02/07/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Obama's Visit to Saudi Arabia: A Good Opportunity To Set Things Right

There is a shared determination by the American and Saudi leaderships to mend their historical bilateral relationship, and to save it from deteriorating into a confrontation or declining to new lows. President Barack Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia in the second half of March is proof that Washington and Riyadh are aware of - and have admitted to - the need to repair the damage, tension, and decay that has affected their relations. This is an important opportunity for showing mutual frankness, exchanging points of view, and finding out what each side has in mind. The senior members of the Obama administration direly need to understand what is going on in the mind of the Saudi leadership, and inquire about what had led to Saudi Arabia's break with its traditional silence, and why Saudi stopped using only back channels to express its dissatisfaction of U.S. policies on Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian question. For their part, the pillars of the Saudi leadership need to examine domestic and strategic U.S. dynamics that have led the Obama administration to hold secret negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and refrain from playing a leading role in Syria, leaving this arena wide open to Russia, China, and Iran to make their power plays in support of the regime in Damascus. Preparing for this visit is necessary, more than any previous visit, given its exceptional importance and its implications for regional issues and international relations. The starting point is to admit that a rough patch has affected U.S.-Saudi relations, and pretending that this is transient or that the visit itself will be sufficient to bring water under the bridge again is not good enough to fix the problem. Indeed, what happened was a serious blow that requires a realistic diagnosis, and a willingness to adjust to new realities.

One of the important things that the two sides should avoid is to turn Obama's visit into an occasion to promote U.S.-made weapons in the Saudi market, as though the sale and purchase of weaponry is the cornerstone of the relationship. For instance, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had almost appeared like an arms dealer during the Manama Dialogue event back in December 2013, when he cited armaments as the benchmark for U.S. policy, to deny that there was a gradual U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East and the Gulf region in the direction of Asia Pacific. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took a different approach, starting in Davos during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum nearly two weeks ago, and then again at the Munich international security conference. He wanted to emphasize that the United States has solid alliances and vital interests with the Gulf nations, and that Washington was not in the process of scrambling east. He clarified the prospects and criteria for the desired relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kerry spoke the language of serious reassurance, and not just to appease allies, which is exactly what Riyadh expects to hear from the U.S. president during his visit to the kingdom, albeit in more detail.

It is no secret that U.S. President Barack Obama is no longer a popular figure in the Arab region as a whole, and not just in Saudi Arabia. The main reason is his policy on Syria, which contributed to the deterioration of the situation there into a humanitarian tragedy and a disaster for the country - at least from the Arab perspective. The Barack Obama of 2009 is different from Barack Obama in 2014, in the eyes of those who had pinned so much hope on him, celebrated his advent, and saw him as the torchbearer of empowerment, justice, and change. In 2009, President Obama stopped in Riyadh on his way to deliver that famous speech in Cairo, which opened a new chapter in U.S. policy towards the Muslim and Arab world. He tried to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but failed. He had a taste of political realism. He understood that even people like him had limits, and are fettered by entrenched policy. He appeared either weak or naïve, when in his mind and heart he wanted to be a bold leader and a maker of history. President Barack Obama suffered an immediate setback at the beginning of his term, causing him to abandon any boldness he had, inviting blame and disillusion.

At the start of the Arab Spring, the young president dithered, before adopting a stance on Egypt that saw him abandoning America's erstwhile ally former President Hosni Mubarak, instead supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. From the standpoint of the U.S. administration, this was in line with the popular will and the youth revolution. But from the point of view of the youths themselves, the U.S. position was astonishing because the Muslim Brotherhood had hijacked the revolution, and began working on excluding others. The Brotherhood devoured the presidency, the parliament, and almost also the constitution - all with U.S. blessing.

Whether this was naïve or a deliberate policy, the outcome is the same, which is that the U.S. president went on to lose many supporters who once adored him but who now called him into question. Obama's halo was shattered, and he was now seen as an American politician who had unconvincing - if not malevolent - goals. This invited a cascade of questions about the intentions of the United States under Barack Obama, not only as concerns Egypt, but also the entire Arab region. The Saudi leadership has disagreed with the U.S. leadership over Egypt ever since Hosni Mubarak was toppled. This time around, Riyadh did not content itself with anger, resentment, and brooding. It made a strategic decision not to leave Egypt to fate, and wait for U.S. policy to make up its mind. Saudi Arabia invested financially and politically in Egypt, and made its investments together with those of the UAE and Kuwait a major cornerstone of its regional policy. Qatar continued to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, diverging with Saudi policy there. The United States prevaricated in its policy toward this major Arab country.

Egypt, then, will no doubt be on the agenda of the talks between President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Egypt is of paramount importance in the strategic policies of Saudi Arabia and the United States equally. For this reason, it is worthwhile for the Obama administration to listen carefully to the backdrop and goals of Saudi's Egypt strategy. It is important for the U.S. to look at that relationship from the perspective of the balance of power in the Middle East as well. For one thing, the Saudi-Egyptian relationship is fundamental for an Arab presence in the Iranian-Turkish-Israeli-Arab balance of power in the Middle East.

President Obama wants to achieve a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to seal his presidency with the fruits of the investments he had made when he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia is a very important factor in this ambition, and perhaps one of the reasons he decided to visit Riyadh was the Palestinian-Israeli question. The Obama administration understood that isolating the Palestinians and Israelis from other actors to force them to make a peace deal - as had former President Bill Clinton done - would not work. It therefore resolved to seek help from Arab actors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to help achieve the desired breakthrough by putting its weight behind U.S. efforts. Riyadh has expressed its readiness to cooperate, especially since one of the pillars of the U.S.-led effort is the Arab initiative for peace with Israel. Saudi diplomacy is throwing its weight behind the revival of the Arab initiative, clarifying its terms to persuade Israel of the seriousness of the commitments contained in it, for example as regards full normalization in return for ending the Israeli occupation and establishing the Palestinian state - as stipulated during the Arab summit in Beirut, which had officially adopted the initiative.

President Obama understands the importance of the Saudi leadership in ensuring that 22 Arab countries and 57 Islamic countries would implement the pledge to normalize with Israel, in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians. Obama will no doubt put this issue at the top of his agenda in Riyadh - seeing that this is a personal mission for him that is part for his quest to have a historical legacy. Iraq will also be discussed, but could also be a contentious issue. What Riyadh wants there is something that Washington perhaps cannot deliver, namely, removing Iranian-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from power, who is also still backed by the Obama administration. What Washington wants from Riyadh is for the latter to understand fully well that a U.S. military intervention in Iraq is out of the question, no matter what happens. Washington wants Riyadh to accept that Iranian hegemony in Iraq does not bother Washington enough to push it to make an exceptional move like changing the equation there.

The U.S.-Saudi conversation about Iraq requires deep thinking in light of the likelihood that Iraq could fall prey again to sectarian infighting, terrorism, and prospects for partition. Each of the two countries has a role to prevent the collapse of Iraq. What is important in their talks is how to tackle Iran's overwhelming influence in Iraq, and how to extricate Iraq from the equation of Sunni-Shiite strife by means of a qualitatively new Saudi-Iranian decision with U.S. sponsorship.

One of the most important things President Obama can achieve, if he so wishes, is to broker Saudi-Iranian accords that would help rescue the Middle East from the inferno of sectarian war, from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and beyond. This is the most profound challenge for the U.S. president, if he wants to overturn his reputation in the Middle East, leave behind a historical legacy, and finish his term with an outstanding achievement. The starting point will be the U.S.-Iranian relationship and the U.S.-Saudi relationship. President Obama is in the process of ushering in a historical era in U.S.-Iranian relationship, and therefore he has the means to influence Tehran. What he needs to do is adopt a comprehensive, firm, and bold policy, instead of his diluted and hesitant approach that is limited to reaction rather than action. The means to influence Saudi policy are also available to the U.S. president, especially since he is visiting Riyadh to develop a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, which would go beyond the traditional security-for-oil approach that has characterized U.S.-Saudi-Iranian relations and Sunni-Shiite confrontation. He will find receptiveness from both sides if he shows resolve and clarifies that U.S. policy is not to fuel sectarian conflict, as many in the Middle East believe.

Syria remains a major component of any U.S. endeavor for a Saudi-Iranian détente. This requires a new kind of American involvement, linking the willingness to turn a new page with Iran to not only addressing the nuclear issue, but also the issue of Iran's regional ambitions. Here, too, the United States has tools it can use, most notably the ability to lift sanctions on Iran in return for a radical change in its foreign policy, especially in Syria and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia has asserted that it is not seeking to achieve victory over Iran in Syria, but at the same time, it will not cave in to an Iranian victory in Syria either. This constitutes an opportunity for President Obama to extract a Saudi approval for an accord with Iran, in the framework of a settlement in the Syrian issue, or as part of the grand bargain that would involve international understandings that include Russia.

Preparing the ground for a fateful breakthrough during President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia is absolutely necessary, especially since the visit is taking place on the back of dramatic developments in the Iranian nuclear issue, the Syrian chemical issue, the international process regarding Syria in the Geneva 2 talks, the Syrian presidential election, and the efforts to curb the growth of Neo-Jihadists in Syria and beyond.

What is ultimately indispensable for U.S.-Saudi relations is mutual frankness, rather than papering over the differences. It is important for both sides to admit their respective failures in Syria, each for different reasons. What matters is for both sides to draft realistic and practical policies to contribute to shaping the future of Syria, instead of leaving it hostage to Russian-Iranian sponsorship. Finally, it is important for the leadership in Washington and Riyadh to acknowledge that radical reform is needed for their bilateral relationship and regional policies, starting with the relationship each side has with the Iran of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iran of moderation.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi