The Saudi Problem and the Head of the Snake

Does Obama still have pull over Riyadh, when the king's point man -- Prince Bandar -- is pulling the strings from afar?

The key figure in U.S.-Saudi relations wasn't present when President Barack Obama met with King Abdullah on Friday, March 28, but his spirit undoubtedly dominated the meeting. Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- the nephew of the Saudi monarch, the head of Saudi intelligence, and a former long-serving ambassador to Washington -- was probably still in Morocco, where he has been recovering from surgery to his shoulder. But despite rumors to the contrary, he remains the key player in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Bandar's disappearance a couple of months ago was spun by U.S. officials as the sidelining of a fading, volatile figure whose views on Iran and the civil war in Syria were irritatingly incompatible with the U.S. perspective. The reality is that Bandar is still the point person for Saudi policy on Syria, even as his cousin, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, coordinates with the United States. And from Riyadh's point of view, if the man once termed "Bandar Bush" for his closeness to Republican circles of power gives the Obama administration heartburn, that's just too bad.

Bandar's persistent strength is that he is the enabler of King Abdullah's vision for his kingdom and the Middle East. The monarch wants Syria's Bashar al-Assad overthrown, Iran's Hezbollah surrogates contained, and the "head of the snake" -- Iran, in the king's view -- cut off. While Bandar deals with the specifics, it's the king who sets the broad course of Saudi policy and may even be more hawkish than his intelligence chief. Compared with the king, Bandar is a self-described "pussy cat."

Previous meetings between Obama and King Abdullah have proved to be a political and diplomatic minefield. Their first meeting, in April 2009, produced the famous video of Obama allegedly bowing to the king, which his critics seized upon as evidence that the president was being overly obsequious to the monarch. Two months later, Obama stopped in Riyadh before making his famous speech in Cairo, which promised a "new beginning" to American relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds after the Bush-era invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. At this meeting, Obama asked King Abdullah to allow overflight rights to Israeli passenger jets heading to Asia, as a gesture to kick-start the Middle East peace process. Annoyed at this request being sprung on him without proper preparation -- an early indication of the naiveté of the Obama team -- Abdullah gave a curt "no."

The Obama administration's attempted rapprochement with Iran has resulted in further headaches with Riyadh. King Abdullah was upset about the terms of the interim nuclear deal signed with Tehran, and he let Secretary of State John Kerry know it during a terrible meeting the two held in November. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal noted in the news conference immediately afterward that "a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness." That's diplomatic code for saying it was a shouting match. Apparently, King Abdullah did the "plain speaking," and Kerry had to listen -- for a couple of hours.

Both sides had an impressive laundry list of issues for this round of talks. Riyadh is concerned with the Iranian nuclear file, the Syrian uprising, Iranian subversion in Bahrain and the oil-rich Saudi Eastern Province, and supporting the military-backed regime in Egypt. Washington takes a different view on each of these topics and also wanted to add a few more issues to the agenda -- most notably, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and women's rights within the kingdom.

The Obama administration wants Saudi Arabia's continuing support-cum-pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Middle East peace process. Despite the kingdom's coldness to Israel, its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative explicitly backs a two-state solution -- and the White House wants to make sure it puts those words into action. Political reforms at home, meanwhile, could help suggest that the kingdom is not opposed to the demise of rigid autocracies across the Middle East -- though this is probably a forlorn hope. Saudi Arabia's ban on allowing women to drive continues to lead many Americans to question their country's close relationship with the kingdom -- and female Saudi activists are planning to flout the law again on Saturday in another "drive day."

Bandar is so crucial to Saudi policy precisely because the king does not believe Washington will deliver on the issues that matter most to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is gravely concerned by perceived U.S. weakness -- whether it's being made to look like a loser by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crimea or standing idly by while Assad regains the momentum in his country's civil war. If Washington is absent, the kingdom needs its own fix-it man to protect its regional interests.

King Abdullah sees Iran as the root of all trouble in the Middle East -- and he wants his Persian rival cut back to size so it is not a quasi-hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf and its support for Assad results in a bloody nose. Apart from strong words, the Saudi monarch may also use threats: After all, he can always go to Islamabad for a few nuclear weapons to bolster the kingdom's sense of security. Such an option directly conflicts with Obama's supposed core foreign-policy issue -- nuclear nonproliferation -- but there is little Washington can really do other than saying it would be very upset.

Saudi Arabia could also tweak Washington by increasing its support to Islamist militias in Syria, which have proved more effective than moderate rebel forces. Bandar has referred to these nasty fighters as "cut-throat sons of bitches." Saudi Arabia has recently banned its citizens from going to fight in Syria, so these SOBs may have to come from somewhere else. The Obama administration is gravely worried that over 1,000 of them hold U.S. or European passports and could someday come home -- fired up with Islamist fervor and training and eager to take their jihad to the West.

This is a lot to cram into what was unlikely no more than a two-hour meeting. King Abdullah is 91 years old this year, and he tires easily these days -- he is overweight and cannot stand without a walker. As reports come out, it will be interesting to see who else was in the room, apart from the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, the king's favorite English-language interpreter. One revealing indicator will be the interaction -- or lack thereof -- between Obama and the king's 77-year-old half brother, Crown Prince Salman. The next prince in line for the throne has just returned from a hectic series of official visits to Pakistan, Japan, India, the Maldives, and China, and he is rumored to be less cogent than King Abdullah. Indeed, a royal decree announced on March 27 that his younger half brother, Muqrin, had been named to a new post of deputy crown prince, perhaps marginalizing Salman.

Being Saudi Arabia's king in waiting, however, does not mean that Salman will be the future leader. The White House is sensitive to this -- so look for who else Obama spends time with. Whoever it is, it won't be Bandar, neither as conversationalist with the U.S. president nor as the leader of his country. But as Bandar is the man to watch today, a new generation of royals will be needed to guide Saudi Arabia through the tumultuous years ahead.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


The Triumph of Putin Is When Good Countries Do Nothing

While Obama focuses on shoring up European support to fend off Russian aggression, it's actually powerful emerging nations that hold the key.

President Barack Obama was shoring up alliances this week with visits to The Hague, Rome, Brussels, and Riyadh -- all trips designed, for the most part, to counterbalance a bellicose Vladimir Putin. But if he really wants his flanks covered, the U.S. president should consider routing Air Force One for stops in New Delhi, Brasilia, Pretoria, and other capitals that may look irrelevant to the crisis, but are anything but.

Obama's March 26 speech in Brussels affirmed the sanctity of the transatlantic alliance but made only passing reference to rising powers elsewhere in the world. While coordinating with Europe over the past few weeks, Obama has managed to hold close America's trusted traditional allies, such as Canada, Australia, and Japan. Meanwhile, the administration has had to keep an eye on Iran, Syria, and other flash points such as Venezuela and the Central African Republic.

But Washington needs eyes in the back of its head to ensure that the world's leading rising powers -- Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, India, and Indonesia -- don't, deliberately or not, stab it in the back by gradually giving Putin the global legitimacy that the Obama administration wants to deny him.

These six countries maintain complex and often strong relationships with an array of powers worldwide. They have built their economies and their regional influence, cultivating ties in Beijing, Washington, Brussels, Moscow, and points in between.

Since entering office, Obama has mounted a charm offensive geared toward key regional leaders, building friendships that serve partly as counterweights to China's and Russia's own voracious networking. Closer cooperation with these countries formed a centerpiece of Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2011 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review -- both core statements of the administration's strategy and policy direction.

India and Indonesia, respectively, are the world's first and third most populous democracies, and they are centerpieces of Washington's "pivot to Asia" and approach to handling China's rise. Brazil and Argentina are the most influential players in Washington's near abroad, and South Africa and Nigeria are key to countering terrorism and fostering trade and development across Africa. Reflecting their importance, the Obama administration has included these countries in an array of treaties, strategic dialogues, and commissions all aimed at improving relations -- partly as a counterweight to China and Russia.

As for these six countries, their willingness to help solve global problems and conflicts -- as measured by things like their votes as nonpermanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- is monitored not just by Washington and Brussels, but also by Moscow and Beijing. And these capitals all likely judge the results as mixed.

On a tense global rift like the Crimea conflict, most capitals instinctively want to stay out of the way. Ukraine is mercifully distant from most of the developing world. But these countries have long complained that structures like the G-7, G-8, and Security Council are obsolete and ignore today's global power realities. India, Brazil, and South Africa have been among the most vociferous in demanding a seat at the table in global affairs, and they won't be able to hide for long in the face of a prolonged international conflagration.

In the drama over Ukraine and Russia's relationship to the West, the supporting actors could ultimately matter nearly as much as the stars. Russia is boasting that it will survive the West's sanctions because it has alternative trading partners. Having been blacklisted by the West, Putin will either be left friendless or will succeed in turning the BRICS, a coalition of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, into a tight new clique. These countries' warmth toward him may affect his calculus on whether to push further on eastern Ukraine or call it a day with Crimea.

These nations also influence bloc votes at the U.N. General Assembly, where Russia’s actions were the subject of a new resolution -- brought forward by Ukraine on March 27 -- to not recognize the annexation of Crimea. One hundred nations voted in favor and just 11 against, but another 82 were either absent or abstained, including Argentina, Brazil, India, and South Africa. As the Russian president rewrites the rules on sovereignty and cross-border intervention, these countries will help determine whether his actions go down in history as an aberration or as a new normal. And as Washington tries to prove that it can still rally the world, these countries can affirm that the United States still has its mojo, or confirm a narrative of decline.

During the run-up to the Crimea referendum, Washington and Brussels seemed to be winning most hearts and minds. On March 15 at the U.N. Security Council, the United States rallied every member state, save China and Russia, to vote not to recognize the Crimea referendum. It was Nigeria's U.N. ambassador who warned, "The lessons of history are not far-fetched, and we are concerned that the mistakes of history must not be repeated by those alive today." Indonesia echoed the same sentiment, saying, "We cannot accept any move that violates sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

But history suggests that the support summoned in an immediate crisis doesn't always last. After the 2011 Security Council vote to stop Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Libyan insurgents, India, South Africa, and Brazil quickly slipped into voters' remorse. The specter of a Western-led military onslaught to remove Qaddafi from power tapped into old anti-colonial mantras, triggering an almost visceral aversion. Their turnabout translated to their resistance to international intervention in Syria, giving Putin a measure of cover for his support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When considering faraway foreign-policy dilemmas, many of these rising powers are influenced by a competing trifecta of impulses: old anti-imperialist antipathy toward the West, especially Western shows of force; the liberal, democratic values most of these nations have espoused in their constitutions; and the desire to demonstrate their own sophistication and significance on the world stage. The Ukraine conflict inserts certain additional factors into the mix, spanning trade relationships, military partnerships, historical alliances, and concerns about how precedents on sovereignty and self-determination might play out locally.

On March 24, a BRICS meeting at the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague announced that the group rejected sanctions and the use of "hostile language" (presumably by the United States and Europe) in the Ukraine conflict.

Citing a long-standing policy against sanctions that lack U.N. endorsement, India presaged the BRICS's pronouncement by refusing to back Western measures directed at Russia. Days after India's national security advisor said that there were "legitimate Russian … interests" in Crimea, Putin publicly thanked India for its "restrained and objective" stance. All things considered, this likely wasn't a tough choice for India: The country relies on Russia for three-quarters of its arms supply, and U.S.-India relations have deteriorated in the wake of the nanny-wage scandal.

Brazil, a major meat supplier for Russia, has been circumspect, breaking its silence only to blandly call for a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis. But its foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, confirmed that the upcoming BRICS summit will meet in July as planned -- a promise to Putin that he will be in the group photo with his fellow heads of state and government.

Although Argentina voted for the U.S.-backed resolution, its president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has since linked the fate of Crimea to that of the Falkland Islands, which voted in a referendum in 2013 to remain part of Britain. The analogy is spurious, as the Falklands, a British territory since 1833, simply voted to remain so. Nonetheless, she called out Western hypocrisy, saying, "Many of the major powers, which have secured the Falklands' people right to self-determination, do not want to do the same in relation to the Crimea now. How can you call yourselves guarantors of world stability if you do not apply the same standards for everyone?"

It is already clear that Washington and Brussels will have a hard time sustaining the support of rising powers over Crimea. Key milestones ahead will reveal whether Obama or Putin is winning the battles of allegiance. If rising nations side with Russia, this could undermine the years of investment Washington has made in bettering relations with these countries, making the rift with Russia more costly.

The Obama administration can do three things to better its chances with key non-Western capitals. For one, it can make a public show of consulting rising powers as friends and allies, just as Russia has done by meeting with the BRICS. If there's one thing these countries hate, it is being left out of the conversation.

The administration should also ensure that Ukraine's young government has the bandwidth and resources needed to mobilize its own embassies and U.N. mission to directly approach foreign capitals for support -- places like India and South Africa, which have also resisted great-power domination.

And, finally, the Crimea precedent could have dangerous implications for Tibet and Taiwan. Obama wisely met on March 24 with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a show of cooperation that flew in the face of the BRICS communiqué. Forced to choose between the United States and Russia, other developing capitals will be inclined to follow China's lead. And as the largest of the BRICS, China could well determine whether their united facade endures or crumbles.

Photo: Alexey Maishev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images