John Kerry visits Saudi Arabia to ease fears of rift with ally
November 4th, 2013
06:26 PM ET

John Kerry visits Saudi Arabia to ease fears of rift with ally

By Elise Labott

Call it the Mending Fences tour.

Monday's stop: Saudi Arabia, where Secretary of State John Kerry said he was determined to "make certain the Saudi-U.S. relationship is on track" amid deepening tensions between the United States and its longstanding ally.

Typically private regarding its diplomatic dealings with the United States, the Kingdom has been unusually vocal lately about its unhappiness with American policy.

There isn't a burning issue in the Middle East on which Washington and Riyadh are not at odds, starting with the conflict in Syria. The Kingdom, a main backer of the Syrian opposition, was reportedly aghast when Washington put on hold planned military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Other officials in the region said they were shocked by the about-face, after having pledged support to the Obama administration for the military action. They also share Saudi displeasure with the level of military support Washington has provided the armed Syrian opposition.

Last month, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal described Obama's Syria policies as "lamentable." And in September the Saudis canceled their annual address to the United Nations General Assembly and refused their first election to a Security Council seat in what they made clear was a protest over policy toward Syria and Iran.

Even before he sat down with Saudi King Abdullah Monday, Kerry sought to set a positive tone, hailing Saudi Arabia's role as "the senior player in the Middle East." Before arriving in Riyadh, he sought to minimize the appearance of disagreements between the United States and its gulf allies, portraying them as tactical differences on Syria policy for which they share the same goals.

"There are some countries in the region that wanted the United States to do one thing with respect to Syria, and we have done something else," Kerry said in Cairo on Sunday. "Those differences on an individual tactic on a policy do not create a difference on the fundamental goal of the policy. We all share the same goal that we have discussed; that is, the salvation of the state of Syria."

Saudi Arabia has viewed the conflict in Syria as part of its decades-long regional rivalry with Iran for influence in the region. The Kingdom, along with other countries in the Persian Gulf, are also suspicious of ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers, fearing that a breakthrough could hasten a rapprochement between the United States and Iran that leaves them in the cold. On Sunday, Kerry said he would not allow countries in the Middle East to be "attacked from the outside" - a message viewed as a reference to Iran.

There has also been tension over Egypt, where Saudi Arabia has thrown its support behind the interim government and has been disappointed with what it views as lack of U.S. support for Egypt's military. The Saudis view the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a threat and were angered over Washington's decision to freeze a large portion of the $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt over the military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsy in July. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, have given the interim Egyptian government $12 billion to offset the loss of U.S. aid, with more expected in the coming days.

On Sunday Kerry visited Egypt, where he sought to balance the long-term U.S. commitment to Egypt with U.S. concerns over the derailing of democracy and violations of human rights, which he described as "temporary."

On Monday in Riyadh, both Kerry and Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, downplayed the idea of a rift. Kerry said President Barack Obama sent him to reassure the Kingdom that the United States remains committed to defending it against external threats, a reference to Iran.

Prince Saud portrayed the United States and Saudi Arabia as "two friendly countries," disputing reports that Saudi-American relations have deteriorated.

"A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness, rather than mere courtesy," he said in a prepared statement. "With this perspective, it's only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others."

When pressed, he acknowledged the two sides did have some differences on how to pursue their policy objectives in the region.

From Saudi Arabia, Kerry will travel to the UAE, Jordan and Israel, each of which has expressed concern, albeit less vocal, about what they view as a weakened U.S. posture in the region. While Washington and its Mideast allies share the same goals in the region - a peaceful Syria free of Assad, a non-nuclear Iran and a stable Egypt - diplomats say Washington has done little to assure them its policies will achieve those goals and is losing more influence with its friends.

"Our ally, the sole superpower, is not stepping up to the plate," one Arab official said. "We are afraid we can't rely on them."

The official said inconsistency in U.S. policy in the region without sufficient consultation with its allies is prompting countries to rethink their relationships with Washington and other countries in the region, particularly Iran.

"We don't know what your end game is on Egypt. We are still confused as to the game plan in Syria. We don't know if you are going to sell us out to the Iranians. We have no clarity, and that makes us very nervous," the official said. "Everyone is freaked. Now in the region, they are saying if the Americans are going to sell us out, why not have a chair when the music stops and cut our own deal with Iran."

Senior U.S. officials and analysts alike say fears of a rupture between Washington and Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies are overblown. America, they say, shouldn't be goaded into attacking Syria, arming Syrian rebels or not pursing a deal with Iran to prove its loyalty to countries whose agendas may be different than its own.

While they acknowledge the recent public comments by the Saudis are sharper than in the past, and the decision to pull out of the United Nations Security Council was drastic, they predict the relationships will withstand the recent tensions. It remains to be seen if Kerry's trip is seen as a show of respect that will help heal the rift.

But despite the disenchantment with Washington, there is no clear alternative. While countries like Russia, Turkey and China may play a larger role on the global stages, diplomats recognize there is no substitute for American leadership in the Middle East.

"We cannot turn away from the U.S.," one diplomat acknowledged. "We may not like it, but there is no other benefactor. The U.S. is the only game in town."

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. itwasthebestoftimes

    "We gave Hillary a Fresnell lens so if you can stomach my bloviation, everything will be fine between the crooks in your government and ours.

    November 9, 2013 at 2:47 am | Reply
  2. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  3. Eddie Fonseca

    Amir Diab or Amiro Diab and Ruby both famous Egyptian Arabic singers who's song's have been heard across the Middle East and American radio stations have been the bridge other their cultures for the rest of the world to enjoy. Both singers who have sung in Arabic and Spanish have been a positive role models for their country, America should have more open dialogue with the Middle East to spread American freedom and justice and curb terrorism before it hit's the shores of America. Being an American who has traveled to the Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Jordan the people have always been very open minded and willing to talk about things over a cup of coffee in a local café, from terrorism which affects their lives and other things from the local soccer game on the television. As Americans we need to look past the stereotypical of all Arabs as being terrorists and wanting to harm America, we need to build strong foundation with the Middle East from peaceful trade negations to improving how to curb terrorism for all Americans and the rest of the free world for years to come.

    November 7, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  4. Ydghj Fdfhk

    And when is BIG BROTHER GOING TO GIVE BACK ALL THE THINGS STOLLEN... Hilary.

    November 6, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
  5. Ydghj Fdfhk

    WHERE IS MY BACKPACK FULL OF CASH...

    November 6, 2013 at 9:03 am | Reply
  6. Ydghj Fdfhk

    Kerry better stop handing out cash to other countrys and start collecting currancy from other countries instead and completely offset the entire US Deficit.

    November 6, 2013 at 9:01 am | Reply
  7. gaf

    The saudi people need to get rid of their monarchy. who are these people to run your country? Due to their self interest in staying power they are affecting entire relations between nations and the freedom and prosperity of the middle east. They support dictators that please them, such as the egyptian military. These fools need to be toppled. The problem is that the Saudi population is I think too small but it can be done, take ownership of your lives and country!

    November 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  8. California

    The U.S. Supported Al Qaeda in Libya already.

    It even led to the Benghazi incident.

    November 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  9. Mohand

    first of all, not your business to talk behave of Saudis women and that their lifestyle ,also Arabs do not cover themselves in a tablecloth, they just appreciate human being lives.
    Arabs as you said are innocent and do not blame them by 9/11.
    they are not representing Arabs at all. just like Hitler. he was a German however do not judge the book by its cover

    November 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  10. George patton

    Of course John Kerry is going to "ease" Saudi fears of a rift with the West as if it were somehow in the cards. In the end, these Saudi allies of ours will do anything we tell them to do!!!

    November 5, 2013 at 11:15 am | Reply
  11. Big Cheese

    Why don't the Arabs prop up the Syrian rebels?

    November 4, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Reply
    • maggie

      maybe they are

      November 5, 2013 at 12:42 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      The 9/11 terrorists were Saudis, Bin Laden was Saudi. Enough said?

      November 5, 2013 at 7:45 am | Reply
      • Thinker23

        no, not enough. Hitler was a German and so were his henchmen. Does it necessarily means that Germany is NOT an ally?

        November 5, 2013 at 11:47 am |
      • Jonathan

        It doesn't. Many Americans were terrorists and killers. One person doesn't define the nation.

        November 10, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  12. Big Cheese

    Why do Arabs cover themselves in a tablecloth?

    November 4, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Reply
    • StanCalif

      Because they don't want to excite their women! Women are "property", not human beings! The only country on earth where women can't drive a car or leave the house alone!

      November 5, 2013 at 7:49 am | Reply
  13. Ty

    Lots of drama in Egypt today. Shame on CNN.I guess there is a gag order :-(

    How
    come CNN has no mention at all about Kerry's surprise visit to Egypt
    and the trial of the kidnapped Democratically elected president Morsi.
    Today was the first hearing and he actually declared that he is the
    legitimate elected president. He asked if people wanted him out, how
    come and for how long will the army tanks be on the streets. He actually fired the Defense Minister (Elsisi- head of the military coup) and the Interior Minister (head of police).
    The trial was postponed till January 8,2014. WOW, two months to get to
    the 2nd hearing? I guess the military need that time to fix their act.

    Why did the army spread 20,000 (20 thousand) heavily armed security personnel to to secure the trial. It is like they are at war with the Egyptian people.

    November 4, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
    • maggie

      listen to npr

      November 5, 2013 at 12:44 am | Reply
  14. World Chaos News

    Reblogged this on World Chaos News.

    November 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Reply

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