U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman are set to meet just as relations between the White House and the monarchy have become increasingly frayed, and the two longtime allies face significant disagreements over how to combat terrorism and regional conflicts.
Obama will meet Wednesday with the monarch in Riyadh on his fourth trip to Saudi Arabia as president.
The visit will be followed on Thursday with a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance of six Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
It appears, however, that fundamentally different priorities and strategies on combating terrorism and bringing stability to the region likely will keep Washington and Riyadh at odds on myriad key challenges.
The United States and much of Europe see the Islamic State group and al-Qaida as the top threats in the region and around the world.
For many of the Gulf states, though, the main threat emanates from Iran and the people and groups that Tehran supports — like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Sunni-majority Saudis have led a costly military intervention against the Houthis.
“To almost all of the Arab states, Assad is at least as serious a threat as ISIS [Islamic State]. Iran and the Shi’ite domination of Iraq is far more serious than ISIS. And in Yemen the Houthi, Iran and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] are the dominant threats,” said Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The White House said Obama and GCC leaders will look at ways to step up cooperation, and “align” their policies and approaches in areas of mutual interest, such as countering terrorism and promoting peace and stability in places like Yemen and Syria.
In an interview that raised questions about the state of U.S.-Saudi relations, Obama referred to the Saudis as “free riders” in the battle against Islamic State, implying Riyadh benefits from the U.S. security umbrella without sharing the burden.
He also told The Atlantic that Saudi Arabia would have to learn to co-exist with Iran by “learning to share the neighborhood.”
White House officials would not say if the president and the king planned to discuss Obama's remarks in The Atlantic interview.
Islamic State threat
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes explained, “The nature of the threat from ISIL [Islamic State] is not restricted to the targeting of one nation. We see ISIL as posing a threat to the entire world.”
Rhodes added that while cooperation between the U.S. and Gulf states has improved since the first U.S.-GCC summit last year at Camp David, “there is always room to see what more can be done.”
Rob Malley, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, described current U.S.-Saudi relations as “complicated.”
He asserted that sectarian fights, like the one in Yemen, create humanitarian crises and distract attention away from the coalition’s fight against Islamic State and al-Qaida. So the White House is seeking to de-escalate sectarian conflicts and shift focus back to terror groups it views as global threats.
"As that fight against the Houthis in Yemen de-escalates. ... We will be able to focus more activities against ISIL and against al-Qaida,” Malley said. “I think that is a very important reason why we believe that these regional conflicts that often have a sectarian tinge to them need to be de-escalated.”
Despite efforts by the U.S. and its coalition partners to push back Islamic State and stabilize the region, the Middle East remains fertile ground for terror groups, sectarian conflicts, political chaos and proxy wars.
Still, Malley argued, “The trend line is positive.”
He pointed to fragile cease-fires in Yemen and Syria, and successes by Iraqi forces in recapturing territory from Islamic State in the last year.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which faces shrinking revenues with the downturn in oil prices, is working to build up its missile systems as regional rival Iran continues to bolster its military capabilities.
“Iran does not stop improving its air, missiles and naval capabilities to threaten traffic through the Gulf,” Cordesman said.
Overall, expectations for any significant outcomes from this summit are low, especially during a presidential election year.
"The Saudis obviously are looking at a situation where you have presidential candidates that as yet have not really provided any clear indication as to what the United States will be as an ally in the future,” Cordesman said.
“This is a summit in which on every important issue there are no good options for either country,” he concluded.