Obama's Riyadh Visit Highlights His Mixed Legacy in the Middle East

Despite the cold welcome for President Obama in Riyadh, it is too early to talk about a crisis in the US-Saudi relations, believes Vasily Kuznetsov, Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.

On Wednesday, April 20, Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh to hold talks with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and other regional powers ahead of a summit with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). According to media reports, the US president was given a cold welcome: none of the royal family members was meeting him at the airport and his meeting with the Saudi king was not broadcast on national television. However, it is too early to talk about a crisis in the US-Saudi relations, according to Vasily Kuznetsov, Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.

The current cooldown in the two countries’ relations has several reasons, according to Kuznetsov. “First, Saudi Arabia is nervous and wary about the US-Iran rapprochement. Second, when the United States supported the revolution in Egypt, giving up on Mubarak, this caused a backlash from Washington’s regional allies. They came to understand that alliance with the US is more fragile than they thought. Now Saudi Arabia considers the United States a partner which is not reliable enough,” he told valdaiclub.com in a telephone interview Thursday.

Saudi Arabia is pursuing a very active foreign policy and its interests sometimes contradict those of the United States, Kuznetsov said. “There are differences with Americans on the Syrian track, because Riyadh is more consequent and tough in its support for the Syrian opposition, while Americans are committed to reconciliation and compromise. But I would not say that it is a radical change of the foreign policy paradigm,” he added.

In any case, Saudi Arabia needs allies and partners from beyond the region, Kuznetsov said. Whatever the problems in mutual relations with the United States, Washington is the most logical choice. “Rapprochement with Russia does not work, because there are too many differences,” he pointed out. As for the cold reception of Obama, this is not the first such incident. “We have already seen this, when several years ago [Russian Foreign Minister] Lavrov was given a very warm welcome, while [US State Secretary] Kerry – a very cold one. This is neither the first, nor the last such incident,” the scholar stressed.

As the visit to Riyadh is most probably Obama’s last Middle East tour as president, there is little wonder that the results of his Mideast policy are being discussed now. According to Kuznetsov, Obama’s successor will inherit a mixed legacy.

“In terms of the United States’ interests, everything was fine. But for the Middle East, Obama’s foreign policy has not brought the dividends that were expected.

“I do not think it was Obama’s fault. His problem is that he had a very weak foreign policy team whose agenda was laden with ideology. It was not pragmatic enough.

“Unfortunately, the regional reality of the Middle East did not quite match Barack Obama’s expectations. It is a problem. Still, the region’s key problems are internal by nature.

“The result of Obama’s presidency […] is that the influence of extra-regional players in the Middle East has decreased, while that of the regional actors has increased. Accordingly, the region is becoming less manageable from abroad,” Kuznetsov said.

The scholar singled out five issues, which the next US president will have to tackle in the Middle East.

“Possibly, (under an optimistic scenario), an agreement on Syria will be reached. Then, the next president will have to deal with the problem of Syria’s economic reconstruction and societal rehabilitation. If this is not done, new terrorist groups and threats of violence will continue to emerge. This is the first point. Second is the ongoing conflicts in Libya and Yemen. Third is the collapse of the system of regional relations in the Middle East. Fourthly, the continuing threat of Iraq’s disintegration. This will be especially important for the United States, because it bears a certain responsibility for Iraq. Whoever comes to power in the US, I do not think they will authorize a full-scale military intervention. But the possibility of sending a limited contingent of troops to Iraq, for example, to fight ISIS, does exist.

“Finally, the new US president will have to try and help Iran and Saudi Arabia to bridge their differences, which will be hard to do,” he said.

At the same time, Kuznetsov believes that Saudi fears about a possible strategic alliance between the United States and Iran are ungrounded.

“Yes, there is a certain rapprochement. The United States understands that Iran is a regional power and that it should be integrated with the region and the world political system,” Kuznetsov said. “But I doubt that a strategic alliance between the two is possible. First, they have fundamental ideological differences. Second, the United States has old partners and allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and so on) and will never sacrifice relations with them,” he added.

Nevertheless, disengagement from the Middle East announced early in Obama’s presidency, will continue to be the trend of the United States’ foreign policy, according to Kuznetsov. “This is happening already. You need to make sure you cleaned up before leaving so that what you left behind does not become a source of permanent threat. Cleaning up is what the next president will have to do,” Kuznetsov concluded.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.