by Cinzia Bianco and Giorgio Cafiero
Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. has faced unprecedented challenges across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The Obama administration’s response to these crises has created substantial friction between Washington and some of its allies in the Arabian Peninsula. The perception of the U.S. supporting the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the MENA region and Washington’s diplomatic overtures to Iran unsettle some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials.
After Egypt’s “Arab Spring” revolution in 2011, the Saudis angrily accused Washington of dropping key U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak “like a used Kleenex.” The State Department’s criticism of Bahrain’s crackdown on political activists irked authorities in Manama. The U.S. refusal to intervene militarily in Syria against the Damascus regime frustrated Riyadh. Yet the geopolitical implications of last year’s watershed Iranian nuclear deal, which some GCC officials argue will increase the Islamic Republic’s influence across the Middle East, appear to represent the greatest source of tension in Washington-Riyadh relations.
Obama’s landmark Middle East foreign policy decisions fit within the context of a new U.S. posture in the region and “pivot” to Asia. Exemplified by Washington’s limited military role in Libya, the term for this new posture is “leading from behind.” Indeed, President Obama’s many decisions reinforce the idea that even if Washington cannot afford to look away from the Middle East, the U.S. should nonetheless re-interpret its traditional role as the dominant outside actor in the region.
Expectedly, this approach has disappointed many traditional American allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, which has long considered its relationship with the U.S. to be privileged. Since the 1940s, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Riyadh has maintained a steady relationship with Washington, built on converging strategic interests and in spite of tactical disagreements and ideological differences. But Obama’s foreign policy has raised questions about the persistence of such convergence and the alliance’s long-term strength.
The Obama Doctrine
Last month, the Atlantic published highlights of an interview with Obama in which he openly expressed concerns regarding Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in the MENA region. He reinforced the idea of a U.S. “retrenchment” away from the region and advocated for a multilateral, diplomacy-based approach to resolving crises while sharing burdens with regional and proximal powers with the highest stakes. Acknowledging the end of the unipolar system, Obama argued that U.S. interventions in the region are only worth the risks when absolutely necessary from the standpoint of American national security.
He blamed European and GCC nations for being “free-riders” in the Libyan crisis. As candid as only an American president at the end of his second term could be, Obama implied that certain issues regarding Saudi Arabia—social justice, civil and women rights, the kingdom’s spread of Wahhabism in foreign countries—aggravate him. Obama went as far as to argue that the kingdom must share the region with Iran. Prolonging Riyadh and Tehran’s geo-sectarian proxy wars across the region, he continued, would compel the U.S. to step in militarily, which Obama said would undermine the interests of both America and the Middle East as a region.
Obama’s ideas of the kingdom sharing the region with Iran most infuriated Riyadh officials. Indeed, just a few days after the Atlantic article appeared, Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, a member of the royal Al Saud family, expressed the Saudi leadership’s frustration regarding Obama’s comments in an Arab News article.
The prince, a former diplomat, is also one of the few “spokespersons” of the Saudi leadership in the West, usually conveying messages from Saudi leaders without their having to do so officially. The objective of Prince Turki’s article was to utterly reject Obama’s label of Saudi Arabia as a free rider. He argued that the kingdom has confronted many regional challenges, shared terrorism-related intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts with Washington, and actively participated in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Prince Turki utterly rejected the idea of sharing the region with Iran without even discussing it at length, underscoring the low probability of any Saudi-Iranian dialogue emerging spontaneously. For the current Saudi leadership, and especially for the powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who launched an unprecedented level of activism in regional affairs, that allegation is unacceptable.
Finally, the article stressed the kingdom’s financial contributions to all these dossiers, brandishing the kingdom’s usual financial leverage. Prince Turki also claimed that the kingdom has contributed to America’s economy in several ways, including by buying U.S. treasury bonds. For sure, all of these points of contention will be shaping the upcoming U.S.-GCC summit, which Obama will attend this month in Riyadh.
Why Did Obama Dish?
Knowing how the Saudis would react, Obama may have simply decided, with only nine months remaining in his presidency, to speak his mind. However, he might also have been sending a message regarding his national security legacy, particularly the challenges of negotiating a settlement in Syria and prosecuting a campaign against IS. In the former, Obama might be trying to make clear that Washington will accept only a solution that equally involves all regional players. Regarding Libya, Obama intends to signal that the US is not willing to repeat the 2011 mission, which he labeled a failure. In both cases, the Obama administration expects regional and proximal powers to take substantial responsibility for post-war stabilization and reconstruction.
Grounded in the awareness of Washington’s concrete interests in regions beyond the Middle East such as South Asia and Latin America, this attitude might outlive Obama’s presidency. Perhaps such an approach to the Middle East will carry on in a more moderate fashion should Hillary Clinton, more embedded in the Washington foreign policy establishment, become America’s 45th president.
However, GCC countries, European member states, and Turkey should carefully consider this “retrenched” attitude on Washington’s part. Alongside the relative decline of U.S. influence in the MENA region, ill-advised and adventurous foreign policies in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have exacerbated tribal/sectarian unrest and ultimately provided fertile ground for extremist groups such as IS. If carefully factored in, however, the decline of U.S. influence in and commitment to the MENA states may lead to the formation of new alliances and regional arrangements better able to address regional challenges. Alliances among regional and proximal powers might emerge out of the uncertainty about the U.S. role in the Middle East and might navigate regional issues in a way mindful of their vested interests. Although extremist groups such as IS threaten the security of all countries in the region, thus far it does not appear as though such a common menace has heralded deeper cooperation among the Middle Eastern states on opposite sides of geopolitical fault lines. As states focus on short-term goals, rather than long-term ones, when attempting to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s gradual decline in influence, the risk is that IS and other radical groups will continue to exploit the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and other geo-sectarian problems in the Middle East.