By Arab News
Saudi Arabia’s Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman is on a crucially important visit to the United States. The trip comes at a time when, it could be argued, the Middle East has never faced so many serious challenges.
The king’s three-day high-profile visit includes talks at the White House with President Barack Obama. It is clear that high on the agenda will be joint security and counterterrorism. The discussions are also expected to encompass other key issues. One is the pending Iran nuclear deal, for which Obama now seems to have garnered enough support in Congress, to push through. The Kingdom has always wanted to improve relations with Iran. It therefore welcomes Iran’s commitment to adjust its nuclear program to rule out any chance that it could be weaponized. But at the same time Riyadh wants Tehran to stop meddling in the internal affairs of Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia also has legitimate concerns about too early a removal of sanctions. It has been the economic pain and disruption caused by sanctions that have brought Iran to the negotiating table. Iran’s interference in the affairs of its neighbors has caused concerns throughout the region. The curbing of such behavior was not folded into the nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia had urged Washington that the agreement should be wider than merely the nuclear issue.
That it was not may yet prove to be a mistake.
Iranian meddling in Iraq and Yemen, along with its continuing support for the beleaguered Assad government in Syria are all issues of the greatest concern. Tehran has fostered dissension in GCC countries.
The removal of sanctions over the nuclear program must not free the Iranian government to increase its evil campaigns.
In this respect, the decisive Saudi-led operation in Yemen will also be a key discussion between King Salman and Obama. The Kingdom’s refusal to let Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overthrow Yemen’s legitimate government has enjoyed US support from the outset. The two leaders will be looking at the next stage in the campaign and how it can be brought to a successful conclusion.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have long enjoyed a strong strategic partnership. Even so, in recent times, there have been occasions when that seemed to have weakened. The Kingdom urged an early US engagement in Syria. Washington did not listen. As a result the Middle East is witnessing one of the greatest human tragedies of modern times. And tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are washing up on the shores of Europe and Libya, some of them drowned.
It is expected that this White House meeting will help clear the air. It will put the relationship between the two countries back on the same sure footing that has existed between them since 1933.
King Salman’s visit will also include the business of business. His presence in Washington coincides with the biggest US-Saudi trade and investment events ever mounted. The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) working with the Council of Saudi Chambers (CSC) and the US-Saudi Business Council is hosting the US-Saudi Investment Forum today.
This event has attracted widespread interest from the US business community. The pace of the Kingdom’s extraordinary infrastructural expansion shows no sign of slackening. In the next decade strategic spending and development initiatives will be receiving hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of funding.
The fresh opportunities for American corporations are underpinned by recent figures on US commercial relations with the Kingdom. In the last ten years, Saudi-US trade rose from $26 billion to $74 billion. US exports to the Kingdom surged 76 percent. In 2009 they stood at $11 billion. Last year they had reached $18 billion.
Alongside the forum there is an “Invest Saudi” exhibition. Here both public and private sector organizations are showcasing the many opportunities in all sectors, but particularly health, transport, mining and information and communications technology.
Overall, the next two days seem set to be a highly significant marker in Saudi-US friendship. Washington will be reminded that Saudi Arabia possesses substantial insights into the Middle East. The Kingdom is prepared, when necessary, to act with an iron fist, as in Yemen. But equally it has conducted years of quiet, patient and often highly effective diplomacy. This has earned respect around the world.
In any healthy relationship, there will be differences of emphasis, if not opinion. But genuine partners with strong strategic links are able to overcome such moments.