation has also prevented U.S. companies from capitalizing on a landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2008. Relations hit a new low in 2013 when India’s deputy consul general, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched in New York over allegations that she lied on visa forms to bring her maid to the U.S. while paying the woman a pittance.

He is to be replaced by Mohammed bin Salman, 30, the new king’s son, who will be both chief of the royal court as well as defence minister (the post his father held). Iraq is fighting for its life against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), but even if it survives, the result will be a weak and divided country that Iran and Iraq’s Shia majority dominate. For Modi, hosting Obama at the Republic Day parade caps off a year of high-profile diplomatic maneuvers by a leader who was once shunned by the international community. 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.

He was denied a U.S. visa in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official. 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.

And it could send a message to Pakistan and China — India’s closest neighbors and rivals — that Modi has a powerful ally in the United States. “Modi has used the invitation as a way of signaling that the United States really looms large in his calculations for where he want to take India,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ahmed had been removed as interior minister in 2012 by King Abdullah, who apparently thought him unsuited for the job — let alone a role as future king. “There were concerns that Ahmed could be named crown prince,” says a political analyst in Riyadh. “But the interests of the country prevailed. 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.

The centerpiece of Obama’s visit will be Monday’s celebrations, which are partly a Soviet-style display of India’s military hardware and partly a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-type parade with floats from across the country highlighting India’s cultural diversity. 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. 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.

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