Obama Walks the West Asian Tightrope

Although he had a clear understanding of the Arab world and was committed to promoting change in West Asia when he first came to power, the US president now appears defeated by contentions and conflicts he did not anticipate nor can control.

Barack Obama. Credit: imgkid

US President Barrack Obama. Credit: imgkid

Well before he landed in Riyadh on April 20, US President Barrack Obama’s views about his interlocutors in the Gulf had already been in the public domain for some weeks. In a 70-page article in the April issue of The Atlantic – The Obama Doctrine by Jeffrey Goldberg – Obama spoke in considerable detail about his hopes for the region, his understanding of the root causes of the region’s political and cultural malaise, and his deep frustration at the short-sightedness and obduracy of the Gulf Arab leaders in failing to effect domestic reform. He reiterated that leaders in West Asia were “failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people,” and the leaders needed to “do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism”.

Obama specifically noted that the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs “have funnelled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers” into countries like Indonesia, so that their syncretistic and moderate traditions were now at risk. His panacea for regional security was clear: “[The Saudis] need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes … and institute some sort of cold peace.”

His carefully calibrated thoughts and their well-timed publication on the eve of his West Asia foray had, before his arrival, already evoked strong criticisms across the region. Saudi journalist Hussein Shobokshi wrote that the Obama administration had proven that it was “neither an honest nor an effective partner” of the Arabs in addressing regional crises, and that his government had exhibited “scandalous impotence” in the face of serious challenges posed by Syria, the threat from Iran and the war on extremism.

Pages from the 9/11 report

Besides the president’s apparent insensitivity to Arab interests, another matter bothering the Saudis before Obama’s arrival related to 28 pages of the report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry that had investigated the 9/11 attacks that have been not been published by successive US administrations on the ground that their publication would harm US security. A number of prominent Americans across the political divide have been demanding their publication so that the larger support system behind the perpetrators of the attacks is revealed: it is widely believed that these papers will confirm high-level Saudi complicity behind the attacks.

Linked with the clamour to publish these pages is the bipartisan initiative in the US Senate to pass a bill that would allow US citizens to sue the Saudi and other governments for providing support to terrorist organisations and individuals. Fearing that the passing of this bill would lead to legal action against Saudi Arabia in US courts by family members of 9/11 victims and freeze its American assets under court order, Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubair has issued a public warning that his country would sell-off assets of $ 750 billion that it has in the US.

Most US commentators have shrugged off this warning as an “empty threat”. They point out that it would be quite difficult to dispose of such huge assets without causing serious turmoil in global markets. It would also harm the value of the dollar with which the Saudi currency is pegged, so that the Kingdom’s own financial standing would be adversely affected.

The Obama administration is lobbying against the Senate bill and the president is expected to veto it if it is passed. Most observers also believe that the 28 pages of the Congressional report are unlikely to reveal any new or damning evidence against Saudi Arabia. However, the matter of the unpublished pages and the Senate bill have become part of the increasing differences between Saudi Arabia and the US.

The Obama visit

In this unpropitious background, Obama commenced his dialogue with the Saudi monarch on April 21 and then had a summit meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) the next day, the second such interaction with GCC leaders collectively after the Camp David meeting in May last year. At that meeting, Obama had obtained from the GCC leaders their grudging backing for the nuclear agreement with Iran. In return, Obama had promised greater support for the GCC vis-à-vis Iran, including enhanced military supplies, intelligence cooperation and a stronger military role in Syria to achieve regime change in Damascus.

The record of achievement over the last year is mixed: while the GCC countries have generally got the weaponry desired, they have not obtained the regime change or the fulsome support against Iran they so desperately need. As The Atlantic report has shown, Obama continues to believe that West Asia should be shared with Iran, while most GCC leaders view Iran as having hegemonic aspirations in the region. They point out that Iran directly or through its affiliated militia foments discord in various Arab countries and thus expands its influence.

The recent GCC-Obama interaction in Riyadh has yielded some important positives: the two sides have agreed to meet annually at summit-level, and to set up a bilateral working group to meet twice a year to promote cooperation in counter-terrorism, defence supplies and cyber security. They have also agreed to conduct joint military exercises in March next year. To the satisfaction of the assembled monarchs, Obama made it clear that the nuclear agreement with Iran still left a number of issues of concern for the US and its Gulf allies such as: illegal arms shipments, ballistic missile tests and “destabilising acts”. He agreed to bolster GCC interests through joint naval patrols to detect weapons’ supplies, boosting GCC missile capabilities and training special forces.

He also agreed with the GCC understanding regarding Iraq: he highlighted its ongoing “political crisis” (caused, in the GCC view, by Iranian interference in the country’s domestic affairs), and added that further funding against ISIS and for national development would be contingent on Iraq resolving its domestic challenges. The two sides seem to have differed on Syria in that while Obama agreed that Assad had to relinquish office, he thought this would best be achieved through the “diplomatic approach”.

Assessment and outlook

The Obama visit has affirmed that the US and Saudi Arabia, with its GCC allies, will maintain ties based on shared security concerns even though both sides recognise that these ties will reflect their changing interests and priorities. Thus, the visit fleshed out the military component of the relationship pertaining to training and weaponry, but gave little evidence of a strategic congruence.

While Obama and large parts of his administration continue to believe that there are significant limits to how far relations with Iran can go, the president still views West Asian security as being anchored in a multipolar framework in which the Arabs and Iran should maintain a balance and a “cold peace”.

This understanding has few takers in the Kingdom, which defines its regional strategic interest through maintaining unequivocal Sunni hegemony: Saudi commentator Nawaf Obaid has categorically stated that Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran “to give its minority Shia sect the upper hand in worldwide Islam [as that would] disrupt 1400 years of majority Sunni domination”.

To achieve this agenda, the Kingdom has gone beyond the US to set up other alliances and regional security arrangements, reaching out to Turkey and Egypt, and even Israel when necessary, and pursuing an “Islamic NATO” by bringing together a 21-nation Sunni alliance that is ostensibly against terrorism but is clearly a show of force against Iran.

The US does not seem to be too agitated about these differences. Its president has conveyed in his remarks to The Atlantic that West Asia is now much less important to his country and, in any case, there is little the US can do to make things better: war is not an option as that would only lead to a “haemorrhaging of US credibility and power”. West Asia, as Goldberg has noted in his article, seems to have become “a region to be avoided”.

The Atlantic interviews give the impression of an exhausted, dispirited and disillusioned president who, seven years ago, had a clear understanding of the Arab world and the root causes of its deficiencies, and had committed himself to promoting change, but is now defeated by contentions and conflicts he did not anticipate and finds himself unable to control. As he ended his last visit to West Asia as president, we can think of Obama as one who had the right vision and ideas for reform, but they crashed against the rock of ground realities, leaving the region with even more fierce divisions and animosities fanned by tribalism, sectarianism and jihad.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.