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U.S.-Saudi Relations Strain Over Syria And Iran


President Obama leaves Rome tomorrow for Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where he'll be reassuring Saudi officials that the U.S. is committed to security in the Persian Gulf region.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained over many regional issues, from Syria and Egypt to diplomacy on Iran.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At a recent breakfast with reporters, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, said Saudis are frustrated with the Obama administration. He recounted a meeting he had last year with Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar, who at the time was working on Syria Policy and expecting a U.S. strike on Syria to punish Damascus for a deadly chemical weapons attack.

REPRESENTATIVE BOB CORKER: I met with him until 3 o'clock in the morning where he was just totally exasperated with the fact that they had expected a call from the United States, when we were going to use military force against Syria. The call not only never came, they were never called by our administration to let them know the plan had changed, that the president had gone on a walk on Friday night and changed his mind.

KELEMEN: White House officials seem to think they have smoothed over relations, at least according to President Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice.

SUSAN RICE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Well, we've been working very closely with Saudi Arabia on the issue of Syria. Our cooperation at the present is excellent, in fact. And we expect to be discussing ways to deepen it further.

KELEMEN: Syria is likely to be high on the agenda when President Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. And Rice says the visit is meant to strengthen a long-standing partnership. But Fred Wehrey, an expert on Gulf affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, doesn't think the U.S. will get very far in a country that he says is flailing around for a foreign policy with princes jockeying for power around an ailing king.

FRED WEHREY: No amount of reassurance, no amount of reaffirmation, can fully assuage the Saudis. What I hear from my Saudi counterparts is that this is a country that is in panic mode. In its external policies there's a lot of confusion, it's not being well thought out.

KELEMEN: And Saudi Arabia remains locked in an ideological struggle with its regional rival, Iran. Wehrey's colleague, George Perkovich, says President Obama's attempt to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program won't please Saudi Arabia, however it comes out.

GEORGE PERKOVICH: There's a nightmare for the Saudi's if Iran gets the bomb. There's also a nightmare if Iran doesn't get the bomb, resolves the issue diplomatically, comes back into some kind of more normal relationship with the United States - that's their biggest nightmare.

KELEMEN: And it's not just U.S. policy toward Iran and Syria that's causing anxiety in the Gulf, says Tamara Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East policy. She says the U.S. role in the region is changing with the drawdown from Afghanistan, the end of the war in Iraq, and with the prospects of U.S. energy independence.

TAMARA WITTES: If it no longer needs significant logistical operational support in the Gulf to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what's its military posture in the Gulf? If the U.S. no longer needs to import Gulf energy, what's its role in securing energy in the Gulf?

KELEMEN: The political uprisings in the region are raising even more questions and tensions, she says, and President Obama has yet to articulate a real vision for the region.

WITTES: He hasn't yet addressed the big hulking question about the future of America's role in the Middle East. And I think it's natural that allies in the region are looking for that answer.

KELEMEN: She doesn't expect that answer to come this week, though, since the dynamics in the region are still shifting. Wittes says the best they can hope for right now would be better lines of communication during these turbulent times.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.