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Opinion: Columnists

Obama shouldn't expect a warm reception in Riyadh

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,Iran,Middle East,Saudi Arabia

President Obama has spent this week bingeing on diplomacy but he cannot be drunk on success. There's very little to show for his days in Europe other than a few joint statements that were forgotten as soon as the press releases were handed out.

Friday will be different and not because it will deliver a diplomatic triumph. President Obama will meet with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at a moment when the relationship between the two nations is worse than it has been since the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Going into the meeting, Obama is at a considerable disadvantage that results directly from his own policies. The Saudis look around the Middle East and what they see scares them.

Since about February 2013, the Saudis have been giving billions of dollars and tons of arms to the rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. They believe the heavy Iranian and Russian support for Assad's survival (in equal or greater amounts of money and arms as well as jihadist fighters and Iranian troops) to be the creation of a Shiite Iranian puppet less than a hundred miles from their northern border. Late last August, Obama said that he had decided to take military action against Syria because of Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians. When Obama abruptly decided that he would ask Congress for permission to make the strike, and then failed to pursue congressional action, the Saudis felt betrayed.

In October, after having campaigned for it, the Saudis rejected a seat on the United Nations Security Council because it hadn't brought the Syrian civil war to an end. Only days after the rejection, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, said “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N." Bandar said that he planned to scale back diplomatic cooperation with the U.S. and for his country to have a foreign policy independent of America's. That is exactly what the Saudis have done.

The Saudis are also very upset with Obama's casual attitude toward terrorist groups, though their own attitude is “do as I say, not as I do.” (For example the Saudis, according to a secret December 2009 State Department cable published by Wikileaks, are a principal funding source for al Qaeda.)

When Obama threw Egypt's Hosni Mubarak under the bus and embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successor, Mohammed Morsi, the Saudis were appalled. Three weeks ago, they followed Egypt's lead and designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Just days before that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar because of its support of the Brotherhood, especially through its government-run television network Al Jazeera.

The Saudis are most angry with Obama about the nuclear weapons agreement he's made with Iran and that he's continuing to negotiate with a view to expanding it. Not only do they fear a nuclear Iran as much as the Israelis do, they fear the Shiite influences on their borders and within their nation. Their greatest fear is a rebellion among the Shiite population in their eastern provinces that could be brought about by Iran. In 2011, they invaded Bahrain to quell a Shiite uprising. They also see that Nouri al-Maliki has made Iraq an Iranian puppet state.

The Middle East is substantially less stable now than at any time in the past 30 years. There is no reason for us to trust the Saudis, but their fears are justified. From Syria to Iraq to Bahrain and Qatar, instability reigns. The Saudis know that restoration of Middle Eastern stability - especially to bring about the end of the Iranian nuclear weapons program -- is beyond Obama's abilities and contrary to his policies. They, and other oil producers, will pursue their foreign policies in disregard of ours.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.
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