President Obama’s questionable friendship with Saudi Arabia

By Noor Hakeem

When running for president, Barack Obama promised a major pivot from interventionism and aggressiveness in U.S. foreign policy.

With a critical eye to his predecessor George Bush, Obama aimed to calm the fiasco that was plaguing Iraq and Afghanistan. He focused on a policy of retrenchment, especially in regards to the Middle East, and to promote multilateral diplomacy to rebuild American credibility, which was shattered after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Unfortunately the U.S. failed to reach any of those goals set out, and rather, President Obama achieved nothing more than continued ignominy for the U.S. and himself. In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, President Obama demonstrated in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg to have critical misjudgments which could be described as ignorant or short-sighted, especially regarding the Middle East and more precisely, on Saudi Arabia.

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It is an indisputable, realist fact that the U.S. has been acting as the world police for the past 50 years. So when a bloody civil war breaks out and wages on for more than 5 years, and when an aggressor crosses a decided “red line”–leaving more than some 470,000 Syrians as victims of chemical weapons–the world awaited an authority figure to bring some order to the chaos. To be clear, this is not to suggest that the U.S. is to blame or even obliged to intervene, even though that may be the most realistic solution. However, Obama isn’t in the position to assign blame to a country like Saudi Arabia for being the reason behind a proxy war in Syria or in Yemen. Obama shouldn’t forget that it was the unjustified Iraq invasion that the U.S. initiated that created a fertile ground for a terrorist group like ISIS to come into existence.

It was the Iraq war that agitated the sectarian rift between the Sunnis and Shiites. It was also the Iraq war that the U.S. claimed would liberate it from its dictator and democratize its government, when in reality there was not even a clear exit plan. Again, these facts are not reasons to assign blame, but they should be taken into consideration when Obama makes claims that a country like Saudi Arabia is responsible, and they should be considered when comparing the role of the U.S. in 2003 to its relatively limited role in the fight against ISIS. The irony was made clear when President Obama declared that the U.S. would only intervene in the region when U.S. national security is at stake, and Saddam Hussein (who clearly did not have chemical weapons) was presented as posing an existential threat to the U.S. On the other hand, Bashar Al-Assad, who has proven his willingness to use chemical weapons, was deemed to be less dangerous than Saddam Hussein. 

Obama has regularly accused Saudi Arabia for radicalizing Muslims around the world, and made scathing remarks about its social justice system and their history of human rights violations:

The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country [Indonesia]. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family…You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East—the Saudis and the Egyptians—stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.

Obama seems to have forgotten that the U.S. just shook hands with a country with a worse humans rights record: Iran. Washington needs to stop viewing Saudi Arabia and the Middle East through a Western lens, as culture and tradition (informed heavily by religion) play an important role in cross-cultural value judgements. The Saudi state has never been found to officially support terrorist groups or militant rebels, unlike its long-standing rival Iran. With this in mind, why did Saudi Arabia get criticized when a country supporting Assad (who uses chemical weapons), Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen, acts with impunity?  Isn’t a country like Iran, with nuclear know-how and capabilities, a major threat to U.S. national security? At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of fighting terrorism ever since the attacks of 9/11.

obama quoteIt is unjust for Obama to doubt Saudi Arabia and the GCC’s commitment to fight against terrorism. Last December, the Saudi defense minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, led the creation of a Muslim Anti-terrorism coalition with 34 members across the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has launched operations to end the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen from seizing power. With so much effort exerted, the Saudi state cannot be blamed for promoting proxy wars and terrorism. Moreover, it was and continues to be a great disappointment that the U.S., which has veto power at the U.N. Security Council, never used its ‘red card’ to kick Assad out after murdering civilians using chemical weapons. President Obama sat on the sides with no reaction while his self-proclaimed red line was crossed in front of the international community. Therefore, is it fair that Saudi Arabia–with no veto and lesser capabilities than the U.S.–is liable for what’s happening in Syria?

The comment that has infuriated the Saudis the most was when Obama suggested that Saudi Arabia and Iran should be sharing the Middle East:

The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.

Firstly, the Middle East is an Arab-dominated region, with a historical heritage that goes back over a thousand years. Iranians are not Arabs, and undoubtedly identify as Persian before anything else. From this perspective, Iran has no claim to control the Middle East. Would the U.S. agree to share North America with Canada or Mexico? I don’t think so.

Secondly, does Obama really want Iran to take the lead in ruling the Middle East? Is his trust in Iran so deep after signing the nuclear deal? While Obama and his administration continually assures the Saudis that the deal with Iran will not compromise Saudi-U.S. relations, the promise has been already been broken. President Obama proved in that interview that the legacy of the traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia is on the verge of collapse, and that he is more concerned with his legacy than with sustainable peace relations. With his highly contradictory discourse, Obama continues to say: “A country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.” Iran is one perfect example of a state that is . Yet according to the president’s suggestion, Iran should lead one of the most important regions in the world.

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