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The US-Saudi meeting

Mar 24,2014 - Last updated at Mar 24,2014

US President Barack Obama’s upcoming meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah comes at a time when transformative developments are convulsing the regional and world order, and relations between the US and the Kingdom have become strained.

It is a situation that the president is smart to address.

For years now, the two countries have been partners in a wide range of areas, from trade and investment to promoting stability and regional security.

After two failed wars and a neglected Israeli-Palestinian peace process, both of which combined to cause grave damage to US standing across the Arab world, the Saudis, like other Arabs, had high expectations that Obama would bring much-needed change.

Tragically, the path forward has proved difficult. While Obama was still struggling to address the last decade’s crises, contending with a dysfunctional Congress, an intransigent Israel, an emboldened Iran, and the messy legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan (not to speak of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression), the world has been rapidly moving on to produce a new generation of challenges.

Two are worthy of note: Russia and China, which have both been projecting their influence, backed up by displays of force, creating new problems for the US and its allies in Europe, the Middle East and Far East; and the Arab Spring, which has unsettled the Middle East, overthrowing several governments, creating chaotic situations that in some cases have been exploited by Iran and/or Al Qaeda-style extremist movements.

All this left Saudi Arabia and other US allies feeling somewhat adrift. 

They know that they have no real alternative to a continuing US partnership, but they want their years of friendship and support to be recognised, and they want their partnership to be mutual.

Instead, they have been frustrated by what they have identified as American meandering in dealing with changes in Egypt, the threat they feel from Iran’s meddling in several Arab countries, the ongoing bloody war in Syria, and the failure to confront Israel’s peace-killing settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian lands

One consequence of this breakdown of trust has been the decision of Saudi Arabia to “go it alone”. It intervened in Bahrain and Yemen. It attempted to organise and arm a resistance to Syria’s regime (which is supported by Russia, and Iran and its allies). And it embraced the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government.

As uncharacteristic as this “go it alone” approach has been, equally surprising has been the criticism coming from the Saudi press and some influential Saudis who have publicly challenged US strategy and questioned America’s leadership and commitment to them.

They feel slighted and not consulted by the US, believing that this and past administrations took them for granted by making decisions that negatively affected their security and tested their friendship.

To a great degree, this disconnect is the result of a failure to understand each other’s needs and political cultures.

Saudis, for example, have not taken into consideration how a war-weary American public and a hyper-partisan Congress might have constrained the US president when it came to taking unilateral military action in Syria. Similarly, Americans, living 11,200 kilometres away from the Gulf, failed to consider the deep suspicions of Gulf Arabs facing what they feel to be Iran’s persistent quest for regional hegemony.

It appears that these Arab concerns have been heard and that is why Obama is travelling to meet with King Abdullah.

Our two nations have been partners for too long, have too many shared interests and face too many common challenges. More can be done to cultivate stronger personal ties and a deeper understanding of each other’s needs and expectations.

We have a huge agenda of shared concerns. And the best way to move forward addressing them is through dialogue and coordinated action.

It is my hope that the meetings between the president and King Abdullah will be only the beginning of a process that will lead to a more formalised US-Arab strategic dialogue.

Such a permanent dialogue would help restore trust and strengthen the bonds of partnership between allies, trust that is needed to face the challenges of these unsettling times.

We should work together to identify common strategies to address the pressing issues that confront our shared interests and regional security.

Among these are: an emboldened Iran that is stoking the fires of sectarian division; the long-festering denial of Palestinian rights; the humanitarian disaster created by the bloody war in Syria; the unravelling of Libya; and the need to promote economic and political progress in Egypt.

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