President Barack Obama is meeting top Saudi officials today, and there’s little sign he will be able to narrow the growing political gap between the U.S. and its long-standing regional ally.
Ben Rhodes, the White House’s chief foreign policy spokesman, Friday brushed off suggestions that the U.S. would provide advanced weapons to the Saudi-backed rebels in Syria, or adopt a tougher line to block Iran’s nuclear development program.
He also dismissed suggestions President Barack Obama will back away from his de facto support of the radical Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main theocratic rival to the Saudi government’s Islamist theocracy.
U.S.-Saudi relations have become so strained in recent years that one of the kingdom’s top security officials vented last December when Obama backed off his brief threat to strike Syria’s dictator.
Syria is an ally of Iran, the primary enemy of Saudi Arabia.
“Several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia.
Since 2009, Obama has tried to reset U.S. diplomacy in the Muslim world in favor of modern-style Islamist groups, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s Freedom and Justice Party.
Still, Obama is not planning to pick additional fights with the Saudi government over human rights, such as the Saudi ban on women drivers.
“We’ve raised concerns around human rights issues, around issues related to women’s rights” in Saudi Arabia, Rhodes said. “We will continue to make the case for those types of reforms in the Kingdom and in the region more generally. At the same time, we have to have the ability to cooperate with them on a very broad political and security agenda as well.”
Rhodes said the president will push back against Saudi demands for U.S. support of Egypt’s military government. “We share the Saudi interest in a stable Egypt, but we have always said and continue to say is that that stability will be well served by Egypt sticking to a democratic roadmap,” Rhodes told reporters in a brief press conference en-route to the desert kingdom.
Rhodes’ reference to a “democratic roadmap,” refers to Obama’s demand that Egypt’s ruling military government hold new elections. But Egyptian democrats, secularists and Christians, plus the Saudi royals, see his call for elections as continued support for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the even more fundamentalist Salafi movement, which together won roughly 75 percent of the Egyptian vote in 2012 elections.
In 2012, Egypt’s military deposed the Brotherhood-backed government and began jailing its officials, clerics, gunmen and jihadi allies.
Rhodes did take time in the press conference to criticize a March decision by an Egyptian judge to order the death penalty for almost 600 of the Brotherhood’s members and ideological allies.
“We of course continue to have concerns about things like the detention of journalists, of political activists, and, for instance, the recent announcement of the death sentences for such a shockingly large number of people,” he said.
“Stability ultimately is going to be best served by Egypt following through on its commitment to transition to free and fair elections and democratic governance,” Rhodes added.
Rhodes also fended off questions about Saudi requests for the U.S. to supply Syrian rebels with high-tech weapons, such as man-portable air-defense missiles, dubbed “manpads.”
“I will say that we have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria,” said Rhodes.
The “proliferation risk” refers to the chance that al-Qaida’s allies in the Syrian war may obtain anti-aircraft missiles for use against Israeli, European or American jetliners.
“There’s not a specific announcement forthcoming around additional assistance,” Rhodes said, but hinted that the U.S. is willing to providing additional training and non-weapons aid to less-radical Syrian rebels alongside Jordan.
“That will definitely be one of the main topics of conversation is how do we best empower the moderate opposition inside of Syria politically, militarily as a counterweight to Assad — and also, frankly, as a means of isolating the extremist groups within Syria,” he said.
Rhodes also dismissed the Saudi kingdom’s growing fear about Iran’s military ambitions. That ambition is boosted by its nuclear program, which Obama has partly accepted.
The Saudi worry about Iran is shared by several smaller oil-rich kingdom in the areas including Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Last last year, Obama announced a deal that would provide billions in aid to Iran in exchange for it slowing the pace of its nuclear program. Iranian leaders say the deal hasn’t stopped their program.
“The nuclear talks have the ability of resolving a threat to regional stability,” Rhodes insisted.
“Frankly what’s also important is that we will be making clear that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region — its support for [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad, its support for Hezbollah [an Islamic army in Lebanon], its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf — that those concerns remain constant,” he said.