ROME — After spending four days in Europe dealing with the crisis over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama now turns to a diplomatic challenge of another sort: trying to smooth relations with Saudi Arabia without making the longtime U.S. ally seem like an afterthought.
Obama is scheduled to arrive in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, shortly before sunset Friday to meet with King Abdullah, whose inner circle is riled by how the United States has handled Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Syria’s civil war.
Some with close ties to the royal family have talked about breaking ranks with Western partners. After a top Saudi official said the kingdom might decide to “go it alone,” the Riyadh stop quickly appeared on the president’s itinerary.
The overnight stay includes none of the high-profile cultural visits, news conferences and speeches that typically mark Obama’s foreign excursions. Unlike Thursday’s visit to Rome, where Obama spent less than an hour with Pope Francis, the Saudi stopover is expected to include more than one meeting with Abdullah, at his desert retreat in Rawdat Khuraim, northeast of Riyadh.
Top presidential advisers say the visit is an “investment” in one of the most important U.S. relationships in the Middle East. The schedule, aides say, emphasizes the substantive nature of the business between Obama and Abdullah.
Scheduled at a “critical time,” the meeting gives Obama a chance to “reinforce one of our closest relationships in the region and build on the strong U.S.-Saudi military, security and economic ties that have been a hallmark of our bilateral relationship,” Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said Thursday.
The Saudis are publicly minimizing the depth of the rift, but little has changed in the underlying strains.
The Saudis remain deeply wary over what they fear is Washington’s warming relationship with their principal regional rival, Iran. Saudi Arabia finds itself in unlikely agreement with Israel in its strong disapproval of U.S. willingness to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions that slowed down Iran’s nuclear program.
They also are unhappy over what they see as the Obama administration’s mixed signals on Syria.
Saudi Arabia, like Israel, read as dangerous the U.S. decision not to follow through on threatened airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government after chemical weapons attacks in August in suburban Damascus. To the Saudis, that smacked of a lack of resolve that left them worried the U.S. military umbrella was suddenly looking leaky.
Their dismay over the failure of Western countries to do more to back the rebellion against Assad led the Saudi government in October to reject nomination to the United Nations Security Council, a seat that its diplomats had sought.
U.S. dealings with Egypt also have fueled unease in Riyadh. The American willingness to accept the toppling of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in 2011 raised doubts among some Saudis about the premium the U.S. placed on a decades-old partnership.
The Saudis have been much more supportive of Egypt’s military-led government than has the U.S., providing a badly needed financial lifeline to the interim administration in Cairo. They sided with Egyptian authorities’ decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, once the region’s dominant Islamist movement, a terrorist organization.
“There’s not an easy answer to any of these questions,” said Jon Alterman, Middle East Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Saudis think we’re unwise when we interact with the Middle East. For 60 years, the Saudi strategy has been close alignment with the U.S., but they’re starting to think that’s insufficient.”
At the same time, said Alterman, Obama is trying to narrow his “must-do list,” paring away what would be “nice to do” and leaving only what has to be done to advance U.S. security interests.
That trimmed agenda unnerves the Saudis, he said, because it looks like the U.S. is disengaging from the region.
The U.S. has been sensitive about not sending the wrong message to the Saudis in diplomatic talks or in symbolic acts such as a presidential trip.
Symbolism aside, advisers to Obama say the visit is substantive. Obama kept his meeting with Abdullah despite canceling tentative plans for a larger summit of Persian Gulf monarchs this week.
The president’s decision to include the visit is meant to demonstrate his high regard for the king, said one adviser.