The September summit between US President Barack Obama and King Salman bin Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia has ushered in a new stage in the US-Saudi strategic partnership. I would argue that it reminds us of the meeting between President Franklin D Roosevelt and the founder of the Saudi kingdom, King Abdel Aziz, on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal back in 1945.
In other words, the White House summit between the two leaders is a renewal of the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia that has been a constant in a troubled Middle East for 70 years. Relations between Washington and Riyadh have determined the course of events in the region for decades, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I would not say for the next seven decades, however, for the simple reason that the Middle East, as a subsystem of the international order, is undergoing deep changes that can’t spare every country, including Saudi Arabia.
President Obama received King Salman at the Oval Office on 4 September 2015. It was the second meeting between the two men. The first encounter took place in Saudi Arabia in January, following the monarch’s ascent to the throne, when the American president headed a large US delegation to offer condolences on the death of the Saudi king.
The US-Saudi summit took place at a time when forces of change have been tearing apart the old Middle Eastern order, and unfolding events have almost gone out of control. Alliances are done and undone for tactical reasons, and we can hardly discern an overarching trend that could help us predict the future course of events.
In these times of uncertainty, the US-Saudi partnership seems to be holding, and as the communiqué of the White House on the occasion of the summit said on 4 September, the two countries will work to ensure the stability and security of the Middle East.
The communiqué qualified talks between the two leaders as “positive and fruitful” and enumerated the questions that were discussed, from the situation in Syria to climate change, passing through Yemen, fighting “violent extremism” a concept that has become dear to the US administration, with all its ambiguity and, surprisingly, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the need to push for a two-state solution.
Strangely enough, and we are talking here about a summit meeting with an Arab head of state, the communiqué said that the US president and the Saudi king encouraged the Palestinian and the Israeli sides to “take the necessary steps” to push efforts leading to such a solution.
One of the major and most pressing Saudi concerns has been the future of the Middle East, and hence the role and weight of Saudi Arabia in a reordered Middle East after the Vienna Agreement of 14 July 2015 signed by the P5+1 (UN Security Council permanent members, plus Germany) and Iran. Not only the Saudis but also most members in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have called for reassurances from the United States that this agreement would not work to the advantage of Iran, strategically speaking, in the Middle East.
The Washington communiqué said that the two countries are determined to fight the “destabilising activities” of the Iranians, and expressed support for the steps and decisions taken at the Camp David Summit in May. The summit brought together GCC member countries and the US to discuss the necessary steps to strengthen cooperation in the fields of defence and security to defend Gulf countries against Iran. Incidentally, the Saudi king did not attend the May summit.
The meeting at the White House on 4 September took place after Turkey and the United States agreed that Turkey will carry out military operations against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria; US jet fighters will use the Incirilk Air Base in southern Turkey to pound IS positions and targets in Syria. No Arab country, including Egypt, voiced concern over this blatant violation of the sovereignty of an Arab country.
In an age where the idea of Arab sovereignty has been repeatedly trampled, this renewed US-Saudi strategic partnership throws the Middle East back to the 1950s, when the United States worked hard to enter into military alliances with major powers in the region, to meet the “Soviet threat”, as the Americans called it at the time.
Egypt, then under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, took a different path and refused to enter into military alliances that ran against the revolutionary winds of the times. Today, the United States has successfully instrumentalised events in the Middle East to militarise its presence in the region in the name of providing security for its allies and partners.
The renewed partnership between Washington and Saudi Arabia falls within this strategic framework. Will it help the Arabs find permanent political solutions for their most pressing questions, like Syria, Yemen, Libya, or in fighting and defeating terrorism, particularly IS? I doubt it.
What needs explanation, when talking about the latest US-Saudi summit, is the statement attributed to the Saudi monarch that he had chosen the United States to be the first foreign country to visit after he assumed his duties as king.
Not an Arab country, not an Islamic one, nor even a Third World state. One question comes to mind in this respect: namely, will the joint Arab force ever see the light of day?
The writer is a former assistant to the foreign minister.