Until King Salman’s notable absence from meetings with the White House this week, the Saudi royal family has managed its relationship with the United States with utmost care. There has been plenty of tension over the years, but the Saudi royal family has always sought to reconcile with the United States quickly. It is aware that it depends on the United States for its survival and stability—stability defined by U.S. diplomacy as the extent to which tyrannical pro-U.S. regimes enjoy longevity. The Saudi royal snub is new, and it reflects deep antipathy.
I was talking over the Saudi royal snub with a former advisor at the Saudi Ministry of Defense. We were discussing the major violation of royal protocol––the Saudi king declined to show up for a summit he had approved. Worse, he could not come up with a reason for his no-show.
The Bahraini royal, who basically takes all his orders from the Saudi royal family––especially since the Saudi regime saved the Bahraini royal family from certain demise during the early phase of the Arab Uprisings––also decided to not show up, but he gave a reason: he had to attend a horse show.
Here is another possible reason: racism.
My friend the former Saudi advisor believes racism is a big factor in the Saudi royal treatment of Obama.
Saudi royals have all been raised in a deeply racist culture: they grew up in a culture of slavery, where various Saudi princes literally owned concubines and male slaves. The official emancipation of slaves in 1964 was merely token; slaves continued to be owned in Saudi royal palaces. In this culture, the Saudi royals looked at people with black skin (even their own, if they were born to African concubines) with contempt, and always admired white-skinned Europeans. It is hard to imagine the Saudi royals snubbing a white-skinned president.
The Saudi royals were miffed they could not get a tight security arrangement from the United States that would have given them the privileges of NATO membership. They wrongly assumed that their decades of loyalty and subservience earned them the right to sit on an equal footing with Israel as a close ally of the United States in the Middle East. The U.S. government was willing to provide general verbal guarantees that fell short of iron-clad security guarantees including the stipulation that the United States would intervene militarily to save the regime from any threat.
The United States argued over whether threats to the regime were internal and external, and the Saudi royals were offended. They regard any internal threat as an external threat. They don’t believe that anyone has a legitimate right to dissent in the kingdom. In the 1960s, opponents of the regime were dismissed as agents of Nasser and/or communism. Today opponents of the regime are dismissed as agents of Iran.
Nor would the United States supersede its rock-solid military commitment to Israel’s superiority. Thus, the Saudis won’t be able to get the highly coveted F-35, which Israel will get, and instead will have to settle for lower-level fighter jets.
The Saudis have accumulated a list of complaints about Obama:
1) He allowed pro-Saudi tyrants to fall in Tunisia and Egypt—although to be fair to Obama and Hillary Clinton, they did all they could to keep the tyrants in power, until the popular anger against them was overwhelming.
2) The nuclear deal with Iran increased Saudi fears. At a time when the Saudis have decided to confront Iran and its allies all over the region, the United States gave Iran the chance to resurrect its economy and thus earn more money for its regional adventures.
3) The Saudis were expecting more direct American involvement in the war on Yemen. To be sure, the United States provided diplomatic cover and supplied the regime with cluster bombs and other weapons of destruction, but it was not enough for the House of Saud. They probably wanted more pressure on U.S. clients around the world to provide ground troops for an invasion.
The Saudi regime may be fretting, but it has nowhere to go. It may decide to strengthen its military ties with France, its closest ally in this world these days. It may also purchase more arms from other countries. But it is stuck with a vast stockpile of U.S. weapons that require the constant presence of U.S. military advisors and trainers. The royal family may in fact strike an even closer alliance with Israel to manage regional adventures together, with or without U.S. approval. Both the Saudi King and Netanyahu have reasons to snub Obama. And given that Obama is now in the last leg of his presidency, more snubs will be coming his way.
As'ad AbuKhalil is a professor in the Department of Politics at California State University, Stanislaus.