Washington rolls out red carpet for Saudi king to discuss bloody Yemen war, Iran, Syria

King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia © Jim Bourg
The king of Saudi Arabia is visiting Washington in style, but the substance of his talks will focus on the Iran nuclear deal and the bloody wars in Syria and Yemen. Riyadh expects more US support for its interventions, but may have to settle for weapons.

US President Barack Obama is hoping to get the Saudi monarch’s endorsement for the nuclear deal with Iran, which would help overcome the last vestiges of domestic opposition. The UN, European powers, Russia and China have already endorsed the agreement, but Republican lawmakers and Israel are campaigning to prevent it from taking effect

In return, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is expected to ask for greater US backing for the Saudi campaign in Yemen and the Saudi-backed rebels in Syria. Riyadh sees both the government in Damascus and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as allies or proxies of Iran. Efforts to overthrow the Syrian government and crush the Houthis have not proven very successful, while resulting in massive civilian casualties and large numbers of refugees.

“Saudis could very well be deliberately attacking civilians,” Dr. Stephen Zunes, professor at the University of San Francisco told RT. While the Saudis are not acting in Yemen as US proxies, but pursuing their own objectives, the US could use its leverage as Riyadh’s principal arms supplier to curb the indiscriminate bombing, Zunes said.

That appears unlikely, however, as the US is keen on selling even more weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have already bought $2 billion worth of US missiles earlier this year, and in July the Pentagon announced that a $5.4 billion deal for more missiles was in the works. 

“The purchase of the PAC-3 missiles will support current and future defense missions and promote stability within the region,” the Pentagon said, referring to the third-generation Patriot counter-missiles cleared for sale to Riyadh.

Washington insiders are skeptical about the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. It has created a “predictable humanitarian tragedy that has arguably fueled support for extremists in Yemen while not proving particularly costly to Iran,”wrote Philip Gordon, Obama’s former adviser for the Middle East and North Africa who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Saudi support for the Iran deal at this critical time provides them an important card in the relationship with Washington—just so long as they don’t overplay it,” Gordon added.

The Saudis, however, appear to think that they are calling the shots in the relationship with the US. The meeting with King Salman “might push Washington to reconsider its regional policies and priorities,”wrote Zuhair Al-Harthi, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Saudi Arabia's Shura Council.

“The vague and confused American policy has impacted the political scene and given distorted images to allies as well as enemies and new regional realities have been negatively affected,” Al-Harthi added.

This will be King Salman’s first visit to the US since he assumed the throne in January. He was expected to attend the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in May, but sent a replacement at the last moment. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the GCC includes Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Media in the US have chosen to focus on the Saudi monarch’s lavish travel arrangements, from a fleet of luxury cars to the booking of an entire 200-room hotel for the king and his entourage. According to reports, the Four Seasons hotel in Washington’s swanky district of Georgetown has rolled out the red carpets even in the parking garage, so King Salman’s feet never have to touch the ground.

There may be shrewdness and calculation behind the extravagance, though. King Salman is reportedly relying on advice from Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who spent eight years as the Kingdom’s ambassador in Washington.

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