The long-anticipated meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah was contentious, according to MEB sources contacted just hours after the visit. While no definitive answer was given during the course of the meeting, the Obama Administration had decided, in advance of the summit, to reject requests for more advanced weapons, including manpads, to be delivered to select Syrian rebel groups. The decision was based on a CIA review of the ability of ISIL and the Al Nusra Front to obtain weapons that were in some cases destined for more secular and moderate rebel fighting forces, and on the growing role of Pakistan in providing arms to all rebel factions, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia.
While the Syria issue was one point of contention, a large part of the discussion, which was attended by Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, focused on the ongoing negotiations with Iran. For Saudi Arabia, the Iran issue is “Armageddon,” according to one source familiar with the Saudi preparations for the summit. In the wake of the interim agreement reached last year between Iran and the P5+1, Asian and European investors have been flocking to Tehran in hopes of getting in on an anticipated Iranian oil and gas bonanza if a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program can be reached by the summer. A serious boost in Iranian oil and gas exports would pose a challenge to Saudi domination of the Gulf energy revenues and the political positioning that goes along with it. French and Japanese companies have already begun intense negotiations with Iran, and this is seen as a serious threat in Riyadh.
While U.S. officials traveling with President Obama claimed that the issue of human rights never came up during the meeting, due to the lack of time and the crowded agenda, it is almost certain that President Obama did make at least passing reference. This further exacerbated the tensions between the two allies. Before leaving Riyadh to return to Washington, President Obama met with Maha Al Muneef, a Saudi women’s rights activist who founded the National Family Safety Program.
Going into the meeting, King Abdullah had hoped to get a firm commitment from the U.S. to intensify the campaign to oust President Bashar Al Assad from power. But no such commitment was given. In fact, U.S. intelligence operations in the region are now more focused on blocking the flow of arms to Al Nusra and ISIS than on providing support to rival rebel factions. During a visit to Riyadh to prepare the Obama visit, CIA Director John Brennan had provided detailed intelligence to Saudi counterparts, warning of the increasing threat from the Al Qaeda-linked rebel factions, and arguing that ultimately, these groups would create instability inside the Kingdom. Following his retirement from the State Department last month, Robert Ford, who was the last American ambassador to Syria and later coordinated Washington’s anti-Assad efforts, told reporters that he believed that the Syrian Army had made sufficient gains in recent combat operations that Assad would survive “in the medium term.”
After the Obama-King Abdullah talks ended, there was to be a dinner, but it was cancelled at the last moment for undisclosed “schedule” reasons.