REPORT – US-Gulf summit: Obama’s balancing act

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SHAFAQNA  -Saudi King Salman’s last-minute cancellation has overshadowed US President Barack Obama’s summit with the Gulf states. The Saudis are responding to Obama’s rapprochement with Iran, Gero Schliess reports from Washington.

“A Machiavelli in no man’s land”: That’s how Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute in Washington described US President Barack Obama. Doran said Obama is neither a reliable enemy nor a trusted friend, adding that no one really trusts the president, nor pays much attention to what he says.

The foreign policy expert told DW that this is particularly evident in the case of Saudi Arabia. Obama is making efforts to treat the US’ hitherto closest ally in the region in the same way as its archenemy Iran – so that he could position himself as a mediator in the Middle East. But this had merely upset Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, he said.

The summit Obama organized this week in Washington and Camp David is an opportunity for the leaders of the Gulf states to show their teeth to the Obama administration. Not only did Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud decline to take part, but the leaders of Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates also sent their deputies.

Bruce Riedel of the Washington-based Brookings Institution interprets the Saudi king’s rejection as “a very deliberate signal of his lack of confidence” in Obama’s reliability. Unlike Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudis have avoided the path of public criticism. Instead, they meant to send a clear message through their cancellation, to “shame” the US president, even if the new strongman of Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, is now leading the delegation.

Salman assumed the throne after the death of his half-brother King Abdullah in January

The nuclear deal

According to the “New York Times,” the “continued displeasure” at Obama’s Iran policy was the reason. The “Washington Post” quoted Republican Senator John McCain, one of Obama’s sharpest critics, as saying “Right now they feel that they have no support from this administration, so he has a steep hill to climb.”

The growing controversy surrounding Iran has pushed the other topics on the summit’s agenda into the background, including the fight against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State,” the war in Syria and the conflict in Yemen.

Washington shows weakness

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are looking at the situation with growing distrust. Iran has increasingly been portraying itself as a Shiite Muslim power, while Saudi Arabia, in turn, sees itself as the protector of all Sunni Islamic states. Iraq, Syria and, most recently, Yemen are the arenas in which the two countries have been struggling for regional hegemony.

Above all, Saudi Arabia and its allies see a possible Iranian nuclear agreement as a serious risk potential for the region, because they consider Tehran’s policies to be aggressive expansionism and fear a deal will only encourage the regime. Saudi Arabia is not primarily worried about centrifuges, but at continuing Iranian “subversion and intimidation,” Riedel said.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are interpreting the nuclear negotiations as evidence both of a US withdrawal from the region and of Washington’s waning influence. There’s no other way to explain how the Saudi air force could intervene in Yemen without prior consultation with the US, Riedel said.

The summit is meant to show Obama’s domestic critics that he’s willing to extend a hand to his allies

No guarantees

Against this background, the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, demanded comprehensive security guarantees from the US in advance of the summit. “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security,” the “Washington Post” quoted him as saying. “I think today, we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”

The newspaper quoted Saudi government members who want a defense system and military cooperation similar to what the US affords Israel. The core, they said, should be a joint missile defense system.

Observers in Washington do not expect that Obama will be able to dispel Saudi Arabia’s profound reservations. By contrast, Doran said, it’s likely that Obama will achieve another, “unspoken” goal: The summit is intended to show his domestic critics that he’s willing to extend a hand to his allies and work together with them.

“With respect to that goal, he’s got his mind focused clearly on Congress and on winning the necessary votes … in order to keep Congress from being able to block the Iran deal,” Doran said. Because the Republicans now control Congress, Doran expects a majority against a possible nuclear deal. But as it looks now, they will not be able to get the two-thirds majority they would need to override an Obama veto.

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