Posted on March 24, 2014 in Washington Watch
President Obama's upcoming meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah comes at a time when transformative developments are convulsing the regional and world order and relations between the US and the Kingdom have become strained. It is a situation that the President is smart to address.
For years now, the two countries have been partners in a wide range of areas from trade and investment to promoting stability and regional security. After two failed wars and a neglected Israeli-Palestinian peace process, both of which combined to cause grave damage to US standing across the Arab World, the Saudis, like other Arabs, had high expectations that President Obama would bring much needed change.
Tragically, the path forward has proven difficult. While Obama was still struggling to address last decade's crises, contending with: a dysfunctional Congress; an intransigent Israel; an emboldened Iran; and the messy legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan (not to speak of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression)— the world has been rapidly moving on to produce a new generation of challenges.
Two are worthy of note: Russia and China have both been projecting their influence, backed up by displays of force, creating new problems for the US and its allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Far East; and the "Arab Spring" which has unsettled the Middle East, overthrowing several government, creating chaotic situations which, in some cases, have been exploited by Iran and/or al Qaida-style extremist movements.
All of this has left Saudi Arabia and other US allies feeling somewhat adrift. They know that they have no real alternative to a continuing US partnership, but they want their years of friendship and support to be recognized and they want their partnership to be mutual. Instead they have been frustrated by what they have identified as American meandering in dealing with changes in Egypt, the threat they feel from Iran's meddling in several Arab countries, the on-going bloody war in Syria, and the failure to confront Israel's peace-killing settlement construction in the Occupied Palestinian lands
One consequence of this breakdown of trust has been the decision of Saudi Arabia to "go it alone." They intervened in Bahrain and Yemen. They have attempted to organize and arm a resistance to Syria's regime (which is supported by Russia, and Iran and its allies). And they have embraced the Egyptian military's overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government.
As uncharacteristic as this "go it alone" approach has been, equally surprising has been the criticism coming from the Saudi press and some influential Saudis who have publicly challenged US strategy and questioned America's leadership and commitment to them. They feel slighted and not consulted by the US, believing that this and past Administrations have taken them for granted by making decisions that have negatively affected their security and tested their friendship.
To a great degree, this disconnect is the result of a failure to understand each other's needs and political cultures. Saudis, for example, have not taken into consideration how a war-weary American public and a hyper-partisan Congress might have constrained a US President from taking unilateral military action in Syria. Similarly, Americans, living 7,000 miles away from the Gulf, have failed to consider the deep suspicions of Gulf Arabs facing what they feel to be Iran's persistent quest for regional hegemony.
It appears that these Arab concerns have been heard and that is why President Obama is traveling to meet with King Abdullah. Our two nations have been partners for too long, have too many shared interests, and face too many common challenges. More can be done to cultivate stronger personal ties and a deeper understanding of each other's needs and expectations.
We have a huge agenda of shared concerns. And the best way to move forward addressing them is through dialogue and coordinated action. It is my hope that the meetings between the President and King Abdullah will only be the beginning of a process that will lead to a more formalized US-Arab strategic dialogue. Such a permanent and on-going dialogue would help to restore trust and strengthen the bonds of partnership between allies - trust that is needed to face the challenges of these unsettling times.
We should work together to identify common strategies to address the pressing issues that confront our shared interests and regional security. Among these are: an emboldened Iran that is stoking the fires of sectarian division; the long festering denial of Palestinian rights; the humanitarian disaster created by the bloody war in Syria; the unraveling of Libya; and the need to promote economic and political progress in Egypt – to name a just a few.
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