President Barack Obama met with Saudi Arabian King Salman Wednesday in an effort to smooth over the deteriorating U.S.-Saudi alliance, which has become especially fragile since the inking of the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama’s visit was the fourth, and likely last, time he will travel to Saudi Arabia as president. From the moment he landed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, it was clear that the president’s relationship with the country had deteriorated significantly.
The typically large, grandiose welcoming party normally present for visits by heads of state, did not meet Obama at the runway. Only a small delegation greeted him and his contingent of advisers — even Saudi state television was absent from the arrival.
“The two leaders reaffirmed the historic friendship and deep strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said a White House press statement.
Despite the administration’s sentiments, Obama has been vocally critical of the Saudis as of late. He described the alliance as “complicated” and claimed some Gulf states were “free riders” who were too reliant on the U.S. in an interview with The Atlantic. Obama believes the Saudis “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace” with Iran, in particular.
The reasons for the deterioration of the relationship range from the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, to a recent congressional bill that would expose Saudi Arabia to legal action for any alleged funding or support of the attacks on September 11, 2001. While the fate of the bill is yet to be determined, the JCPOA has caused a massive rift between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia since it was signed last July.
Officially, Saudi Arabia gave its tacit support to the JCPOA, but the Saudi leadership’s true feelings on the agreement has been one of the worst kept secrets in international relations. In private conversations, it has been reported that the Saudis and their Gulf allies have been particularly vocal regarding their opposition of the agreement. Of particular concern from the Saudi perspective is the potential for the deal to start an arms race in the Middle East, as well as giving Iran the ability to spread its influence across the region.
“If sanctions are lifted, Iran will try even harder to redesign the region,” said a Saudi diplomat to the Washington Post shortly after the deal was announced. “Iran is trying to change the Middle East, and this is unacceptable to Sunnis.”
Obama will continue to meet with other Gulf leaders Thursday before completing his two-day visit.
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