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President Obama Faces Contentious Visit to Saudi Arabia

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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, his administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been hostile and tense. This tension will be on full display on Wednesday when the president travels to ‘the kingdom.’

This relationship between Saudi Arabia and America got off to a rough start even before Obama assumed the presidency. According to Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” article in The Atlantic, Saudi Arabian leaders never trusted Obama, starting with his presidential campaign.

Long before Obama became president, he referred to Saudi Arabia as a “so-called ally” of the U.S. Obama called Saudi Arabia a “free rider,” living off the back of America’s security umbrella without the U.S. getting much in return. With Obama in Saudi Arabia, can we expect both governments to warm up their rhetoric?

Saudi Arabia’s Passive Approach to ISIS

In last month’s edition of Foreign Affairs, Fahad Nazer reported that Obama implied Saudi Arabia was not doing enough in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS). Nazar also suggested that Saudi Arabia contributed to the rise of Islamist militant groups by funding Wahhabi religious and educational institutions around the world.

Saudi officials have become increasingly frustrated with Western dismissals of their contributions to counterterrorism. They arrested hundreds of ISIS supporters inside Saudi Arabia and have taken what they see as adequate measures to ensure that the institutions they support abroad—and at home—do not propagate extremist ideologies.

Much of the angst against President Obama stems from his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, when he intended to rebuild the United States’ relationship with the Middle East and repudiate the policies of President George W. Bush. Many people in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East felt the president set the bar too high and underperformed. Saudi Arabians viewed Obama as a weak president, rife with inconsistency, and a hypocrite for his policy toward their region.

Many Saudi Arabians reacted harshly to how the president handled the turmoil of the “Arab Spring” revolution, which swept the region in 2011. Riyadh was leery of the destabilizing effects of the sudden change to the local political and social institutions.

Egypt: Mubarak and Morsi

Hosni Mubarak
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The region reacted negatively to the United States’ handling of the removal of longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. The United States replaced Mubarak with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.

The president’s entire national security team universally opposed Mubarak’s removal. They urged Obama to move cautiously, but instead the president listened to three junior-level officials who wanted Mubarak removed immediately.

Former Secretary of Defense in both Bush and Obama administrations Robert Gates stated, “The entire national security team unanimously recommended handling Mubarak differently than we did. And the president took the advice of three junior back-benchers in terms of how to treat Mubarak.”

The former defense chief described how the analysis was based more on grandiose idealism then any actionable facts on the ground.

Obama’s Syria Reversal

The real turning point came with Obama’s sudden reversal on air strikes against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Al-Assad crossed Obama’s self-imposed “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in the summer of 2013.

Syria, Saudi officials argue, is where Iran’s meddling in the Arab world must be stopped. They maintain that al-Assad’s brutality enables ISIS to continue recruiting followers worldwide.

This entire episode coincided with the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 nations and Iran. Riyadh is suspicious of the motives of the Obama administration in relation to its handling of Tehran.

Since the agreement was signed last summer, Riyadh has seen the U.S. capitulating time and time again to Tehran. Saudi Arabia views Iran through a different lens than the United States.

Over the past few months, and according to sentiments expressed by President Obama in recent interviews, many Saudi Arabians feel that he sees Iran as being reintegrated into the international community as a regional power. Iran would be able to shape stability in the Middle East, an idea abhorrent to Saudi Arabia.

The final aspect to the president’s visit is the threat by Saudi Arabia to sell up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities and other U.S. assets if Congress passes a bill holding Riyadh responsible in U.S. courts for any role in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Such a massive sale would significantly impact the U.S. economy.

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