President Obama has not been easy on the Saudi royal family. He riled Saudi royals by saying that the “biggest threats” to America’s Arab allies may not emanate from longtime foe Iran but from their own youths chafing under restrictive rule.
The president took that critique a step further in July when he confided that he “weeps for the children” of the Middle East. “Not just the ones who are being displaced in Syria,” Obama told the New York Times, “but just the ordinary Iranian youth or Saudi youth or Kuwaiti youth” who don’t have the same prospects as children in Europe and Asia.
When Obama met Friday with visiting King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the focus was on stemming the violence that has swept through the Middle East in recent years. “We share a concern about Yemen and the need to restore a functioning government that is inclusive there,” Obama said in brief remarks from the Oval Office. The king and the president talked about the “horrific conflict” in Syria, the battle against the Islamic State and how to counter Iran’s “destabilizing action,” Obama said.
The focus, at least in the president’s public remarks, was on common interests. “I doubt that the president will be that blunt in the Oval Office” in his criticism of the Saudis, said Prem Kumar, a former top White House adviser on the Middle East and now a vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm. “He will want to know where Saudi Arabia is heading.”
Speaking from the Oval Office, Obama made no mention of his concern about the repressive political culture inside Saudi Arabia or the potential for unrest among its young people. Salman, who four months ago declined the president’s invitation to visit Camp David, similarly seemed eager to sidestep differences between the two nations over the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
In recent months, the Obama administration has dispatched Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Secretary of State John F. Kerry to Riyadh to allay concerns about the nuclear deal. The high-level delegations helped persuade the Saudis to support the final deal with Iran, even as they have continued to express a fear that the lifting of sanctions will provide Tehran with a financial windfall that can be used to strengthen its conventional military and proxy forces.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was satisfied with these assurances after having spent the last two months consulting with our allies,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. He said that the agreement should allow the world to focus “with greater intensity” on Iran’s “nefarious activities” in the Middle East.
One of the administration’s top aims, meanwhile, is to persuade its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf to play a more active role in restoring order in the region. The relief from sanctions that is part of the Iran nuclear deal is expected to net Iran about $56 billion in the near term. The president has suggested that the Iranians will have to use much of that to repair crumbling infrastructure and revive an economy battered by the sanctions.
Even if Iran pumps a large amount of that money into its military, it will still spend vastly less than the United States’ Arab allies, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
“The defense budget of our gulf partners is more than eight times that of Iran,” Rhodes said in a briefing for reporters. “There’s no amount of sanctions relief that could even begin to close that gap.”
Administration officials said they do not expect any major U.S. announcements regarding weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Rather, they would like to see the Saudis invest more in relatively inexpensive weaponry and training that can counter the unconventional threats posed by Iran and its proxies, such as the Lebanon-based Shiite militant movement Hezbollah. The White House has been encouraging the Saudis to focus more on building up their special forces, sharing intelligence and cooperating with gulf allies in areas such as cybersecurity and missile defense, instead of buying costly fighter jets or attack helicopters, Rhodes said.
For months, conversations between U.S. and Saudi officials have been consumed by the Iran nuclear deal. Now the focus is turning to “what’s next in the region after the Iran deal,” said Matt Spence, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration. Much of that conversation will focus on Yemen, where the Saudis are leading a coalition of gulf allies battling Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran.
The Obama administration has applauded the Saudis for taking the initiative in battling the rebels, but at the same time it has fretted over the destruction that the Saudi-led campaign is causing.
The United States has cautioned the Saudis, along with the other combatants, about the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. “What we have been doing is urging all of the parties involved . . . to take steps to allow for unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Yemen,” said Jeffrey Prescott, senior director for the Middle East in the White House.