Saudi Arabia’s Importance for America
By Ömer Taşpinar
January 25, 2015
If one needed evidence that the US-Saudi relationship is alive and well despite significant problems, here you have it: President Barack Obama will cut short his visit in India and go to Riyadh, where he will pay his respects to the country's King Abdullah who died Thursday, and firm up ties to the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, who inherits the crown as well as a troubled kingdom. There is considerable symbolism in the visit as well as in the diplomatic calendar of Obama. Once again, Obama's attempt to focus on Asia will fall victim to the urgency of a Middle Eastern development and the need to reconfirm a crucial alliance in the Arab world.
Needless to say, India is crucial for Washington's China policy. Simply put, the United States needs to contain and engage China simultaneously, and the containment strategy can only work if Washington can successfully co-opt India. However, economic engagement of China is a must because the US is highly dependent on it financially and there is also a belief that economic development will eventually lead to the democratization of China. Yet there are many in the US who believe more economic development in China will only create more stability and hegemony for the Communist Party. This is why the military containment of China using the help of the second rising superpower in Asia, India, is at the heart of American strategy. India is so important for the US that Washington is reluctant to offend this important partner on questions like Kashmir despite constant pressure from Pakistan.
Yet as often happens in American foreign policy, the urgent trumps the important. President Obama, who arrived in India on Sunday morning to attend Republic Day celebrations, will drop plans to visit the Taj Mahal and make a detour Tuesday to Riyadh. In short, relations with Saudi Arabia present a sense of urgency that trumps extra time to cultivate the crucial US-India partnership. There is indeed a need to engage in some damage control in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and the late King Abdullah had three major complaints about Washington's Middle East policy in recent years. The first was the frustration with Obama's failure to militarily challenge the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, despite declarations of “red lines” on the use of weapons of mass destruction. The second centred on the lack of US pressure for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. And finally, there is considerable anxiety in the kingdom about whether US-led nuclear talks with Iran will lead to a rapprochement between the United States and Saudi Arabia's main rival.
Additionally, the question of Yemen is causing alarm and urgency. The collapse of the government in Yemen last week at the hands of groups backed by Iran heightened Saudi concerns about the stability of its southern border. The Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi movement now exercises de facto control over Saudi Arabia's southern neighbour. This situation, coupled with Iran's ability to control Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is compounding a sense in Saudi Arabia that the country is being encircled.
But over the past few months, ties between Washington and Riyadh have warmed again. Obama's visit to the Saudi capital last March, and, more importantly, both countries' overriding focus on stopping the rise of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), changed the dynamics of the relationship.
For Washington it is crucial to enlist Saudi support against ISIL. It is encouraging for Obama to see that Saudi Arabia has started to see ISIL and the jihadi blowback as increasingly threatening to itself. The realization that ISIL is becoming uncontrollable has mitigated Saudi enthusiasm for the Syrian revolt and now Riyadh is paying much more attention to joint counterterrorism efforts with the US. At the end of the day, all these factors explain why Obama wanted to cut his visit to India short in order to pivot to the Middle East.