Kerry Begins Fence-Mending Visit to Saudi Arabia

By Patrick Goodenough | November 4, 2013 | 4:49 AM EST

Secretary of State John Kerry is escorted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal as he arrives in Riyadh late on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013. (AP Photo / Jason Reed, Pool)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Saudi Arabia on a visit aimed at placating deep concerns about U.S. regional policy, illustrated recently in unprecedented actions and stinging criticism from influential members of the royal family.

Kerry’s itinerary in Riyadh includes his first meeting with King Abdullah. A senior administration official in a background briefing ahead of the trip said communication with the Saudi leadership occurs constantly, but added that it was also “very important that he will be able to have this conversation with the Saudi king” on Monday.

“This conversation” will encompass frustrations voiced by the Saudis in recent weeks regarding the U.S. reaction to the conflict in Syria, its cautious outreach to Iran, its response to the Egyptian political crisis, and the slow movement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

If the Saudis had their way the U.S. would have carried out its declared intention to bomb Syria in response to the deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus last August, a step that could have sped up the downfall of the regime. They see the negotiated U.S.-Russia deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons as a ruse to prolong President Bashar Assad’s regime – and the Syrian people’s misery.

The kingdom favors an uncompromising stance on Iran’s nuclear activity and destabilizing policies, and worries about a perceived softening in Washington and the West towards its regional rival.

Saudi Arabia was pleased to see the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt, and disapproved of the recent partial withholding of U.S. aid in response to its ousting of President Mohammed Morsi.

It also wants the U.S. to put more pressure on Israel to make concessions in talks with the Palestinian Authority over final-status issues standing in the way of a settlement to the long-running conflict.

All of these issues were cited in Saudi Arabia’s surprising decision last month to turn down a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, one day after being elected onto the top decision-making body.

Although it directed its criticism then at the council’s permanent members in general, its main gripe is with the U.S., as was underlined in remarks in the following days by two senior members of the royal family, both former ambassadors to the United States.

First Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, was quoted as telling European diplomats that the kingdom was planning a “shift” away from the U.S., unhappy about its outreach to Iran and its reluctance to act in Syria.

Then a day later Prince Turki al-Faisal, brother to veteran Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, gave a speech in Washington that included some sharp criticisms of U.S. decision-making, especially with regard to the Syrian crisis.

“The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people,” he told the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations on October 23.

Turki spoke of Assad “enjoying the protection of the Security Council” and alluded to “contradictions” in U.S. Syria policy, between saying Assad must go and not providing the opposition with weapons to achieve that end.

On Egypt, Turki said in response to the military’s decision to save the country “from disaster,” Saudi Arabia had “unconditionally authorized $5 billion dollars in grants, loans, and deposits to Egypt’s emerging government, which stands in stark comparison to the conditional loans that the U.S. and Europe have promised and keep threatening to freeze.”

The speech also included references to Iranian President Hasan “Rouhani’s sweet talk and Obama’s open arms approach to him,” while on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Turki said that if Obama “dithers on what is needed to convince [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu to reach an accord, as he is doing on Syria, there will not be one.”

‘Tactical differences’

At the time State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf took issue with the notion of a serious policy disagreement.

“Fundamentally, our relationship is a very close and strong one with the Saudis,” she said.

“We work very closely with Prince Bandar, with Turki al-Faisal, with the king, and [Foreign Minister] Saud al-Faisal and others. That’s not going to change. We’ve been very clear that, again, we have the same goals.”

On a stopover in Cairo Sunday en route to Riyadh, Kerry was asked about U.S. relationships in the Middle East in the light of a pushback by allies like Saudi Arabia, and he insisted that America continues to play a “critical role” in the region.

He acknowledged that the U.S. stance on Syria had brought some criticism.

“We can have a difference on a policy, on the tactics of the policy. For instance, 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,” he said.

But the fundamental goal – a transitional government that allows Syrians to choose their future – was shared by all, he said.

In an apparent reference to regional concerns about Iran’s activities and ambitions, Kerry said, “We will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the Emirates, for the Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others. We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them.”

He reiterated the administration’s position that the U.S. will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. “That is a promise by the president of the United States.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow