At a world economic summit in London this April, Barack Obama had his first encounter with the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. With TV cameras rolling, Obama strode up to the elderly Saudi monarch, extended his hand, and smiled broadly as he bent at the waist in a swift but unmistakable bow. As the image rocketed around the Internet, the White House was quick to insist that the move had not been one of supplication. "It wasn't a bow," one aide told Politico at the time. Obama had simply lowered his head in conjunction with the handshake because "he's taller than King Abdullah," the aide said.
The explanation was totally implausible. But Obama's (presumably instinctive) gesture was understandable. Perhaps no one is more important to the success of his foreign policy agenda than the king. Consider the list: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Guantanamo, terrorism, the global economy, Middle East peace--on each of these issues, the Saudis play a vital role. "Saudi Arabia is a nexus," says one administration official. "It's a big deal on everything."
That's why Obama has put considerable work into building a rapport with Abdullah. In addition to the London meeting, he has spoken to the king at least twice via telephone, and, the day before his June 4 speech in Cairo, he visited Abdullah's farm outside Riyadh, where the king hung a gaudy gold necklace around the bemused president's neck before the two held private talks. George W. Bush, by contrast, didn't travel to the kingdom until 2008 and had just four state visits with Abdullah in eight years. "The king is old school," says a senior White House official. "He likes to do things face-to-face. For him, it all begins and ends with the personal relationship. Before you can get to the substance, you have to work on that relationship."
Obama and Abdullah may be off to a cordial start personally. Substantively, however, the U.S.-Saudi relationship threatens to become a debacle--one that could drag Obama's foreign policy down with it. While the White House disputes reports that the Riyadh meeting went poorly, in Obama's first seven months, the kingdom has stymied or stalled administration efforts on multiple fronts--from the peace process to Iraq to Guantanamo. The White House is scrambling to win cooperation and avoid affront, but, in the end, the problem may simply be that Obama needs the Saudis more than they need him.
At the moment, nothing bedevils the relationship quite like the Middle East peace process. On July 31, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, met with Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Roughly two weeks earlier, Clinton had delivered a major foreign policy address featuring a noteworthy passage that emphasized the "responsibility" of Arab nations to "take steps to improve relations with Israel." The language was meant to balance Obama's emphasis on an Israeli settlement freeze and was a reference to confidence-building measures that Arab states could take, such as granting El Al airlines overflight rights, opening business offices in Tel Aviv, and granting interviews to Israeli journalists.
But, when Clinton met the press with Faisal, who has a trim gray beard and often eschews his country's flowing white robes for Western business suits, it was clear the two were on very different pages: "Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and, we believe, will not lead to peace," Faisal said. Instead, he called for "a comprehensive approach," like one proposed in the Saudi-backed 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which focuses on final-status issues like borders, refugees, and the fate of Jerusalem. Speaking in a polite tone that was at odds with his striking rebuke of Clinton, Faisal said that Israel is "shifting attention from the core issue . . . to incidental issues such as academic conferences and civil aviation matters." Israel, he concluded, "must decide if it wants real peace," or else "lead the region into a maelstrom of instability and violence." It was, says Rachel Bronson, a Saudi expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, "an unbelievable statement . . . those were very harsh remarks."
The rebuke should hardly have come as a surprise. Abdullah, who has been king since 2005 (and de facto ruler since his predecessor, King Fahd, had a severe stroke a decade ago), is said to be personally obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The king made that clear to George W. Bush when the two met for the first time in Crawford, Texas, in 2002, and he convinced the president to have his aides download and print out photos of Palestinian civilian casualties. "Their default position is to be the caboose on the peace train, not the engine," says Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel and State Department official during the Clinton administration. According to some reports, Obama had hoped to pry peace-process concessions from the Saudis during his visit to Riyadh and was upset when he failed. One former top Bush administration official says such intransigence would be no surprise: "If you lined up fifty people from the Bush administration and asked what the president was going to get from a visit to Saudi Arabia, they would say 'nothing.' " But White House officials insist that Obama never expected specific commitments from his meeting with Abdullah. "It was really more of an investment" in the personal relationship, says a senior White House official. The official, just one of four people present other than the two leaders, also disputed reports that the king had disrespectfully lectured Obama about Israel: "I have been in many meetings with heads of state, and I know what a good meeting looks like--and this was a good meeting."
Even if Obama was tempted to butt heads with the king about the peace process, however, he may have felt compelled to hold his tongue. Obama needs Saudi assistance on multiple fronts. Take Guantanamo, whose closure by the start of next year will almost certainly require a major assist from the Saudis. That's because the kingdom appears to be the only realistic destination for dozens of the roughly 100 Yemeni nationals currently in U.S. custody, many of whom express militant anti-Western views. Once in Saudi Arabia, they would likely be enrolled in the country's terrorist-rehabilitation program. This effort is being spearheaded by White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who, as a former CIA station chief in Riyadh, is probably the Obama team's most trusted line to the royal family. In March, Brennan met with Abdullah in Saudi Arabia and toured their terrorist-rehabilitation facility. Reports have circulated for months that the Saudis were close to accepting several Yemenis, and one well-informed source outside the administration says Brennan believed he had a deal after his last visit (a claim the White House denies). Regardless, the negotiations creep along with no imminent breakthrough in sight--and with only four months remaining until Gitmo is supposed to close.
Perhaps even more important to Obama is Saudi cooperation on Iran. The Obama team is well aware that the Sunni-dominated kingdom views the rising influence of Shia Iran with a combination of fear and loathing. "The first thing [the Saudis] think about when it comes to regional politics is the contest for influence with Iran. Everything gets filtered through that lens," says F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont. That's why administration officials believe Riyadh can be enlisted to help block Tehran's nuclear ambitions. In their recent book, Myths, Illusions & Peace, Obama's Iran point man, Dennis Ross, and his co-author, David Makovsky, argue that the Saudis should leverage their massive financial holdings in Europe against Tehran--privately telling key banking, investment, and energy companies on the Continent that "those who cut all ties to the Iranians would be rewarded by the Saudis," while those who don't will lose business. Similarly, Ross--who himself met with Abdullah earlier this year--proposes that the Saudis press the Chinese, who have developed major ties to the kingdom's oil industry, to take a harder line against Iran, lest they miss out on future opportunities for petrol profits. But, however much the Saudis may want to check Iran, Abdullah may be wary of aligning himself too closely with the United States and Israel against another Muslim nation. "It's an open question whether [the Gulf Arab] countries would be willing to join a very tough sanctions regime," says Nicholas Burns, who handled the issue for the Bush State Department.
The list of fraught subjects goes on--as evidenced by the parade of senior Obama officials who have jetted into Saudi Arabia in recent months. In July, it was Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, concerned about the role of oil prices, as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. currency reserves the Saudis are believed to hold, in the global economic recovery. In May, it was Defense Secretary Robert Gates seeking Saudi assistance in Pakistan. (The Saudis have cultural and military ties to Sunni Pakistan, as well as contacts within the Sunni Taliban movement. In late 2008, Abdullah hosted a summit in Mecca bringing Afghan government officials together with Taliban representatives in a failed bid at reconciliation.) Later that month, Richard Holbrooke, Obama's envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had an audience with the king and the Saudi intelligence chief. Meanwhile, Obama officials are also pushing the Saudis to help integrate Iraq into regional politics by dispatching an ambassador there, a move the Saudis--resentful at the rise of a Shia regime in Baghdad--have been reluctant to make.
Amid all these requests, it should come as no surprise that the Obama administration is giving back to the Saudis when it can. Earlier this year, the Justice Department filed a Supreme Court brief backing the Saudi royals in their opposition to a lawsuit by several families of September 11 victims that are seeking damages from Saudi princes with financial links to Al Qaeda.
Administration officials insist that the Saudis are doing more than meets the eye. Riyadh has spent millions supporting Lebanon's pro-western Sunni political bloc in its struggle with Hezbollah. The Saudis also provide Washington with important cooperation on counterterrorism, including a recent crackdown on domestic financing of radical groups (even though Saudi-based funding for the Taliban remains a major concern for the Obama administration). "The relationship has improved dramatically" in recent years, says a top White House official. And the White House is eager to tout Abdullah's recent agreement to send $200 million to the Palestinian Authority--a move the White House calls significant given that the Saudis have generally resisted the U.S.-Israeli strategy of bolstering the PA while blockading Hamas. One senior official describes this funding as "a deliverable" from Obama's June trip to Riyadh. Critics, however, say the sum is puny compared to funding pledges the Saudis have made in the past.
For Obama, the core problem may be that Abdullah doesn't need to cater to the new American president. It's true that the Saudis fear Iran and welcome U.S. efforts to stop its nuclear program. But the Saudis are equally suspicious that Obama will cut a deal with Tehran that leaves Riyadh feeling more threatened than ever by Shia power. At the same time, the industrialization of China and India means that the Saudis have plenty of other customers for their oil. And, if there's anything that motivates Abdullah and his kin above all else, it is fear of an uprising by the Saudi "street." That means that the Saudis will always take care to champion--and demagogue--the Palestinian cause, making them difficult partners in pursuing Middle East peace. With his fiery speech at Hillary Clinton's side last month, says Rachel Bronson, Prince Faisal "was making it clear that Obama can't assume that, just by showing American good intentions, the Saudis are going to start dealing the way the Americans want them to. Showing up and talking to the king, that's great. But they are going to have to be really involved, and working on the hard issues." It's going to take a lot more than a bow, in other words.