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Salman, Obama expected to shore up shaken US-Saudi alliance in Washington

King Salman is in Washington for his visit to meet President Obama on American soil with a host of tricky issues for the two to discuss
Saudi's King Salman shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at Erga Palace in Riyadh (AFP)

As the frail Saudi King Salman sits down with US President Obama on Friday at the White House, the kingdom’s new balance of power with Iran will likely top the agenda. The high-diplomacy visit comes on the heels of the Iran nuclear deal, and is expected to cement bilateral relations specifically with regards to Yemen, Syria and the war on the Islamic State group.

“Why else would King Salman, who is reportedly unwell, make this trip if not to show a certain amount of solidarity with the US and allow for the announcing of additional measures that the US is taking to shore up Gulf security,” Nadav Samin, lecturer in Anthropology and Government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, told Middle East Eye.

“I expect this visit to be implicitly a solicitation and a strengthening of the bilateral alliance, which has been shaken in the past few years,” he added.

King Salman arrived on American soil on Thursday to dozens of black luxury cars awaiting his entourage at Joint Base Andrews airport just outside Washington. He will meet President Obama at the White House on Friday in the first bilateral meeting between the two countries since the king ascended to the throne in January.

Saudi-US relations have become strained in the past few years over increasingly conflicted regional interests including in Syria. The Syrian uprising turned civil war initially began with both the US and Saudis calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, but four years later Riyadh continues to finance anti-Assad rebels while the US is focused solely on fighting IS.

More recently, the desert kingdom launched a war on neighbouring Yemen after accusing Iran of illicit support for the Houthi rebellion and the ousting of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Hadi earlier this year.

The humanitarian situation has deteriorated rapidly since the kingdom began its aerial bombardment campaign in late March. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and over one million displaced. Human Rights Watch says dozens of Yemenis have been killed as a result of Saudi’s use of internationally banned cluster bombs, which are made in the US.

The toll that the war in Yemen continues to have appears to be a low priority for Riyadh, which has continuously reproached the US and international community over the growing casualties in Syria. But Riyadh views the Syrian war as an affront to the predominantly Sunni Arab population, whereas the kingdom’s war on Yemen is primarily to fend off a perceived encroachment by Iran’s Shia influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Obama administration is unlikely to take concrete steps to limit its support for the Saudi war in Yemen despite the troubling humanitarian cost. The issue may have become already too sensitive for the US to broach with Riyadh now that the kingdom has finally accepted the Iran deal.

“Despite the haphazard nature of the Saudi campaign in Yemen, the US has tacitly or actively gone along with the Saudi campaign, implicitly accepting that a political reversal of the kind represented by the Houthi takeover is a red line for the Arab Gulf states,” said Samin.

“I hear Obama asking Salman to mind the civilian casualties as much as possible, and to recognise the humanitarian crisis, but not to fundamentally oppose the interests of that campaign. This, in and of itself, is a kind of exchange for the Iran deal.”

The Iran nuclear deal has been a priority for months with regards to US-Saudi relations, and may now appear to the Saudis as a fait accompli. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter have shuttled to Riyadh in the past few weeks to smooth any ruffled feathers over the deal.

In May, Riyadh along with other Gulf countries reluctantly gave the Obama administration their approval of the Iran nuclear deal in a summit meeting at Camp David. In return, the Saudis expect to negotiate continued US commitment and support to guard against what Saudi perceives as “Iranian bad behaviour” in the region.

Another issue on the agenda is the fight against IS. Saudi Arabia is part of the US-led coalition to curb the advances of IS, and has contributed to airstrikes in Syria. But the two countries are at odds over what must be done to eradicate the militant group, with Riyadh insisting on the removal of Assad, something that the US appears to have de-prioritised.

“Both are committed to defeating Islamic State. But Saudis blame Assad’s brutality for allowing Islamic State to make a convincing case for rebel militants,” said Fahed Nazer of the consultancy group JTG Inc, based in the Washington suburb of Vienna. Nazer is a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy. “The Saudis don’t subscribe to the notion that one or the other is the lesser of two evils. But the US is not as clear.”

Low on the agenda in Friday’s meeting is Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The kingdom has executed a record number of prisoners so far this year and continues to jail and publicly flog bloggers and other peaceful dissidents.

Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who was granted asylum in the US in the 1990s, heads the Washington-based think tank Institute for Gulf Affairs, which monitors human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. He says the academic curriculum taught in Saudi schools continues to disparage religious groups, including Muslims, unless they adhere to Saudi’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

“School children in Saudi learn that it’s okay to kill infidels, including Shias, Christians and Jews, and to take their property and enlist women into sex slavery,” al-Ahmed told Middle East Eye. “And today, Islamic State is using Saudi’s textbooks to teach children.”

Curriculum reform in Saudi became a hot topic in the US after the attacks of 11 September, 2001, and for the ensuing decade. Saudi officials testified before Congress and promised to eliminate hate speech in the kingdom’s religious education classes. But according to al-Ahmed, very little if anything has changed in the textbooks.  

Nonetheless, the topic has been off the radar in recent times for US lawmakers, and it is not likely to be on the agenda in Friday’s meeting.

“Saudi has a long way to go to reach international standards (on social change)...but so long as fossil fuel rules the energy markets, the Saudis will have more leeway of how they determine the parameters of social life,” said Samin.

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