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What explains the widening gulf between Obama and Saudi Arabia?

Ravi Joshi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:51 IST

President Barack Obama's recent visit to Saudi Arabia on 20 April to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the second such meeting in the last two years.

The last one hosted by Obama himself in Washington - with 4 out of 6 leaders being absent - has done little to assuage the misgivings within the Gulf Kingdoms about his priorities in the region.

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Saudi King Salman has been particularly incensed by the course that Obama's foreign policy has taken in West Asia. The King's anger is against his attempts at 'mainstreaming Iran' instead of bombing it. This is what happens when your client -states start dictating your foreign policy and you don't heed their advice. It's a perfect case of the tail trying to wag the dog.

The friction

The reasons for friction between Saudi Arabia and President Obama go back to the period of the Arab Spring, in early 2011, when he refused to stand by the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but instead advised him to step down. Such advice would normally not go down well with any dictator or Monarch.

Then came the protests in Bahrain that were put down with a heavy hand by the Saudi King rushing a thousand troops of the Peninsular Shield Force. Then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting the country (March 2011) had questioned Bahraini King's version that protests were engineered by Iran.

Gates had said that "Iran had not started it but could well exploit it". His advice that they could consider offering some concessions and his reminder that Hosni Muabarak's "concessions had come two weeks too late" were not well taken. If America could not protect and defend the rulers, what kind of a friend was it?

Next was America's unwillingness to bomb Iran. Perhaps the best take on this is by Robert Gates himself in his biographical work 'Duty - Memoirs of a Secretary at War'. He recalls his meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, in July 2007, as the only encounter with a foreign leader in which he "lost his cool".

Saudi Arabia is miffed with Barack Obama for his unwillingness to attack Iran

King Abdullah "wanted a full-scale military attack on Iranian military targets, not just the nuclear sites. He was asking the United States to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran in order to protect Saudi position in the Gulf and the region, as if we were 'mercenaries'. He was asking us to shed American blood, but at no time did he suggest that any Saudi blood might be spilled."

"The longer he talked the angrier I got, and I responded quite undiplomatically. I told him that absent an Iranian military attack on US forces or our allies, if the President (then President George W Bush) launched another preventive war in Middle East, he would likely be impeached; that we had our hands full in Iraq; and that the President would use military force only to protect vital American interests".

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Now that's why President Obama called some of the Gulf Kingdoms as 'free-riders' - a term that has angered the Saudi King and his famous former Foreign Minister Turki al-Faisal. But there is one minor hitch. Both Secretary Gates and President Obama seem to forget that in the first Gulf war launched by President George HW Bush (Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91), America had recovered most of its war expenditure from the coalition partners.

The US Department of Defence estimated the cost of Gulf war at $61 billion; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Gulf States covered $36 billion, while Germany and Japan covered $16 billion. So the Saudi King should be forgiven for thinking that with enough funding to cover the war chest the Americans would fight another war against another enemy.

And to complete that story, Iraq had lost over 100,000 soldiers while American fatalities were only 383. Was Secretary Gates over- playing that 'spilling of American blood' a tad too much, considering that American casualties were only 0.38%?

The Syria question

Besides misperceptions, there have been some concrete irritants to the relationship in the recent past. The stubborn refusal of Obama to launch aerial attacks against Syria and dislodge President Bashar al-Assad was topmost among them. Having been forced to intervene in Libya to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi, after whose departure the country descended into a safe haven for all hues of terrorists, Obama had learnt his lesson that he could not just bomb a country, create chaos and walk out of it.

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Obama may have refused to bomb Syria, but he did not prevent its destruction and deaths of over 250,000 Syrians. He was not able to stop the same Gulf monarchies (particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, & UAE) and Turkey from starting a proxy war in Syria by sending in thousands of well-trained, well-armed jihadists to fight the Assad regime. Nor has Obama done enough to defeat the most brutal jihadist group - the ISIS or 'Daesh' from operating in Syria and Iraq because some of his coalition partners are the ones that created it and sustain it.

According to reports, the highest number of foreign militants in ISIS are from Saudi Arabia

According to the US military's Combating Terrorism Centre, out of 4188 militants who came from foreign countries to join the ISIS in 2013-14, the highest number came from Saudi Arabia. This trend is in keeping with the fact that out of 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks on the WTC in New York and the Pentagon 15 were Saudi nationals. Any more proof is needed as to who is breeding all the terrorists? Pakistan is fast losing its number one ranking in this industry.

President Obama distancing himself from the Gulf monarchies was long overdue for America. No, this does not mean there would be any reduction in its force levels from the Persian Gulf, though all the wars America has fought in the region from Afghanistan, to Iraq to Libya have ended disastrously. And the traditional fault-lines that exist between Israel and Palestine, between the Sunni Arabs and Shia-Iranians, between the Monarchies and Republics, the moderates and the extreme jihadists have become worse. How has American presence in the region helped and whom? Isn't it time to get out? No wonder Trump is gaining so much popularity.

Edited by Aditya Menon

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First published: 26 April 2016, 3:40 IST
Ravi Joshi

Retired diplomat, presently a Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.