Commentary

The Latest from Saudi Arabia

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Various news agencies have recently reported that Barack Obama will be visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in March of this year. If that is true, it is likely Mr. Obama will find the U.S.-Saudi relationship — and his political leverage — is not what it used to be. Obama’s perceived policy confusion during the Arab Spring has frustrated Saudi Arabia’s leaders — especially the U.S. president’s muddled action on Syria. The trip also comes amid what is being described by some as a regional shift towards the East, with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries extending their trade agreements with India, Pakistan and China.

Following reports in the United States that Mr. Obama was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia next month, Ghazanfar Ali Khan, a reporter for the Saudi daily Arab News, contacted officials at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, who “neither confirmed nor denied it. Johann Schmonsees, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said he would share information about the visit once it is announced by the U.S. government. ‘The White House has said it is not planning any additional trips at this time; I will let you know if there is an official announcement,’ Johann told Arab News.”

Should he follow through with a visit, Mr. Obama is not likely to receive a very warm reception, at least according to an editorial on the UAE daily The National: “When Barack Obama touches down in Saudi Arabia’s capital next month, he will be greeted by much pomp and ceremony, but plenty of frosty tones. And with some justification: the U.S. has lately proved a less than reliable partner for the GCC’s largest country. Indeed, the U.S. president’s trip seems like an attempt to smooth over the differences between the two countries. But the differences run deep.... Mr. Obama is likely to face some tough talk. The region feels that this U.S. president has been very disengaged, taking a piecemeal approach when what is needed is joined-up thinking. If Mr. Obama is expecting glad-handing and fine speeches to be sufficient when he arrives in Saudi, he is likely to be disappointed.”

But the potential presidential visit is not the only news coming out of Saudi Arabia. As an article on Al Arabiya by Samar Fatany points out, Saudi Arabia has recently been making news with a new 10-year strategy aimed at countering extremism in the country: “This strategy could be a major development which could influence change and put an end to the ongoing conflicts between Islamic factions and restore Islamic tolerance among the faithful....The National Dialogue Center must play a bigger role in training imams to integrate perspectives of traditional Islam with those of contemporary rights. The Center has a responsibility to activate the social debate between ultra-conservatives and moderates to address the current political and traditional controversies that are a threat to our social fabric and undermine the progress of our country.”

On the foreign policy front, there have been encouraging signals coming from the Saudi leadership in an attempt to provide incentives to Israel in signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Eldad Beck reports that: “A senior Saudi prince has hinted that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians could pave the way to a normalization of relations with the Saudi Kingdom. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud said… that Israel could be a very important ‘player’ in the region if a deal is reached....During a panel on Saturday, Turki also praised Livni and asked her why Israel is reluctant to embrace the Saudi peace initiative. During the session, Turki also pressed Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat about the agreements reached with Israel during the Taba talks held before the Second Intifada. Erekat did not give a direct answer....Turki's comments highlight growing sectarian tensions in the Mideast. Only over the weekend, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai quoted a senior U.S. State Department official as saying that the Iranian regime now views Saudi Arabia as its most serious enemy, and surprisingly not Israel or the U.S.”

In economic news, there are reports that the Gulf Countries, including Saudi Arabia, are looking more and more eastward, to China and India. According to the Saudi Gazette, “The ‘look east’ policy of Riyadh born out of the nation’s growing vision to diversify is starting to bear fruit. Saudi Arabia is expanding its bilateral relations with developing countries with crude oil playing an important contributory role…. The recent announcement by Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram that Crown Prince Salman, first deputy prime minister and defense minister, will be visiting New Delhi this month is an indication of how much importance both countries place on growing Indo-Saudi relations....Riyadh and New Delhi have agreed to promote ‘cooperation in the fields of oil, gas and mineral resources’ with Chidambaram promising to build on his country’s complementarities in the hydrocarbon sector to strengthen the strategic energy partnership.”

However, that doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia is neglecting its other trade relationships. In fact, according to an article on the Khaleej Times, “Brazil imports from the Arab nations in 2013 over the previous year were recorded at $11.399 billion, and consisted of mineral fuel, fertilizers, plastic, glass and glassware, fish and seafood, and electric machinery; according to the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (ABCC). Arab countries collectively accounted for a 2.72 per cent growth in Brazilian imports in 2013 over the previous year. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the biggest exporter with $3.194 billion, followed by Algeria at $3.074 billion, Morocco $1.434 billion, Kuwait $1.016 billion, and Iraq $691 million.”

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region experiencing an eastward shift. In fact, as Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg writes, the other GCC countries have expressed a desire to see the old trade routes between the region and China re-established: “GCC countries have welcomed the Chinese initiatives and some of them have already announced that they would actively participate in the construction of the new Silk Road economic belt and the Maritime Silk Road....The initiatives could usher in a new economic and political alliance between China and the rest of Asia, including the Middle East…. The GCC-China Strategic Dialogue, which was launched in 2010, has developed the right tools and as such provides the right rubric under which to craft agreements regarding the new Silk Road, in both its land and maritime components.”

In what could perhaps be a timely message for the U.S. president as he visits the region, Gulf News’ Jasim Ali asserts that this economic re-calibration is due in no small part to Washington’s apparent disinterest in engaging in meaningful trade talks with the GCC: “The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is increasingly looking eastward to secure trade accords, which in itself reflects the difficulties in concluding free trade agreements with the likes of the European Union (EU)....For its part, the U.S. has shown little, if any, interest in reaching a collective FTA with the GCC. Currently, the U.S. has separate FTAs with Bahrain and Oman…. Trade talks are taking place intermittently with China, Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan....In addition, a limited trade deal between GCC and China cannot be ruled out.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.