2015 Archives

Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia: Why the Saudi King Snubbed President Obama


The following by Robert W. Jordan, diplomat in residence and adjunct professor of Political Science at SMU's John G. Tower Center for Political Studies, first appeared in the May 13, 2015, edition of Time.

Robert Jordan is a Diplomat-in-Residence at the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University
Robert W. Jordan

May 15, 2015

By Robert W. Jordan

King Salman of Saudi Arabia has declined an invitation to participate in President Barack Obama’s Gulf summit meeting in Camp David this week. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia are working to minimize the fallout from this decision, but from the Saudi standpoint, this summit does not hold much attraction. Only two other heads of the Gulf states are attending. Two are in poor health, but the other non-attendees may be following Riyadh’s lead. Some of this reticence may derive from a festering series of policy disagreements that contribute to seriously frayed relations with the Gulf monarchies.

Presidential summits are often all about deliverables. When then-Crown Prince Abdullah met with President George Bush in Crawford, Texas, in 2002, Abdullah wanted to demonstrate to the president, through the use of videotapes, the carnage he believed was being inflicted upon the Palestinian people by Israel. He also wanted to secure the release of Yasser Arafat from his confinement by the Israelis in Ramallah, along with a list of other items. During the summit, we worked through the issues and reached resolution on a number of them. The president took the crown prince for a ride around the ranch in his pickup truck, and the two returned with a stronger personal bond that was occasionally reinforced and served them well throughout the remainder of the Bush presidency.

Times have changed. The Arab Spring has disintegrated into chaos. Alliances that endured for decades have frayed at best. The American pivot away from the Middle East is seen as abandonment in a time of crisis. Top-level personal relationships have not jelled. A nuclear accord with Iran offers little assurance of compliance, detection, or enforcement. Also, reaffirmation of the American security umbrella, perhaps the main deliverable at this summit, may be a bridge too far.

UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba has asked for something more concrete than a “gentleman’s agreement.” Yet the most advanced aircraft and weapons systems would not be available without Congressional approval, where determination to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge” might well prove a roadblock. Absent a treaty, even written guarantees of American protection for the Gulf may seem hollow in light of recent performance, and would not be binding on future administrations. A more muscular missile defense system may be the best the Americans can offer.

The icing on the cake may be Obama’s intention to lecture the heads of state (or their designees) on reform. In an interview with the New York Times he asserted that the Saudis and other allies should note threats from within, “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” While these concerns are well-founded and need attention, if this is part of the agenda, some leaders may find reason to pass. A trip to the Camp David woodshed will be about as welcome as a trip to the dentist.

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