Home / Opinion / Why Obama is visiting a different Saudi Arabia this time | Faisal J. Abbas
Barack Obama, King Salman

Why Obama is visiting a different Saudi Arabia this time | Faisal J. Abbas

It’s amazing how much can change in two years, and it is more amazing when we talk about a country where change has been historically slow, which has always been the case in Saudi Arabia. However, a changed kingdom is exactly what US President Barack Obama is going to witness upon arriving in Riyadh this week.

In March 2014, President Obama visited the late King Abdullah. At the time, the ailing monarch’s health condition was suffering, and the same applied to the otherwise extremely healthy Saudi-US relations.

What was poisoning the waters between Riyadh and Washington at the time were the latter’s insistence on backing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (a group classified as a terrorist organization by the Saudis and most GCC countries), the mishandling of the crisis in Syria particularly after Mr. Obama’s U-turn on punishing the Assad regime for using chemical weapons and most notably, the US administration’s fondness of Iran which, a few months later, materialized into a controversial nuclear deal. The agreement has left the regime in Tehran (which Obama himself described as a state sponsor of terror) unshackled for the first time in over 30 years.

Furthermore, there were serious questions at the time relating to the succession in Saudi Arabia, as well as severe tensions between the Gulf allies themselves (namely with the State of Qatar) and in the region as a whole which was still suffering from the turbulence caused by the 2011 Arab Spring. However, there was no resource-exhausting war in Yemen and oil was still selling at over $100 per barrel; so the kingdom was in an excellent shape economically.

Much has happened since King Abdullah passed away and King Salman ascended to the throne at a time when oil prices fell to less than half of what they were selling at prior to his demise. The Houthi militia overthrew the legitimate government of President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen and threatened the southern border of Saudi Arabia, which led to a war which remains ongoing.

This certainly hasn’t been the first time ties between Washington and Riyadh have been put to the test. This alliance – which has always been built on mutual interests, respect and a similar determination to bring peace and prosperity to the region – will endure

Faisal J. Abbas

Meanwhile, the threats imposed by ISIS intensified and despite the fact that this terrorist group has attacked the kingdom repeatedly, many critics absurdly would like us to believe that Riyadh is secretly supporting the same group which seeks to eradicate it. Furthermore, unlike what Obama had hoped, Iran didn’t show any sign of changing its destabilizing behavior in the region as a result of the nuclear deal.

The outcome of all these challenging conditions, as well as a number of wrong decisions and lack of proper external communication, has seen Riyadh suffering from severely negative international media coverage which didn’t only bring criticism to the table, but even doubts that the country itself could remain intact.

However, not only did the kingdom withstand the storm, but it came out much stronger. Of course, this was mainly due to the fact that much of the pessimism was manufactured and speculative. However, one can’t ignore that it is also due to the incredible stamina and willingness to take the plunge, which was and still is being displayed by the new breed of Saudi policymakers, namely Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — who is the king’s son, the country’s defense minister and the head of its Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA).

Indeed, of all that has been accomplished by King Salman since January 2015, the one thing that has had a tremendous impact on this fresh, new vibe in the Kingdom was his determination to settle the issue of succession and empower the youth once and for all.

The result? Well, President Obama arrives to Riyadh to attend a GCC meeting that has transcended most of the rifts of the past. He is also arriving to a capital city which is now home to an unprecedented military alliance of more than 30 Muslim countries which are actively cooperating to combat terrorism, eradicate its funding and present a counterterrorism ideological narrative.

Just a few days ago, the Saudi cabinet issued new regulations which now prevent the kingdom’s Commission of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (commonly referred to as the “religious police”) from pursuing and detaining people; a decision that has resulted in much praise both internally and even externally from extremely critical bodies, such as Human Rights Watch.

Furthermore, observers tend to forget that it’s within the past 18 months that women were allowed to vote and participate in municipality elections for the first time ever. The Kingdom’s Shoura Council has revisited the controversial ban on women driving. In addition, Saudi markets are now open to foreign investment and, as revealed by HRH the Deputy Crown Prince in his recent Economist interview, the investment opportunity will eventually also include the “crown jewel:” Saudi Aramco.

‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’

It is sad, however, that Riyadh seems to always be in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Indeed, one can’t help but ridicule recent reports which have labeled all of the above (and the many more) achievements of the new Saudi government as merely a nationwide “face-lift” prior to Obama’s upcoming visit.

First of all, this will be Mr. Obama’s last scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia as US President and the time he has left in the White House is too little to expect any major changes in policy or attitude. Now, while relations with the current administration might have had its ups and downs, this certainly hasn’t been the first time ties between Washington and Riyadh have been put to the test. The reality is that this alliance – which has always been built on mutual interests, respect and a similar determination to bring peace and prosperity to the region – will endure.

But most importantly, and as will clearly emerge when the Saudi government announces its vision for the future on April 25, the reforms were done – and will always be done – for no reason other than to ensure the sustained prosperity and wellbeing of the country’s citizens and residents.

Indeed, one doesn’t set a long-term plan to rid the nation of its dependence on oil, to diversify the economy and create new job and investment opportunities for a nation that is predominantly young and ambitious, merely to serve a PR strategy. Nor will these policies deny the fact that there is much work that still needs to be done in terms of women rights, judicial reforms, media and labor issues.

The truth is that Saudi Arabia is undergoing a transformation, and whoever becomes the next US president will certainly have the advantage of working with a young, dynamic, outward-looking government that is determined to succeed and is truly leading the region once again.


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