Terms of Engagement with the Saudis

President Barack Obama met Saudi King Salman in the Oval Office last Friday. The visit did not get much media attention, but one would not expect massive coverage of a meeting on the Friday afternoon of the US Labor Day extended weekend. But the White House got what it needed from this visit. The Saudi monarch put his seal of approval on the Iran nuclear deal. According to the joint statementissued after the encounter, King Salman “expressed his support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 countries.” While Saudi support for the deal was not new, it was useful to have it coming from King Salman in Washington.

Saudi Foreign Minister (and former Ambassador to the United States), Adel al-Jubeir told the press after the visit that the Saudis “believe this agreement will contribute to security and stability in the region by preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.” Al Jubeir added that there was agreement on how the United States and Saudi Arabia would cooperate on countering Iran’s “negative activities” in the region.

The visit and the statements effectively neutralized a familiar argument made by Israel’s Netanyahu government that the Gulf countries and Israel were “on the same page” in their opposition to the nuclear deal. In that regard, Saudi support may give succor to those in the Congress still trying to decide whether to support the deal. In fact, Saudi objections to the nuclear deal were always based more on fears of Iranian reemergence as a potent regional rival than they were rooted in fear of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Nor did the Saudis demand or receive a “compensation package” for their acquiescence: no big new arms deal (a bit of “fast tracking” of current deals), no agreement by the United States to step up its role in Syria, no new security guarantees. The White House briefing before the visit focused on “not very expensive” cooperation to counter Iran’s non-nuclear threats to the region. Noting that current defense spending in the Gulf is more than eight times that of Iran, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes advised:

“What we need to do is develop capabilities to deal with the asymmetric threats that Iran poses, which are not very expensive. So we’ve been focused on areas like maritime security, cybersecurity, ballistic missile defense, special forces capability, intelligence cooperation and sharing—these are the types of areas where if we can better coordinate with our Gulf partners, we can make a better difference in pushing back against some of Iran’s destabilized activities.”

The Other Stuff

It is unclear whether this short visit by the Saudi king made much headway on the other big issues on the US-Saudi agenda. It is not possible to tell whether any significant follow-up will occur in the wake of the early August consultation on Syria among the Russian, US, and Saudi foreign ministers. It is also unclear whether the US desire to see more emphasis on a political solution in Yemen fell on receptive ears. The joint statement has the usual litany of issues that were discussed—Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, ISIL, Iraq political reform—but no significant details on these topics emerged. Despite the startlingly low price of oil, there was no indication that the two leaders had anything to say about it, and the pre-brief by the White House downplayed the topic.

Obama’s “Tough Conversation” with the Gulf

Although his briefers did not touch the topic in anticipation of King Salman’s visit, President Obama has not hesitated to speak publicly about the need for the Gulf to develop its own ability to intervene in Middle East conflicts and the need for internal change in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. During an interview with the New York Times in April of this year, President Obama spoke at some length about what he believes is needed, and there is no reason to believe that his fundamental views have changed.

As for protecting our Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia, the President said, they have some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats“populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances. And so part of our job is to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defense capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [the Islamic State, or ISIS] to choose from. Regarding America’s Sunni Arab allies, Obama reiterated that while he is prepared to help increase their military capabilities they also need to increase their willingness to commit their ground troops to solving regional problems. “The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.” One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friendsand I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own securitywithout automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employI think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.

It is unlikely that President Obama and King Salman had that tough conversation last Friday, and if they did, it is unlikely that either side will talk publicly about it. It is a difficult conversation to have anytime because it requires conscious US interference in the internal affairs of another country in the name of long-term change and in the face of strong objection by the other party. Such official interference is easy when the United States has limited interests with the counterpart. That is not the case with Saudi Arabia, where, for example, the United States benefits from significant counterterrorism cooperation. Perhaps the price of Saudi support for the Iran deal was to put off that conversation about “strengthening the body politic” for a bit longer.

Richard LeBaron is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council with a special focus on the Gulf region.

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry walks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia after he deplaned from his Boeing 747 following his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland, on September 3, 2015. (Photo: US State Dept.)