Plenty Of Friction Expected During Obama's Visit To Saudi Arabia

Apr 19, 2016
Originally published on April 19, 2016 2:48 pm

President Obama leaves this afternoon for Saudi Arabia, and what could be an uncomfortable visit.

King Salman and neighboring leaders are unhappy with the president's overtures to their regional enemy, Iran. And Obama only added to that tension with a magazine interview that was anything but diplomatic.

"It's going to be a tough visit," says Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security.

In a lengthy interview with the Atlantic Magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama said the Saudis need to find a way to "share the neighborhood" with the Iranians. That was salt in the wound for the Saudis, already rattled by the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran and Obama's backtracking from his red line in Syria.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says differences are inevitable in a relationship as complex as the one between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Analysts say the two countries have similar goals but very different priorities.

"We have a common enemy in the Islamic State," says David Ottaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center. "For the Saudis, it just so happens that even more important to them is overthrowing [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad, and if possible containing and rolling back Iranian influence in the Arab world."

The Saudis' rivalry with Iran dates back decades, but it has boiled over in recent years. Goldenberg says both countries are acting more aggressively because they believe the United States is stepping back from the Middle East.

"If you want the Iranians and the Saudis to find a way to coexist, you first need to send a pretty strong signal to both of them," Goldenberg says. "To the Saudis, that the U.S. will be there to have their back; to the Iranians, that there is a limit to what the United States will tolerate — and there will come a time if you act too aggressively, the United States will find a way to push back."

Part of the president's mission on this trip is reassuring the Saudis and their Persian Gulf neighbors. The administration says that, otherwise, hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to fuel sectarian violence and instability throughout the region, which only helps groups like the Islamic State.

The White House is encouraged by the tentative cease-fire in neighboring Yemen where, a deadly proxy war has been raging for more than a year.

"The fight in Yemen has distracted from the crucial fight against ISIL and against al-Qaida," says Rob Malley, who coordinates Middle East policy for the White House. "As that fight de-escalates, the countries that have been involved in that fight will be able to focus more of their activities against ISIL and against al-Qaida."

Another potential irritant in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is renewed scrutiny of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Saudi Arabia long has denied any official role in the attacks, but suspicion was piqued by a recent 60 Minutes story that focused on 28 pages from a still-classified congressional report.

Attorney Sean Carter, who represents Sept. 11 victims' family members, admits that the timing of the story is awkward for the president's diplomatic efforts, but argues that the administration could have solved that by making the report public long ago.

"The administration has really kicked this can down the road since coming into office in early 2009," Carter says. "And this is sort of what happens when you take that approach."

The Saudis insist they have no objection to declassifying the report. The White House says only that it could be made public by the end of the year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama leaves this afternoon for Saudi Arabia. And it could be an uncomfortable visit. The Saudi king and neighboring leaders are unhappy with the president's overtures to their regional enemy, Iran. And Obama added to that tension with a magazine interview that was not exactly diplomatic. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In his lengthy interview with The Atlantic magazine, Obama said the Saudis need to find a way to share the neighborhood with the Iranians. That was salt in the wounds for the Saudis, who are already unhappy about the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. It could make for some testy conversations when Obama sits down with King Salman and his fellow Gulf Arab leaders.

ILAN GOLDENBERG: It's going to be a tough visit.

HORSLEY: Ilan Goldenberg, with the Center for a New American Security, says the Saudis were also shaken when Obama ditched former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring and when he backtracked from his redline over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons.

A White House spokesman says some differences are inevitable in a relationship as complex as the one between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But David Ottaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center says if they can find a way to manage those differences, the two countries can still work together.

DAVID OTTAWAY: We have a common enemy in the Islamic State, no doubt about it. For the Saudis, it just so happens that even more important to them is the overthrow of Assad and containing and, if possible, rolling back Iranian influence in the Arab world.

HORSLEY: The Saudis' rivalry with Iran dates back decades. But it's boiled over in recent years. Goldenberg says both countries are acting more aggressively because they see the U.S. is stepping back from the Middle East.

GOLDENBERG: If you want the Iranians and the Saudis to find a way to coexist, you first need to send a pretty strong signal to both of them - to the Saudis, that the U.S. will be there to have their back, to the Iranians, that there is a limit to what the United States will tolerate. And there will come a time that if Iran backs too aggressively, the United States will find ways to push back.

HORSLEY: Part of the president's mission on this trip is reassuring the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors. Rob Malley, who coordinates Middle East policy for the White House, says otherwise, ongoing hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to fuel sectarian violence throughout the region, which only helps groups like the Islamic State. Malley is encouraged by the tentative cease-fire in neighboring Yemen, where a deadly proxy war has been raging for the last year.

ROB MALLEY: The fight in Yemen has distracted from the crucial fight against ISIL and against al-Qaida. And as that fight deescalates, the countries that have been involved in that fight will be able to focus more of their activities against ISIL and against al-Qaida.

HORSLEY: Another potential irritant in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is renewed scrutiny of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Saudi Arabia has long denied any official role in those attacks. But suspicion was piqued by a recent "60 Minutes" story that focused on 28 pages from a still classified congressional report.

Attorney Sean Carter, who represents 9/11 family members, admits the timing of that story is awkward for the president's diplomatic efforts. But he says the administration could have solved that by making the report public long ago.

SEAN CARTER: The administration has really kicked this can down the road since coming into office in early 2009. And this is sort of what happens when you take that approach.

HORSLEY: The Saudis insist they have no objection to declassifying the report. The White House says only it could be made public by the end of this year. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.