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An Old Alliance Faces New Pressures as Obama Heads to Saudi Arabia

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WASHINGTON — Over the last seven decades, photographs of American presidents side by side with the kings of Saudi Arabia have provided visual evidence of an enduring, strategic alliance between the United States and the oil-rich kingdom in the Middle East.

On Wednesday, President Obama will add one more photo to the scrapbook when he arrives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for a private meeting with King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 80-year-old monarch.

But the expected image of the two leaders will fail to convey the depth of the strain on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. During Mr. Obama’s tenure, there has been distrust and disagreement over how to contain Iran, the fight against the Islamic State, the future of Syria and clashes in Yemen. Blunt comments about the Saudis by Mr. Obama in a recent interview have deepened the ill will.

“The relationship is troubled. It’s rocky,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he added, “it’s not headed for an impending collapse.”

That is because the two nations still need each other. The United States provides military and intelligence support to the kingdom for its regional security, and is expected to announce additional support this week. Saudi Arabia helps fight terror groups like Al Qaeda and remains the second-largest provider of oil imports to the United States, selling about one million barrels per day.

Now, with Mr. Obama in the twilight of his presidency, Saudi leaders are looking past him, to the winner of November’s presidential election.

“For them, the Obama ship sailed a long time ago,” said Danielle Pletka, the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “They, like the rest of us, don’t have a clue what’s coming next.”

What Do the Saudis Want?

In the 70 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the alliance at the end of World War II, the Saudis have primarily looked to the United States to help ensure its security in an often unstable region. They want the United States to have their back, especially in a potential conflict with Iran, their longstanding regional rival.

That has meant, for the most part, military equipment: The United States has helped Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-dominated state, to obtain weapons to deter Iran, a mostly Shiite country. More recently, the Saudis have sought intelligence assistance and training, and the United States has given the Saudis targeting and logistical support for their war in Yemen.

This week, the United States is expected to announce that it will bolster ballistic missile defenses in the region and provide new support for Saudi efforts to counter cyberattacks from Iran and elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia has “become more and more dependent on the U.S. military for any really serious contingency,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What Does the United States Want?

The United States has looked to Saudi Arabia as a source of stability in the Middle East, an ally whose oil reserves have only recently begun to diminish in importance for American interests.

“American presidents want to have a decent relationship with the country that exports more oil than any other in the rest of the world,” said F.Gregory Gause III, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Saudi Arabia has worked with the United States in a campaign against Al Qaeda — and more recently against the Islamic State, a group seen as a regional danger and a direct threat to American security. The United States has sought the kingdom’s help in efforts to end the Syrian civil war.

The Obama administration also wants changes inside Saudi Arabia, where religious minorities and women often face marginalization. Officials said Mr. Obama would raise the issue of human rights, but few expect the subject to overshadow security concerns.

White House officials say the alliance remains strong. Even so, Rob Malley, a Middle East adviser to the president, conceded last week that “our views and those of some of our partners in the region, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have not always been perfectly aligned.”

How Have Things Gone Wrong?

From the Saudi perspective, confidence in United States support was undermined in 2011 by what they perceived as Mr. Obama’s failure to support Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president of Egypt, during the Arab Spring. It was further rattled when Mr. Obama drew a “red line” against the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, then stopped short of taking military action to enforce it. Mr. Obama has said he is proud of his last-minute restraint, but the 2013 episode made the Saudis question the commitment of the United States to defending its allies in the region.

In the years since, those questions have turned to deep concern, notably as Mr. Obama engaged with Iran — once a diplomatic pariah — in an effort to reach a deal to end the country’s nuclear weapons program. American officials have hailed the agreement, completed last year, calling it successful in keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Inside Saudi Arabia, though, the thaw between the Americans and the Iranians is seen as a dangerous shift in the region’s balance of power. The Saudis fear conventional and terrorist attacks from Iran, and they worry that the United States is backing away from the defense commitment it has maintained for decades.

“For Saudi Arabia, this is always existential,” Mr. Cordesman said. “For us, it’s another regional problem.”

Another simmering problem is the longstanding suspicion among some in the United States that the Saudi government or some of its officials participated in the plotting for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In recent days, Saudi officials warned American lawmakers that they might sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in United States courts for any role it may have had in the attacks.

Still, a senior State Department official said the relationship is better now, the day before Mr. Obama’s trip, than it was two years ago, after the Syria “red line” incident. Efforts to mend relations by Secretary of State John Kerry and John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, have led to Saudi help in brokering a cease-fire in Syria and cooperation from the United States in the Saudis’ fight against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen.

What the President Really Thinks

If the relationship is getting better, it is doing so despite blunt and revealing comments that Mr. Obama made about Saudi Arabia during a series of interviews for a recent magazine article.

Mr. Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic, that Saudi Arabia would have to find a way to coexist with Iran by learning to “share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” He referred to the Saudis and other American allies in Europe as “free riders” who accept security help from the United States without sharing the burden. The article related a conversation between Mr. Obama and Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia.

“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Mr. Turnbull asked, according to Mr. Goldberg. “It’s complicated,” the president responded.

White House officials play down the impact of Mr. Obama’s comments, noting that the administration has long pressed its allies to do their part. But people familiar with the Saudi reaction to the president’s comments say it was intense, and seen as a confirmation of the Saudis’ suspicions about Mr. Obama’s lack of commitment to their interests.

“I imagine it will just infuse the meeting with a coldness that didn’t need to be there,” Ms. Pletka said.

Beyond Obama: Who Comes Next?

If the Saudis are ready to turn the page on the Obama presidency, they are also anxious about what comes next, especially if Donald J. Trump or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas becomes the next president.

Mr. Trump has railed against Saudi Arabia, telling The New York Times last month that he might halt all purchases of oil unless the Saudis show more effort in the fight against the Islamic State. “If Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection,” Mr. Trump has said, “I don’t think it would be around.”

Mr. Cruz said during a presidential debate in February that the United States should “hold our friends to account, that friends do not fund jihadists that are seeking to murder us. And when it comes to Saudi Arabia, we need to have real scrutiny and real pressure.”

From the Saudi perspective, Hillary Rodham Clinton might represent a return to the kind of foreign policy they remember when her husband was president. But nothing is certain in this political season, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the other candidate for the Democratic nomination, is an unknown to the Saudis.

“Like everybody, they have no idea what to think about Trump,” Professor Gause said. “Who knows what to make of Senator Cruz on this? The Saudis don’t know him,” he added. “I think they would be perfectly comfortable with Hillary.”


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