Saudi King Abdullah to Meet President Obama: Iran, Iraq, and Palestine on the Agenda

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will come to Washington for a meeting with President Obama on Tuesday; there is little doubt that Iran will be a high-priority topic for discussion between the two leaders.  Notwithstanding the extraordinary importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it is striking how relatively few meetings there are between American presidents and Saudi kings.  We can also testify, from our own experience in government, how poorly prepared those meetings often are on the American side.

The most glaring example of this, in our experience, was the first encounter between Abdullah and President George W. Bush, at Bush’s Crawford, TX ranch in April 2002.  (At the time, Abdullah was still Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, but was acting in his capacity as the Kingdom’s de facto regent, a role he had discharged since King Fahd’s incapacitation in 1995.)  Despite warnings from everyone in the U.S. government who knew anything about Saudi Arabia that Abdullah was coming to press President Bush over the Palestinian issue and the Bush Administration’s dismissive initial reaction to the Saudi peace initiative, then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice confidently asserted that Abdullah would do no such thing.  The result, in Crawford, was what one cabinet principal in attendance described later as a “near death experience,” with Abdullah on the verge of walking out of the meeting early.  Our understanding is that President Obama’s meeting with King Abdullah in June 2009 was not a significant improvement on this paradigm.

Looking ahead to Tuesday, we are grateful that Thomas Lippman agreed to write a preview of the meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah for, and are pleased to publish his piece below.  Tom is currently adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  He had a distinguished 30-year career at the Washington Post, where he was, among other things, a diplomatic and national security correspondent, the oil correspondent, and Middle East bureau chief.  He is the author of several books, including the highly acclaimed Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia.

From Thomas W. Lippman:

It would have seemed peculiar if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia traveled all the way to Toronto for the G-20 economic summit and did not stop in Washington on his way home.  After all, President Obama made a point of stopping in Riyadh to see the king last June before going to Cairo for his famous speech about U.S. relations with the Muslim world and Abdullah has not visited the United States since Obama was inaugurated.  The United States and Saudi Arabia have deep and durable relations in matters of security and trade, and each is in its own way indispensable to the other.

Still, it is hard to imagine that the White House session on Tuesday will produce any game-changing agreements because while the two countries generally share the same strategic objectives, each wants something that the other is unable or unwilling to deliver.

The Saudis want the United States to find some way short of war to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and they want Obama to deliver on his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question.  The United States wants Saudi Arabia to do more — much more — to support Iraq, but the Saudis have made clear their reluctance to do that until a government to their liking, preferably led by Iyad Allawi, is installed in Baghdad.

At many past bilateral summits, the agenda included items on which prompt and visible action was possible — on oil production levels, for example, or defense of the kingdom against a possible invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or arms sales, or a crackdown on Islamic charities sending money out of Saudi Arabia to recipients of malign intent.  That pattern extends back to the first such meeting, in 1945, between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, which among other things resulted in a Saudi declaration of war against the Axis powers.  Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, at his final meeting with Abdullah, committed the United States to support Saudi Arabia’s long-term plans to develop nuclear energy.

No such definitive agreement appears likely this time.

According to American officials, the most important subject on the agenda is the faltering effort to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on the two-state solution.  Obama has repeatedly stated a commitment to that objective — most recently after a meeting earlier this month with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — and for a while after the Cairo speech the Saudis believed he would actually make something happen.  They no longer believe, because in their view Obama backed down in the face of Israeli intransigence on his demand for a complete halt in settlement activity in the occupied territories.

They still prefer Obama to his predecessor, but their impatience and disillusionment were readily apparent in conversations with officials and analysts in Riyadh has month.  The dissatisfaction was reflected in a stinging speech delivered to an audience of diplomats and journalists by Prince Turki Al Faisal, former ambassador to the United States, who said the United States has forfeited the “moral high ground” in the Middle East through “negligence, ignorance and arrogance.”

Turki said that if no agreement on the Palestine issue is reached by this fall, the United States should recognize an independent Palestinian state, just as it recognized an independent Jewish state in 1948, and leave Palestine and its neighbors to sort out their relations with Israel on their own.

Prince Turki holds no government position and it is not clear whether he was speaking for the government, but it is no secret that the king is in despair over the plight of the Palestinians, a sentiment augmented by the Gaza flotilla fiasco.

Obama’s relations with Abdullah got off to a rocky start in their Riyadh meeting a year ago when a poorly-briefed president asked the king for unilateral gestures of goodwill toward Israel, such as extending to Israeli aircraft the right to fly over Saudi air space.  As was predictable, the king rebuffed the president; the Saudi position is that they crafted and persuaded the Arab League to endorse a comprehensive peace offer based on Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders, and have no obligation to do more.

This time, according to U.S. officials, Obama is prepared to tell the king that he accepts the so-called Abdullah plan as a good faith offer that can be part of the negotiations with Israel.  That is not an endorsement of the plan’s details, but it could be enough to persuade Abdullah to give the U.S. side what it will ask for: a public statement endorsing direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Given the Saudis’ cynicism about the “peace process,” that could be a useful symbolic gesture.

On Iran, the Saudis are like the Americans in that they know what they want but do not know how to achieve it.  They want the Iranians to stop meddling in Iraq, stop supporting extremist groups and, most important, stop enriching uranium.  They do not believe the latest round of economic sanctions will deter Iran, but they oppose military action by the United States — or, worse yet, Israel — to halt the nuclear program.  Any such attack, they fear, would cause chaos in the Gulf and prompt Iran to strike at them as a way of inflicting pain on the United States.

Saudi Arabia did not oppose the latest U.N. sanctions — Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal even went to Beijing to urge China to support them.  But after a meeting in February with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prince Saud said that “sanctions are a long term solution, but we see the issue in the shorter term, maybe because we are closer to the threats than that.  So we need immediate resolution rather than gradual resolution in this regard.”

He did not specify what “immediate resolution” he had in mind.  Nor could he have done so because, according to Saudi officials I talked to in Riyadh last month, no one has devised any “immediate resolution” short of the war the Saudis don’t want.

One gesture Obama could offer would be an endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s call for the creation of Middle East zone free of all weapons of mass destruction.  The Saudis have long held that position and restated it at Obama’s recent nuclear security summit, and were furious when Secretary Clinton dismissed it as not timely.  The tricky question for the president would be how to endorse the Saudi proposal without appearing critical of Israel, which has long had an undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  The text above is an excerpt from an article first published in The Race for Iran on 24 June 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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