The Middle East Side of Obama’s Trip
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Lost by some in all the vital critical issues deal with Putin and the Ukraine plus the Papal Meeting, but not absent in the minds of Middle Eastern trackers and prognosticators, are the activities which will be taking place later this week on Friday in Riyadh, when the President meets King Abdullah. Obama will already have met with the Crown Prince Mohammed Bib Zayed from the United Arab Emirates, in Amsterdam, so this will be the second Middle Eastern royalty with whom he will meet in his five day trip.
While the Saudis, like the UAE, are concerned about the possible renewal of the Cold War between Russia and the West, their real concern is Iran and nuclear weapons; the continuing bloodbath in Syria; the possible breakup of the Israel-Palestinian talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah; and growing Islamist radicalism. President Obama, while clearly preoccupied with events in Europe and specifically in the Ukraine, is also anxious about these issues. He also want to insure that America’s European allies will have increased access to necessary supplies of oil should the current crisis have prolonged impacts on their economies.
Specifically, the Saudis have made it clear that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, proliferation throughout the region will be fast and rampant. For this reason alone the Saudi’s have already acquiesced to a possible Israeli overflight of Saudi Arabia should that become part of a necessary plan of attack against Iran. The Saudis are also concerned less about the killings in Syria per se, but that Iran—read Shiites–not obtain control of the entire upper swath of the region; Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The Saudis will urge Obama to be more involved in intensifying sanctions against both Iran and Syria. The U.S. needs assurances from the Saudi’s that if they get the Israelis to agree to the peace framework—in principle—the Saudi’s will insure that the Palestinians also accept it with their own reservations; plus mutual agreement to continue talks until the end of the year.
Beyond the actual understandings to be reached, the U.S. knows it lost much favor in the Saudi’s eyes by backing down on both Syria and Iran last summer. In all likelihood, the Saudi’s will make much of Obama’s failed “red-lines” and his waffling. Now, given the unclear consequences as a result of the President’s strategy in Ukraine, King Abdullah is likely to drive a hard bargain with Obama concerning future Middle East maneuvers; economic, anti-radical, as well as military. For the Saudi’s to face having to rely on Israel is a remarkable and largely unacceptable option, unless the King is truly ready for a seismic shift in the region. For Abdullah, Russia is a problem and a renewed Cold War a concern, but not as important as what happening around him; for Obama, the Middle East ought not to be a side-show.