Obama Confronted by Wary Arabs as 2009 Cairo Speech Echoes

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President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009.

Photographer: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
  • Tension undergirds president's visit to Saudi Arabia
  • Obama must tend egos and rally fight against Islamic State

Barack Obama opened his U.S. presidency in 2009 by calling for a "new beginning" with the Middle East in a landmark speech in Cairo. At the time, Moammar Qaddafi ruled Libya from a Bedouin tent, the editors of Vogue magazine wanted an interview with the wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and few Americans had heard of Islamic State.

Almost seven years later, as Obama arrives in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, the region undeniably has undergone a transformation since the start of his presidency -- just not the one he envisioned. Qaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were toppled in the Arab Spring uprisings, and the civil war consuming Syria has fueled the rise of Islamic State, which threatens to export violence and extremist ideology to Europe and the U.S.

Barack Obama and King Salman in Riyadh on April 20.
Barack Obama and King Salman in Riyadh on April 20.
Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The continuing tumult has left Mideast leaders as wary as ever of U.S. leadership, and Obama faces a difficult challenge in bolstering alliances "based upon mutual interest and mutual respect" that he predicted in 2009. Arab leaders who’ll meet with him in Riyadh have been stung by a string of perceived American slights, including the nuclear pact with Iran and Obama’s interview with The Atlantic magazine published this month in which he criticized many U.S. allies.

"It’s clear that the president’s kind of cerebral, dispassionate approach to the Gulf isn’t really well suited to some of the Gulf, who really are looking less for the kind of institutional relationship with the United States than a warm personal one with the president," said Perry Cammack, a former aide to Secretary of State John Kerry who is now an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Now the president must tend to egos bruised by his rhetoric while trying to rally Gulf countries to intensify the fight against Islamic State. Increasing the diplomatic degree of difficulty, Gulf leaders who will meet with Obama on Thursday are acutely aware of the president’s waning time in office -- and that his possible successors may advocate even more dramatic changes to U.S. policy in the region.

Obama’s host for the two-day visit, Saudi Arabia, is meanwhile preparing to announce a wrenching re-orientation of its economy away from oil. Obama and King Salman are expected to focus on oil prices during a meeting on Wednesday. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg the nation would announce a comprehensive overhaul of its economy on April 25, including a package of economic revisions known as the National Transformation Plan. Prince Mohammed said the plan involves raising non-oil revenue by $100 billion by 2020, as well as selling shares of Saudi Aramco and transforming the company into an energy and industrial conglomerate.

‘Serious Questions’

U.S. policies regarding Iran and Syria have prompted "really serious questions" about its goals for the region, said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington nonprofit research group.

"And then, at least at some level, you’re probably going to have some quiet discussions about exactly where the American political campaign is headed, and exactly what any given candidate intends to do by way of U.S. security policy in the Gulf," he added.

Obama arrived in Riyadh having just approved the deployment of 217 more U.S. troops to support Iraq’s military as it seeks to retake Mosul from Islamic State. The move may allay some regional frustration over Obama’s unwillingness to engage the U.S. in a ground war to combat the militant group. Kerry also announced earlier this month that the U.S. would provide $139 million in new humanitarian assistance for Yemen.

Senior administration officials say they hope Obama can convince the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Sunni Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, to commit more military assets to fight Islamic State.

‘Local Partners’

"We think these fights are best fought by local partners," said Rob Malley, the National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

White House officials say the U.S. and Arab states have also reached new agreements to strengthen regional missile defense and cybersecurity systems. An ambitious new pact on the latter could help assuage Saudi Arabia, where a 2012 hack attributed to Iran badly damaged the computer network of the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco. The U.S. has previously been reluctant to share some intelligence and technical assistance requested by the Saudis to help defend against cyber attacks.

The agenda for Obama’s visit also includes a broader economic discussion, including an examination of the recent dip in oil prices. Saudi officials over the weekend killed an agreement among major oil producers in Doha that would have frozen production, citing Iran’s refusal to participate. The change could have ended the glut in oil markets that has driven prices from $100 a barrel to as low as $26, and provided a boost to a U.S. energy sector that has been shedding jobs.

28 Pages

Productive diplomatic talks on the economy and shared security concerns may help paper over substantial divisions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. In addition to tensions over warming relations with Iran and the desire for more U.S. military involvement in the fight against Islamic State, the Saudis are wary of a U.S.-backed peace plan for Syria that would at least temporarily leave Assad in power.

The Saudis are also alarmed by legislation moving through the U.S. Congress, backed by Obama’s Democratic allies, that would allow families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to sue the kingdom, if its government or its officials are found to have had a role in the plot.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the attacks were Saudi citizens. Obama administration officials say they’re considering whether to declassify a 28-page section of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks that is believed to detail Saudi government connections to the hijackers.

The New York Times reported April 15 that Saudi Arabia has warned the administration that if the legislation is enacted, the kingdom might retaliate by selling up to $750 billion in Treasury securities and other assets in the U.S. Obama said in an interview with Charlie Rose broadcast by CBS News on Monday that he opposes the legislation, because he believes it would expose the U.S. government to lawsuits in foreign courts.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a cosponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday he would delay its passage. He wants the bill revised, he said, to clarify that foreign governments could be sued only if they are shown to have been a "proximate cause" of the attacks.

Graham recently returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia.

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