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Difficult Talks for U.S. and Saudis

Author: Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
June 28, 2010

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For most of the past decade, bilateral conversations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have focused on oil and terrorism, but neither is likely to be talked about much when President Barack Obama sits down with King Abdullah on June 29. Oil is off the agenda because supplies are ample and prices are stable. As for terrorism, the current U.S. administration, like its predecessor, has concluded that Saudi Arabia's rulers are part of the solution, not part of the problem, even though some differences remain on the issue of financing for terrorist organizations outside the kingdom.

Instead, Obama and the king confront a list of more subtle issues on which the two countries are in broad agreement as to objectives, but disagree on how to achieve them.

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian ConflictOne is the Iranian nuclear program, which Saudi Arabia fears, but feels itself powerless to do anything about. The Saudis are conflicted on this subject, because they have said economic sanctions will not dissuade Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons; they want the United States to do more — but not take military action.

Another likely topic is the political stalemate in Iraq, where Saudi Arabia openly backed the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in recent elections and wants nothing to do with the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Riyadh regards as a stooge of Iran.

From Washington's perspective, the most urgent issue is the lack of progress in forging an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. American officials say the conversation on that subject is likely to be quite different from what it was when the king and Obama met a year ago in Riyadh on the eve of Obama's Cairo speech about Islam.

On that occasion, Obama made an ill-advised request for Saudi Arabia to offer goodwill gestures to Israel to help convince Israelis it would be in their interest to redouble peace efforts. There was no prospect that Abdullah would agree to that, because the Saudis believe they have already done as much as they are obliged to do on this front by proposing—and persuading the Arab League to endorse—a comprehensive land-for-peace plan based on Israel's 1967 borders.

Obama also issued a poorly thought-out demand that Israel halt all settlement activity on Palestinian territory, reflecting a basic misunderstanding of the political situation in Israel. The Saudis are upset because Obama, in their view, has retreated in the face of Israeli intransigence on settlement-building, demonstrating that his pledges of a new era were hollow.

This time, Obama is prepared to tell Abdullah that the United States recognizes the Arab peace initiative as an important contribution to the overall peace process. That does not mean the United States will endorse its details or attempt to sell it to the Israelis, who are unlikely ever to accept the 1967 lines if they are defined to include East Jerusalem. But it does mean that the United States will accept it as a legitimate offer, hoping to get Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to put their weight into the quest for an agreement.

In the kingdom last month I found remarkable unanimity among Saudi officials and policy analysts, including Prince Turki al-Faisal, former ambassador to the United States and the foreign minister's brother: It's all words, words, words. We just don't believe the Americans anymore.

Doing that could take the edge off the cynicism that has developed in Saudi Arabia about the prospects for a two-state solution, because it would put more distance between Washington and the Israeli government of Prime Minster Benyamin Netanyahu. In exchange, Obama will ask Abdullah for a public statement supporting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That is not so simple a proposition as it might sound for the Saudis. Abdullah has sought reconciliation between the Fatah wing of the Palestinians, which controls the West Bank and favors a peace agreement, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip and rejects Israel's right to exist; he is reluctant to take a public position that could be seen as a repudiation of Hamas.

Before Obama can make headway with the king on this subject, he will have to convince him that he is serious about reaching a two-state solution. He has said that he is. After meeting on June 9 with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama said that "not only is the status quo with respect to Gaza unsustainable, the status quo with respect to the Middle East is unsustainable," that the Palestinians are "desperate for a homeland," and that his commitment to achieve peace "has not wavered."

What Abdullah will want to know is what does that mean, exactly? In the kingdom last month I found remarkable unanimity among Saudi officials and policy analysts, including Prince Turki al-Faisal, former ambassador to the United States and the foreign minister's brother: It's all words, words, words. We just don't believe the Americans anymore. Or as Turki put it: "No more platitudes, good wishes, and visions, please." Turki said that if no peace agreement is reached by this fall, the United States should recognize Palestine as an independent country – as it did with Israel in 1948 – and leave the countries of the region to negotiate their own arrangements.

This could be a difficult meeting for the president.

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