As Obama concludes his fourth and supposedly final meeting to Saudi Arabia as U.S. president, the White House was quick to explain where relations with the Saudi Kingdom lay, and as CNN reported this morning, moved to tamp down suggestions that ties with Saudi Arabia are fraying, with administration officials saying that President Barack Obama "really cleared the air" with King Salman at a meeting Wednesday.
Which is strange because that is not how the other side saw it: even as White House officials stressed that the leaders made progress, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family told CNN "a recalibration" of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was needed amid regional upheaval, dropping oil prices and ongoing strains between the two longtime allies.
There is going to have to be "a recalibration of our relationship with America," former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "How far we can go with our dependence on America, how much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership, what is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together," Turki said in a significant departure from usual Saudi rhetoric. "These are things that we have to recalibrate."
The prince made his "unprecedented" in the words of CNN, comments as Obama landed in Riyadh "to a reception that social media critics termed a snub, but U.S. officials strongly disputed." The Saudi government dispatched the governor of Riyadh and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair to shake Obama's hand, a departure from the scene at the airport earlier in the day when King Salman was shown on state television greeting the leaders of other Gulf nations on the tarmac.
A U.S. official said Salman's absence upon arrival was not taken as a snub and noted that Obama rarely greets foreign leaders when they land in the U.S. for meetings. Obama went immediately to the Erga Palace to meet the King shortly after landing, but the perceived slight on his arrival was seen as one more sign that a relationship long lubricated by barrels of oil is encountering friction.
Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Islamic-Western relations at the London School of Economics, called their current dynamic "an estrangement" but not a break that would end U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
CNN adds that statements after the meeting made clear that deep differences remain on several of these points, with the two sides agreeing to disagree and a U.S. official characterizing the encounter as the start of a discussion rather than a venue for solutions. However, as we expected, none of the core issues that have emerged in the past few days, were even brought up: the two leaders glossed over some of the thorniest matters, including a Saudi threat to dump U.S. assets if Obama signs into law a bill that could make the kingdom liable for damages stemming from the September 11 terror attacks.
So what was addressed? According to Reuters, Obama allayed Gulf countries' fears over Iranian influence and encouraged them to douse sectarian tensions in an effort to confront the threat posed by jihadist militants like Islamic State. The same Islamic State which the same administration admitted had been initially funded by Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, tensions remain high: Most of the GCC states, which also include Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, have been bitterly disappointed in Obama's presidency, during which they believe the United States has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran.
They were also upset by Obama's remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as "free-riders" in U.S. security efforts and urged them to "share" the region with Tehran.
There was the usual made for TV drama, with CNN adding that "for all the crosscurrents buffetting U.S.-Saudi relations, analysts and former officials say the two countries aren't at the end of a love affair so much as in an unhappy marriage in which both sides, for better or worse, are stuck with each other."
"Despite all these differences, Saudi Arabia and America are not getting divorced," said Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA official. "We need each other."
Which is also why none of the much demanded revelations by the US public about Saudi involvement in the Sept 11 bombing will ever be revealed.