Neither government denies that there has been a divergence of views between the entrenched, conservative monarchy and the administration, which is struggling to balance its substantial interests and alliances in the region with its desire to see democratic reforms.
The stakes are high for both sides, perhaps higher for Obama.
Saudi Arabia, in addition to being the world’s largest oil exporter and the site of the Muslim world’s holiest sites, is the leading U.S. regional partner on counterterrorism matters. An extensive bilateral intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure has been established over the past decade. A pending $60 billion arms deal with the Saudis is the largest in U.S. history.
A senior Saudi official said the back-to-back U.S. trips were less “fence-mending” than consultations on “how do we move forward . . . given all the things that are happening, in ways that best protect our interests.”
While the administration sees democratic potential in the Arab spring, the Saudis are feeling an ominous chill from all points of the compass — Bahrain to the east, Yemen to the south, Egypt to the west and Iraq to the north. They have also seen signs of internal unrest, with minor Shiite demonstrations in the eastern part of the kingdom in recent weeks.
Saudi leaders were furious last month when the administration criticized their deployment of troops to Bahrain, the small island nation in the Persian Gulf whose Shiite majority has taken to the streets to demand more political representation from Sunni rulers. U.S. calls for political dialogue were interpreted as a naive response to what the Saudis see as a clear case of interference by Iran’s Shiite theocracy.
Bahrain is the “reddest of red lines” for the Saudis, said a member of the Majlis al-Shura, the consultative council that advises Abdullah on a range of foreign and domestic issues.
Beyond Bahrain, the Saudis were stunned at Obama’s rapid abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a decades-long ally. They have been dismayed by what they see as Obama’s failure to seize the initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They also consider Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki little more than a stooge for Iranian interests, and were disappointed in the administration’s support for his second term in office against Saudi advice.
“I don’t want to pretend we haven’t had some differences,” said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the situation on the record. “There are some things we need to work on.”