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Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to the United States

Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • July 16, 2010

    King Abdullah’s visit to Washington and his meeting with President Barack Obama in June 2010 came at a critical time when the political and strategic environment in the West Asian region is decisively poised – sanctions were recently imposed on Iran by the UN and by the USA, the Israel-Palestine peace process is at an important stage against the backdrop of the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Flotilla and the current state of uneasy relations between Israel and the USA; the continuing violence and instability in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the ever-growing interests of USA and Saudi Arabia in the region. These are the issues that prominently came up during the Abdullah-Obama meeting. The two leaders took stock of the prevailing situation and agreed to work closely with each other.

    Iran’s nuclear programme has been a common concern for both USA and Saudi Arabia. Obama’s initiative of engaging Iran raised much concern in Riyadh. It was suspected by some quarters in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia may be left in the lurch by the Obama administration given the latter’s moderate approach towards Iran and its consistent appeals for dialogue and negotiations. Saudi Arabia was primarily concerned for its security and regional implications, given the fact that it remains under the US security umbrella. But soon it became clear that there would not be any drastic changes in the American policy in the Gulf region. President Obama used a brief stopover on his way to Cairo in June 2009 to erase any doubts when he gave his landmark speech addressing the Muslim world.

    Officially, Saudi Arabia holds the view that as a member of NPT, Iran has all the rights to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme, though the suspicion about Iranian intention of making nuclear weapons has been bothering Riyadh. Riyadh supports more sanctions on Iran for its nuclear programme. The US and Saudi Arabia share common concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear programme and emphasize the need for Iran to adhere to its NPT obligations and to cooperate with the IAEA. Both countries also hold the view that Iran is playing a destabilizing role in the region. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “The U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security is unwavering” and both “share concerns about the destabilizing role that Iran has played throughout the region and the continued expansion of its nuclear program and its support for terrorism.” Thus, Iran stands as a major common hurdle for both USA as well as Saudi Arabia in the region. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is an ideological rival, regional competitor, and a probable nuclear power, which, together, has the capability to supersede it in the region. For its part, the US views Iran as a rogue, arrogant power that is attempting to tilt the balance of power in the region to its side and pose a major challenge for US policy in the region.

    Unlike the agreement on Iran, Saudi Arabia has some differences with the USA over Iraq. From the beginning, Saudi Arabia was against the American invasion of Iraq. Ever since the ouster of Saddam Hussein and installation of the new Shiite-led government in Iraq, some sections of the Saudi establishment have been suspecting Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and have accused him of being an “Iranian agent”. In addition, they have expressed their displeasure about the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Americans, on the other hand, believe that Saudi Arabia is funding Sunni groups against the Shias. As the interest of both the US and Saudi Arabia are intertwined in Iraq, they have refrained from making public statements against each other, though their concerns and differences remain.

    The Maliki government’s strengthening of relationship with Iran has really worried Saudi Arabia. Riyadh would like to see an Iraq ruled by the Sunnis and not by Shia political parties which would increase Iranian influence in Iraq, thus threatening the regional balance of power. Besides, Saudi Arabia is concerned by the security threat emanating from an unstable Iraq, particularly the infiltration of al Qaeda terrorists into the kingdom and the return of Saudi al Qaeda cadre who may radicalize Saudi society and instigate terrorist violence in the country.

    The issue of Palestine has been at the forefront of Saudi regional policy. Since the Gaza war and the coming to power of Barack Obama, Saudi Arabia has been making renewed efforts in the direction of the peace process and building support for Palestine. During his US visit, King Abdullah shared his concerns on the issue and asked the US to pressure Israel to reach a solution on Palestine. After the meeting, both leaders agreed on the need to press for peace in a “significant and bold way,” including the creation of a Palestinian homeland. President Obama made it clear that the US is “unequivocally committed to a two-state solution” but added that it was for the two parties, Israel and Palestine, to talk and reach a right conclusion.

    Afghanistan is also an important issue for both countries. Hamid Karzai's open invitation to King Abdullah during his speech at the London Conference on Afghanistan in January 2010 for an active role in Afghanistan and to serve as a mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban militants is indicative of the influence of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has also been supportive of such Saudi mediated initiatives. Also, for both the US and Saudi Arabia, the growing influence of Iran in Afghanistan is a concern.

    Apart from the above issues, Abdullah and Obama also discussed terrorism and security threats in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. The meeting deliberated more on regional issues in West Asia than on direct bilateral issues. The focus on regional issues is an indication of the fact that for both countries the unfolding political and strategic situation in the West Asian region is immensely important. Despite existing differences, the two countries have perhaps realised that it is prudent for them to cooperate with each other in the region. While Saudi Arabia intends to increase its regional role and influence, the US would like to ensure that its interests in the region are protected with the help of friends like Saudi Arabia. While the US described the meeting as “a meeting between two friends, to consult, to talk, to sit down and discuss the next step,” there certainly lie huge political, security and strategic interests for both.