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."