President Barack Obama has wisely decided to visit Saudi Arabia today to show his respect for the recently deceased King Abdullah and for his half-brother and successor King Salman. He should use the occasion to begin a discussion of how the United States and the Saudi government can improve collaboration in pursuing a mutual goal of security in the Middle East.
U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained in the past three years for a variety of reasons. But President Obama increasingly needs Saudi help to attain his security objectives in the region, which he has described as using air attacks but no “boots on the ground” to “degrade and eventually destroy” hostile radical Islamic terror groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida.
The latest setback to this policy came just last week. In Yemen, the Houthis, a rebel group of Shia warriors from the mountainous north assisted by Iran, overthrew the national government that had been cooperating with the United States in fighting southern tribes dominated by the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida. Known as al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the southern group has launched several abortive attacks on the United States during the Obama presidency and taken credit for the slaughter in Paris of the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The group has also attempted attacks in Saudi Arabia, which has as strong an interest in defeating AQAP as the United States.
The Saudis have decades, indeed centuries, of experience in dealing with the Shias of northern Yemen, and organized the political succession in Yemen that the Houthis overthrew.
The Saudis have every incentive, including a rational fear of Iranian influence in Arabia, to sort out the mess in Yemen and keep the campaign against AQAP on track.
The Saudis are also a major part of the coalition of Sunni tribes and nations that President Obama is relying upon to carry out the ground war against ISIS.
But like Turkey, another potential ally in the fight against ISIS, the Saudi government would like to see Bashar al-Assad removed as dictator of Syria.
That is where Mr. Obama’s policies clash with those of his hoped-for allies in the region. The president is seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, the major backer of Mr. Assad. The deal not only worries Israel but also Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf because it will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons when it wants.
They suspect that President Obama, for his own domestic political reasons in seeking a nuclear deal, has adopted a passive policy toward Assad that favors the Iranian, and Shia, side in the struggle for supremacy in Syria and Iraq.
That would not be in the best interest of regional stability — or in the security interest of the United States.
The president’s visit to Saudi Arabia is a good opportunity to begin the necessary dialogue to reassess emerging threats.