August 31, 2015 | Policy Brief

Saudi King’s Visit Offers Chance to Reset Relations

August 31, 2015 | Policy Brief

Saudi King’s Visit Offers Chance to Reset Relations

President Obama is set to host Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the White House on Friday for the king’s first visit since ascending to the throne in January. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest has indicated that the meeting will focus on bilateral ties, joint counterterrorism efforts, regional topics such as Syria and Yemen, and “steps to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.”

Coming just two weeks before Congress votes on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, the king’s visit will likely focus heavily on Iran.

As with previous agreements, the Saudis have cautiously welcomed the JCPOA while signaling deep concern behind the scenes. Many Saudis have described the agreement’s sunset provisions as the starting gun in a race to develop their own latent nuclear weapons capability. Saudi officials have also questioned the deal’s enforcement provisions, raising concern about whether inspections will be strict enough and whether sanctions could actually be snapped back.

Saudi Arabia also just announced the capture of Ahmed al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shi’ite and one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists. According to a 2001 U.S. indictment, Mughassil was the military commander of Hezbollah’s Saudi offshoot and personally parked the bomb that wounded hundreds and killed 19 U.S. service members in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack. A federal judge later ruled the attack was aided or approved by top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, an Iranian minister, and an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general.

Although Saudi officials would like America to tackle the IRGC directly, the Obama administration has preferred to focus instead on arming the Gulf states to defend themselves without U.S. involvement. To that end, Washington recently doubled its detachment supporting the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed proxies.

The president could also press the Saudis harder to combat Sunni extremists. During Salman’s visit U.S. officials are expected to voice concern over Riyadh’s hosting of Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, a Yemeni cleric under U.S. and UN terror-finance sanctions who reportedly visited Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti this week. Another Yemeni under U.S. terror-finance sanctions, Abdulwahhab al-Humayqani, was spotted in Riyadh this month.

In Syria, where Saudis are part of the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State, Riyadh has also been accused of turning a blind eye to gains made by al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.

Further, Salman hosted Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in July, and the group claims a second meeting with the monarch is in the works for September. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah’s main branch was on list of terror designations Saudi Arabia released last year, part of a counterterrorism law it has used to target terrorists and human-rights activists alike.

Finally, no U.S.-Saudi summit would be complete without a focus on energy and commercial ties. While American oil firms wait out an uncomfortable period of low oil prices (Riyadh’s decision not to cut production last year was a major contributing factor), Salman is expected to attend a bilateral business forum in Washington focused on “energy, health, petrochemicals as well as financial services.”

U.S. officials previously indicated that Salman would visit the White House in May, but the king backed out at the last minute, reportedly in protest of U.S. policy toward Iran. His visit this week offers an opportunity to reset relations on more solid footing.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  He is the principal author of a 2015 Human Rights First blueprint on how U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia could more effectively address rights abuses. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg