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Michael Brenner

Obama at sea in Arabia

Obama's foreign policy has left this White House with complex dilemmas [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 July, 2016

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Comment: Michael Brenner asks why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia demands obeisance from the United States despite Riyadh's high degree of dependence on the American superpower.

A staple of commentary in the US about the fraught politics of the Middle East - especially the Gulf region - are the wrenching torments of Saudi Arabia's royal family as they face unprecedented challenges to their rule.

The essence of their plaint is that they are fending off a host of threats - not of their own making - and can no longer count on the US as a reliable protector and moral supporter.

This theme has been picked up by analysts both in the region and here in Washington. The claim on our empathy is felt by many in foreign policy circles. Most often, Saudi Arabia and its sympathisers interpret the Iran nuclear deal as some sort of US abandonment of a traditional ally.

Riyadh lobbied hard for a military confrontation with Tehran and was keenly disappointed by that landmark accord. President Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh this spring was designed to alleviate these strains and to reinvigorate the supposed alliance.

Apparently, he may follow up with a proposal for some sort of security understanding between NATO and the GCC. There is a contrapuntal theme - but struck so sotto voce as to be almost inaudible. That is the line that conveys an antithetical conception of the problem and the challenge in opposition to the Saudi-centric narrative, which dominates the diplomatic and intellectual discourse.

With a measure of detachment, it becomes starkly clear that the conventional approach only makes sense from a parochial Saudi vantage point - indeed, that of the new leadership of King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, who have together pursued a series of reckless policies since taking power.

They also went out of their way to demonstrate their anger at Obama by refraining from welcoming him on arrival at the Riyadh airport in violation of all protocol.

The House of Saud's overriding preoccupation is their parlous legitimacy as rulers of Arabia - it is the pivot of everything they do

The House of Saud's overriding preoccupation is their parlous legitimacy as rulers of Arabia. It is the pivot of everything they do.

They are keenly aware that it hinges on their acknowledged status as Custodians of the Holy Sites of Islam - in Mecca and Medina - which they seized by force in the 1920s. Hence, the crucial alliance with the leaders of the Wahhabi movement. It is their blessing that endows the royal family with a semblance of authority.

President Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh this spring was designed to alleviate strains and to reinvigorate the supposed alliance [AFP]

A number of propositions follow.

One is that they cannot afford to be outflanked at the fundamentalist end of the Sunni-Islamic continuum, hence their aggressive promotion of an ultra-orthodox creed. 

Hence their compulsion to present themselves as protectors of the faithful against [Shia] "heretics", allegedly bankrolling violent jihadist groups.

Their staunch opposition to the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring follows. As does their antipathy towards Iran - whose own brand of Islamism appears to threaten to foment unrest among Saudi Arabia's large Shia minority.

Therefore, the goal of having the United States serve all of these ends by providing unqualified military backing over Iran, Assad's secular regime in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen is a logical step for Riyadh's rulers. And so their resentment at Washington's bringing to power in Iraq a Shia-dominated government is understandable.

Therefore, their demand that the US not cooperate with Shia militias in the campaign against the Islamic State group follows - as does the ancillary goal of ensuring that the Americans cease their proselytisation of democracy in the Islamic world. Thereafter, it is entirely fathomable that Riyadh would seek to model the Saudi-American relationship on that which Washington has with Israel, its closest ally in the region.

The current ruling Sudairi branch of the royal family is more aggressive in pushing this strategy than were their predecessors, while remaining bent on establishing a Sudairi line of succession. That claim gains strength if the Salmans can deliver on their ambitious agenda at home and in the region.

Why does it serve US interests to adopt the Saudi line that Iran is an implacably hostile force that sows instability throughout the Middle East and with whom any form of normalisation is risky?

Why does it serve US interests to adopt the Saudi line that Iran is an implacably hostile force that sows instability throughout the Middle East and with whom any form of normalisation is risky? Why does it serve American interests to act in a manner that strongly suggests that Washington has chosen the Sunni side in Islam's sectarian confrontation?

Why does it serve American interests to participate in the bloody Saudi-led assault on Yemen which has led to a vast strengthening of the al-Qaeda branch which Washington long has judged to be the most menacing? Why does Obama tolerate the Saudi-led forces fighting side-by-side with al-Qaeda units?

Why should he assiduously avoid even raising the issue of the alleged backing of IS by Saudi citizens and their promotion of the former Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and other militant groups in Syria against the backdrop of aggressive projection of their anti-Western Wahhabist creed across the Islamic world?

Why should the US give priority to removing Assad when his downfall will bring to power violent Salafist groups of the most extreme kind - groups which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appear to see as shock troops in their ideological and physical war against Iranian-led Shiism?

Other than narrow Saudi interests, the other stakeholder who sees advantage in the existing strategy is Israel - with whom Saudi Arabia now is in tacit alliance. Each demands obeisance from the US despite their high degree of dependence on the American superpower. Washington, in turn, accords them deference and appeasement. By any reasonable objective standard, that is illogical.

The Obama administration restricts itself to making ad hominem declarations on individual issues that confuse more than they explain

Yet, there are no answers given to the questions asked above. They are not posed in political circles, they are ignored by the media, and the commentariat only rarely raises a timid hand. The Obama administration restricts itself to making ad hominem declarations on individual issues that confuse more than they explain. If there is a coherent justification for what the US is doing, and not doing, is it not nigh time that we heard it?

Instead, there is no indication that such a course reversal has been either presented or debated - much less accepted within the Obama administration. That is a sad commentary on this administration's intellectual sclerosis and that of the American foreign policy Establishment generally.

Hillary Clinton, the probable next occupant of the White House, has gone even further in aligning her thinking with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel and the prescriptions of Washington's hard-liners who are calling for a stepped-up military intervention in Syria along with a renewed campaign to isolate and constrain Iran.

The complexity of the dilemmas that the White House has created for itself is further exacerbated by the dismaying truth that some of the main actors are either single-mindedly pursuing fantastic goals with little regard to collateral damage: al-Baghdadi; the Salmans - both father and son; Erdogan; Netanyahu.

Having constructed a field of action sown with mines and offering no escape routes, Obama may not be able to resist the temptation to delay any further action until retirement day.


Michael Brenner is Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/Johns Hopkins in Washington. He has held previous academic appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the Brookings Institution.  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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