The Kingdom and the Power

DENVER – US President Barack Obama supposedly “cleared the air” with Saudi King Salman before the latest meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. Given how strained the bilateral relationship is – a situation long in the making – that was probably the best outcome that could reasonably be expected. But it is not enough.

America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is based on a pragmatic give-and-take approach aimed at advancing mutual interests, the most important of which is maintaining relative peace and security in a volatile region that is vital to the global economy. But this approach is fast becoming passé. Indeed, we have entered a new age of ideology, in which the case for pragmatism, rather than shared values, is increasingly difficult to make.

Against this background, it should perhaps not be surprising that cracks in the bilateral relationship have begun to show. In a recent interview, Obama described the Saudis (as well as other US allies) as “free riders” on American foreign policy. That sparked discussion not only about whether it is true (the Saudis purchase huge amounts of military hardware from the US), but also about whether it should have been said out loud. After all, in politics as in life, not everything a person believes needs to be shared publicly.

But Obama did not stop there. In the same interview, he declared that Saudi Arabia needs to learn to “share” the Middle East with its archrival Iran. And he has been openly critical of the Kingdom’s treatment of women, arguing that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.”