The Arab media is buzzing today over the announcement that President Obama will travel to Riyadh before arriving in Cairo for his big address to the Islamic world. Why the late addition to his itinerary?
The first wave of response was a pure reflection of endemic inter-Arab rivalries. The Saudis and their advocates are exultant, the Egyptians seem a bit deflated and defensive, and the "resistance camp" is alternately complaining about the concentration on the usual "Axis of Sunni Dictators" and egging on the Saudi-Egyptian sniping.
The Egyptians had been making much hay off of Obama's choice of Cairo for the speech, arguing that this vindicated Egypt's (deeply unpopular) foreign policy and signaled Egypt's return to the forefront of Arab leadership. This seeming support for Egypt's (deeply unpopular) foreign policy was one of the reasons for my reservations about the choice of locale in the first place, although as with everything it depends on whether Obama endorses or challenges that approach in his speech. With the Saudis now the American President's first port of call, the Egyptian claim to renewed leadership is weaker.
After that inter-Arab rivalry business, Arabs are trying to puzzle out the greater political significance of the trip. One group sees it as tied closely to the Israeli-Palestinian track, focusing on the Arab Peace Initiative and the coming unveiling of the Obama approach to Israeli-Arab relations. Another sees it as tied more closely to Iran, preparing the Saudis for the coming engagement (or confrontation) with Tehran.
The key question for Obama's trip the region, his speech, and his strategic approach both to Iran and the Israeli-Arab tracks is this: will he reinforce or challenge the "moderates vs resistance" frame which he inherited from the Bush administration? The Arab leaders he has been meeting, like the Israelis, are perfectly comfortable with that approach, dividing the region between Israel and Arab "moderates" vs Iran and Arab "resistance" groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. That's the easy path. If followed it is likely to fail badly, destroy the hopes for change which his engagement policy has raised, and leave the region right back where Bush left it. But I think -- and hope -- that Obama will not fall into that trap.
He has an opportunity over the next few weeks -- with the unveiling of his approach to Israel and the Palestinians, the response to the Lebanese and Iranian elections, and his Cairo speech -- to break down those tired, dangerous, and unpopular lines of division. And if he chooses to do that, to really challenge the unsustainable status quo, then Riyadh and Cairo are the right place to start.