The United States gave its first indication that it would be willing to shift its stance on lethal aid to the Syrian opposition on Friday in a sign of Washington’s desire to patch up frayed ties with once-stalwart ally Saudi Arabia, where President Barack Obama is currently on a fence-mending visit. The announcement that his administration would consider allowing shipments of air defense systems to Syrian rebels (a significant reversal of its current policy on the issue) should help Obama as he heads into talks with the Saudis who have previously lobbied for this exact measure.
However, even with the encouraging gesture, the U.S. president has his work cut out for him in Riyadh, which has not-so-subtly been feuding with his administration over its Middle East policy for months now. The reversal on the supply of surface-to-air missiles might not be enough to counteract Saudi resentment over Washington’s initial walk back of its moves to intervene in Syria back in September. Riyadh had already been eyeing the Obama administration warily following its refusal to stand behind Egyptian strongman (and major Saudi ally) Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but the turn around on Syria — coupled with Washington’s efforts to engage Tehran in diplomatic talks— was clearly the last straw for the Saudis.
Since then, Riyadh has taken an uncharacteristically vocal and aggressive approach to their foreign policy. From turning down a seat on the United Nations Security Council to lashing out against Qatar over its continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the kingdom has made major diplomatic waves over the past few months — all of which send a strong message to Washington about their dissatisfaction with Obama’s policy in the region.
Though Obama is unlikely to back down on his administration’s broader approach to the Syrian conflict or the Iranian rapprochement, he will have an interest in persuading the Saudis that Washington continues to prize the decades-old alliance. The Saudis have proven, even putting aside the oil issue, that they continue to wield enormous influence in the region. Their clout with Cairo in particular is something Washington will have its eye on as Egypt’s new military regime continues to publicly flout the White House.
As Washington grows visibly more concerned with the direction of the country under the leadership of military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia can use its influence with Cairo (bought by the billions of dollars the kingdom has poured into the country since the ouster of Mohammed Morsi) as a valuable bargaining chip. Here, it is in Riyadh’s best interest to rein in some of the excesses of Egypt’s military regime, which has made headlines for its unprecedented crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other opposition blocs, journalists, and human rights activists. For the current political climate to persist would not bode well for Egypt’s future economic health — something which should concern the Saudis if they don’t want to get stuck floating the Egyptian economy forever.
It’s worth noting though that even with their mutual interest in Egypt’s stability, the number one issue for Riyadh will continue to be Iran. That, after all, is where the very foundations of their regional positions stand to be shaken. There is very little Obama can offer on that front that would meet with Saudi approval. So even if the president can soothe Saudi concerns on other issues, there will continue to be one likely insurmountable obstacle here, which shouldn’t inspire much hope of a return to the good old days of American-Saudi relations.