The Cable

Revisiting Obama’s Riyadh meeting

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are always something of a proverbial black box. And President Barack Obama‘s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah last month was no exception. A late add-on to Obama’s planned June itinerary to Egypt, Germany, and France and conducted at King Abdullah’s horse ranch outside of Riyadh, the June 3 meeting was ...


U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are always something of a proverbial black box. And President Barack Obama‘s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah last month was no exception. A late add-on to Obama’s planned June itinerary to Egypt, Germany, and France and conducted at King Abdullah’s horse ranch outside of Riyadh, the June 3 meeting was quickly overtaken by coverage of Obama’s high-profile June 4 speech to the Muslim world from Cairo.

But two sources, one a former U.S. official who recently traveled there and one a current official speaking anonymously, say the meeting did not go well from Obama’s perspective. What’s more, the former official says that Dennis Ross has told associates that part of what prompted Obama to bring him on as his special assistant and NSC senior director for the “Central Region” last month was the president’s feeling that the preparation for the trip was insufficient. The White House vigorously disputes all of that, some of which was previously reported by the New York Times.

Sources say Obama was hoping to persuade the king to be ready to show reciprocal gestures to Israel, which Washington has been pushing to halt settlements with the goal of advancing regional peace and the creation of a Palestinian state.

“The more time goes by, the more the Saudi meeting was a watershed event,” said the former U.S. official who recently traveled to Riyadh. “It was the first time that President Obama as a senator, candidate, or president was not able to get almost anything or any movement using his personal power of persuasion.”

“The bottom line is that the Saudis were not prepared,” the former official continued, for Obama to ask them to take steps toward Israel. Obama changed his trip to go to Saudi Arabia, he pointed out.

“Senior sources in the Saudi national security team,” he said, “think the president’s trip was poorly prepared.” From their perspective, “he was coming and asking them for big favors with no preparation,” but “the Saudis never give big” in that situation.

The former official said that Ross has told associates that Obama was “upset” about the meeting “because he got nothing out of it.” Ross didn’t respond to a query.

The former official said Ross’s move to the NSC was in discussion before the Riyadh summit. “But the meeting may have been ‘the final straw,’ he said. “People at the NSC will obviously strenuously dispute that, but Dennis Ross is saying it to everybody. That’s his narrative about the NSC and I have heard it from a number of people.”

Another official, speaking not for attribution, said last month that the 85-year-old Saudi monarch had launched a tirade during Obama’s long meeting in Riyadh, and that other Saudi officials had later apologized to the U.S. president for the king’s behavior. The official seemed to imply that the tirade was related to Israel, and that the king may be showing his age.

The Obama administration pushed back hard on those allegations about the meeting, and said furthermore that the sources could not know what went on. “It was a very small group of folks who planned that trip,” a White House official said, disputing every aspect of the accounts. “The Saudi addition came on late.”

The meeting included the two principals — the king and Obama — plus two advisors each, the White House official said. So “only four people” beyond the two leaders “know the real story,” the White House official continued. “It was deliberately designed to continue building their relationship and not to bring home deliverables,” and any source who says differently is “making things up.”

Among those involved in the prep work, he said, were three top White House foreign-policy advisors: deputy national security advisor and chief of staff Mark Lippert, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications Denis McDonough, and White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who previously served as CIA station chief in Riyadh.

“I can’t imagine Obama pressing the Israelis on settlements without expecting the Arabs to do something,” University of Vermont Saudi and Persian Gulf expert F. Gregory Gause told Foreign Policy, while saying he had no specific knowledge about the meeting. “He is pushing the Israelis, but he wants to show that in pushing them, it’s also bringing the Arabs closer” to peace with Israel. “He wants the Saudis to make some gesture to make it easier for the Israelis to stop settlements.”

“And my reading of the Saudis,” Gause continued, “is they are not interested. We can criticize. But their line on this is, ‘We have done that already and gotten nothing. We did that in 2002 with the Abdullah peace plan and renewed it in 2007, and got the entire Arab league to sign on. Now why do more? We did that and got nothing.'”

Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman said he is not surprised there may have been different expectations for the meeting. “I spoke to the king’s advisors on the topic not long after the meeting, and they thought it went extremely well,” Freeman told Foreign Policy. However, Freeman continued, “From the American side, Washington has repeatedly misunderstood or been deluded about the Saudis on issues connected with Iran and Israel. The notion that somehow or other the Saudis will turn a blind eye to an Israeli strike on Iran — it does not compute.”

Freeman also said Riyadh would reject the idea that an Israeli halt in settlement building “would bring forward some gesture from the Arabs.”

“They have been around this road again and again with Madrid and Oslo,” Freeman said. The Saudi-led Arab peace initiative of 2002 is very carefully framed, he explained. “If the Israelis and Palestinians work out something mutually acceptable whatever it was … then this would be rewarded by wholesale normalization of relations between the Arab world and Israel.” But in Riyadh it’s seen as a “bonus,” Freeman continued, or an all-or-nothing proposition. “Not something to dicker over.”

A Washington Middle East hand said on condition of anonymity that that may very well be the position of the Saudis, but it was not one that Washington had to accept as immutable and that Obama was perfectly wise to try to cultivate a relationship with the leadership and discuss these issues over time.

Obama’s experience in Riyadh may be one factor prompting what some analysts see as recent adjustments and tonal shifts in the Obama administration’s articulation of its Middle East policy.

“We don’t know if sending more junior people before [Obama’s] trip would have meant that the path would have been paved and everything would have been teed up for the presidential visit,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and coauthor with Ross of a new book on U.S. policy toward the Middle East, Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East. It’s perhaps possible that better prep work, he said, might have made Riyadh more amenable to a presidential request for tangible, confidence-building measures, or alternatively, that it would have tipped the White House off that the Saudis were prepared to offer nothing but “the back of their hand.”

“If he’d known that in advance, the president would probably not have visited,” Makovsky said.

He described Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s speech this week as demonstrating “a kind of recalibration of the Obama administration’s approach,” making clear that “the president has expectations on both sides,” as opposed to chiefly on the Israelis to halt settlements.  

“Progress toward peace cannot be the responsibility of the United States — or Israel — alone,” Clinton said Wednesday. “Ending the conflict requires action on all sides…. Arab states have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel, and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel’s place in the region. The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than 20 nations, was a positive step. But we believe that more is needed. So we are asking those who embrace the proposal to take meaningful steps now.”

“When the secretary of state says she needs [Arab states’] help in word and deed and that the Arab peace initiative is just a beginning and there is much more to do,” Makovsky said, “this administration is trying to resist easy characterizations that they are only leaning on one side.”

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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