ASG's Prem Kumar in the Washington Post on Obama's Meeting With Saudi King

Saudi king visits the White House to an uncertain welcome

By Greg Jaffe

President Obama hasn’t been easy on the Saudi royal family. He riled up Saudi royals by saying that the “biggest threats” to America’s Arab allies may not emanate from longtime foe Iran, but from their own youth, chafing under restrictive rule.

The president took that critique a step further in July when he confided that he “weeps for the children” of the Middle East. “Not just the ones who are being displaced in Syria,” Obama told the New York Times, “but just the ordinary Iranian youth or Saudi youth or Kuwaiti youth” who don’t have the same prospects as children in Europe and Asia.

Obama will meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Friday at the White House to discuss the growing threat posed by the Islamic State, the prospect of increased Iranian aggression, and plans to contain the chaos in Yemen and Syria.

One subtext of the meeting: the persistently tense relationship between the United States and one of its most important Persian Gulf allies.

“I doubt that the president will be that blunt in the Oval Office” in his criticism of the Saudis, said Prem Kumar, a former top White House adviser on the Middle East and now a vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm. “He will want to know where Saudi Arabia is heading.”

The Saudis in recent weeks have expressed support for the nuclear deal with Iran, which has come under intense criticism from congressional Republicans and some Democrats. But they also have expressed deep concern that Iran will leverage the financial gains that come with the lifting of sanctions to arm proxy fighters and generate more chaos in a region that has experienced record levels of violence.

“Their priority is Iran’s negative behavior,” said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Saudi view is that the U.S. has been too passive in both Yemen and Syria.”

One of the administration’s top aims, meanwhile, is to convince its Persian Gulf Arab allies to play a more active role in restoring order in the region. The relief of sanctions that are part of the nuclear deal are expected to net Iran about $56 billion in the near term. The president has suggested that the Iranians will have to use much of that to repair crumbling infrastructure and revive an economy battered by the sanctions regime.

Even if Iran pumps a large amount of that money into its military, it will still spend vastly less than the United States’ Arab allies, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

“The defense budget of our gulf partners is more than eight times that of Iran,” Rhodes said in a briefing for reporters. “There’s no amount of sanctions relief that could even begin to close that gap.”

Administration officials said they do not expect any major new announcements regarding weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Rather, they would like to see the Saudis invest more in relatively inexpensive weapons and training that can counter the unconventional threats posed by Iran and its proxies, such as the Lebanon-based Shiite militant movement Hezbollah. Instead of buying costly fighter jets or attack helicopter, Rhodes said, the White House has been encouraging the Saudis to focus more on building up their special forces, sharing intelligence and cooperating with gulf allies in areas such as cybersecurity and missile defense.

For months, conversations between U.S. and Saudi officials have been consumed by the Iran nuclear deal. Now the focus is turning to “what’s next in the region after the Iran deal,” said Matt Spence, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration. Much of that conversation will focus on Yemen, where the Saudis are leading a coalition of gulf allies battling Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

The Obama administration has applauded the Saudis for taking the initiative in battling the rebels while at the same time it has fretted over the destruction that the Saudi-led campaign is causing.

The United States has cautioned the Saudis, along with the other combatants, about the growing humanitarian crisis there. “What we have been doing is urging all of the parties involved . . . to take steps to allow for unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Yemen,” said Jeff Prescott, senior director for the Middle East in the White House.

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