RIYADH (Reuters) - If Secretary of State John Kerry visited Riyadh to reassure top Saudis that their anger over U.S. Middle East policy is unfounded, he has more work to do.
King Abdullah, who is 90 this year and rarely meets visiting officials, mustered a full complement of senior princes to sit in on Monday’s talks with Kerry. Such a lineup marked both his high regard for the old alliance with the United States, and his ire at Washington’s recent actions.
Saudi leaders fear President Barack Obama’s administration has stopped listening to its Arab ally, particularly on Syria’s civil war and the nuclear dispute with Iran. This risks handing regional supremacy to their chief rival, Tehran, they believe.
Kerry offered assurances in Riyadh, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must depart and that the Saudis would be kept fully abreast of nuclear talks with Iran.
“Our relationship is strategic, it is enduring,” Kerry said after the meeting while Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal added: “It’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others”.
Nevertheless, the Saudis seem to remain unconvinced. “This is the feeling in the inner circle: They welcome his visit. They respect his desire to see the king. But he brought the glass half empty,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre based in Jeddah and Geneva.
Washington has shown some willingness to risk strains with allies to pursue U.S. goals of avoiding military intervention in Syria and seeking a nuclear deal with Iran.
But Riyadh’s message has been uncharacteristically blunt and public in recent weeks, as a senior prince - intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan - spoke of a “major shift” away from the United States.
Kerry’s prompt visit showed Washington was worried the disagreements would undermine U.S. policy elsewhere in the Middle East, even though its main interests on safeguarding oil supplies and fighting al Qaeda remain unaffected.
He promised to confront aggression directed at Gulf partners “as we did for Kuwait in the Gulf War”. But while the U.S. forces led the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, times have changed. A Reuters/Ipsos survey last month showed only 13 percent of Americans backed U.S. intervention in Syria.
Prince Saud said “most of (our) differences are in tactics”, but it was clear major points of disagreement had been aired between Kerry and King Abdullah, whom the Secretary of State described as a “candid” friend.
Alongside Abdullah and Prince Saud in the meeting were Crown Prince Salman, Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Muqrin, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and National Guard Minister Prince Miteb bin Abdullah. The group represented almost every top royal.
“This shows a united stance, sending a strong message of disapproval,” said a Saudi analyst close to official thinking.
No issue has aroused more disapproval than the U.S. decision not to bomb Syria after a poison gas attack in August, and Washington’s subsequent agreement to a diplomatic process for removing Assad’s chemical arsenal.
“Reducing the Syrian crisis to merely destroying chemical weapons - which is but a small aspect of it - won’t help put an end to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of our times,” Prince Saud said at Monday’s news conference.
The ruling princes regard Syria as a battleground for regional supremacy between a Shi’ite alliance backed by Iran, and pro-Western Sunni Muslim countries including Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Turkey.
That strategic view is backed by what people close to the leadership describe as a sense of outrage at Assad’s use of heavy weapons to target civilian neighbourhoods held by rebels.
They have said from the outset that no solution can be possible without Assad’s departure, but despite Kerry’s assurance that this also remains Washington’s goal, they are sceptical the United States will follow through.
“Kerry says Assad must go. But (the Americans) have said that for a long time and their actions haven’t supported that. They promised support for the rebels, but their actions haven’t supported that,” said Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03 under President George Bush.
Jordan pointed to Kerry’s repeated statements that the United States did not want military involvement in Syria.
“Absent a negotiated solution, we don’t see a lot of ways to end the violence ... that are implementable or palatable to us because we don’t have the legal authority or the justification or the desire at this point to get in the middle of a civil war,” Kerry said on Monday.
An opinion piece by Ghassam al-Imam in Tuesday’s Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, a pan-Arab daily owned by the family of Crown Prince Salman, described Obama’s policies as “disastrous”, and particularly castigated “defeatism” in the face of Iran.
It is a viewpoint that, said Alani, is widely held in the Saudi leadership, which fears Obama does not share their belief that Iran is engaged in an increasingly brazen attempt to gain dominance over the Arab world.
Alani pointed particularly to the role played in the Syrian conflict this year by the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, regarded by Riyadh as a surrogate for Iran, as a watershed moment for Saudi princes.
“There is a gap in the threat perception. We lived with Hezbollah for many years in Lebanon. But now we have clear evidence it’s an arm of interventionist Iranian policy,” he said.
While Kerry barely mentioned Hezbollah at Monday’s news conference, Prince Saud was explicit. “I consider Syria an occupied land... right now the most important step (Iran) can take to prove its good intentions is to get out of Syria and get its ally, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, out of there too,” he said.
But perhaps nothing reflected the differences in priorities more than Kerry’s statement that Iranian involvement in Arab states was less urgent than resolving the nuclear dispute.
“We are well aware of Iran’s activities in the region... and they concern us. It concerns us that Iran has personnel on the ground in Syria. It concerns us that Hezbollah is active in conjunction with Iran’s support. But the first step is the nuclear step,” Kerry said.
New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said he wants to resolve the decade-old dispute over the nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is peaceful.
However, Riyadh fears a nuclear-armed Iran or that Obama will allow the Iranians to become a “threshold state”, lacking the bomb itself but retaining the ability to make one very quickly, said Jordan.
But they also see it as less urgent than Iranian involvement in Syria and elsewhere. “The nuclear file is important, but it is not killing 200 people in Syria every day,” said Alani.
Additional reporting by William Maclean and Sami Aboudi in Dubai and Lesley Wroughton in Warsaw; editing by David Stamp