In the scheme of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, no one should be surprised at the array of stars that the White House assembled to attend the funeral of the Saudi King Abdullah and the efforts made by the President to be seen holding a major consultation with the new King Salam bin Abdul Aziz. The U.S. today has an enormous agenda of international policy issues on its plate with the Saudis and the substantive meetings—brief though they might have been–no doubt covered them all.
Obviously the international energy situation was foremost on the minds of many of the world’s statesmen. Oil production and oil prices, however, have not only made a favorable turn within the U.S. over the past six months given its renewed own oil reserves and the move to abundant sources of natural gas; but it is also reasonable to conclude that during King Abdullah’s final illness over the past few months, the Crown Prince—now the new King—was intimately involved in all the Saudi maneuvers in this regard.
Energy aside, therefore, President Obama had an entire array of critical security issues to briefly review with the new King that justified his leaving India in a rush without visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal. The very complex, serious, and highly politicized Iranian nuclear sanctions discussions on-going between the P5 +1 and Iran, is an enormous priority for the Saudis who are committed to obtaining nuclear weapons themselves should Iran go nuclear.
At the same time, both the U.S. and the Saudis are very concerned about the continued instability in Syria and the growth of power—even of it appears to be temporarily more stabilized—of ISIS or the Islamic State. For the Saudis, just as it is with respect to the nuclear weapons issue and oil production, it is rivalry with Iran and Iran’s role in the continuing Syrian instability that concerns them.
Even more compelling for both the U.S. and the Saudis at the moment, perhaps, is the explosive situation in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern flank. The threat posed by Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has been operating out of Yemen for many years, may now be increasing. The apparent disposal of the Yemini President has made for a level of political turmoil and uncertainty which has placed the U.S. as well in a very precarious situation. Radical Islamic movements in Yemen are potentially very destabilizing for the Saudis as well.
Finally, In addition to all those legitimate, substantive reasons, there is the fact that the President received considerable criticism from so many different circles for his failure to attend or send a high level delegation to the Paris march a few weeks ago after the Islamic terrorist incidents at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket. This too was very much on the mind of U.S. policy makers as they opted to make a grand gesture now in Riyadh. Symbolism is very important as well in the Muslim world. Symbolic gestures also are critically important in diplomacy.