U.S. President Barack Obama recently visited Saudi Arabia, making it his second trip there, after first visiting in 2009. This trip, however, was made markedly different by the highly complex circumstances plaguing not just the Arab region, but the Gulf region itself. The differing politics and approaches to foreign policy of the Gulf states has led to an air of tension.
There are two main points on which American-Saudi strategic relations are built. The first is the economic factor, exemplified in Saudi oil and the kingdom being an important player in the petroleum market and U.S. economy. Secondly, there is the relationship with Tehran. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. fear Iran's progress and its policy of intervention in the region, as evidenced lately in the issue of Syria. But what causes fear among most when it comes to Iran is the change in American dealings with Iran presently, and the lighter tone and better general relationship between Tehran and Washington. This is what concerns the Gulf allies about America, especially Saudi Arabia.
Not too many people actually counted on this cursory trip to Saudi Arabia ever happening. A lot of analysts set the bar of expectations pretty low for several reasons, not least of which was that the U.S. had been gradually retreating from Middle Eastern affairs, and American policy was having a lot less noticeable effect in the region anyway. The U.S., after all, has been shifting its focus toward Asia, specifically to the force on the other end of the balance of power: China.
There are some issues on which the two sides disagree, most notably the issue in Syria. After Obama drew his "red line," Russia was able to step in and effectively give Bashar al-Assad a firmer hold on power. The Syrian people, of course, have largely been ignored. As a matter of fact, some administrations that are against Assad are not so because of the crimes he has committed, but because of their fear of the ever-increasing interference and influence of Iran in Middle Eastern affairs. This is what particularly concerns Saudi Arabia. Moreover, after the international community failed to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, the United States suggested that Bashar al-Assad and his regime would not be ousted. This is what U.S. strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman confirmed when he said, "Saudi Arabia [needs] to start planning for an Assad victory ... [and] to consider conditional aid packages that could ... push Assad toward some degree of reform." But what relief is there if Assad announces his victory and there is no more conflict between him and opposing administrations from around the world? How will Riyadh work with Washington, especially if Saudi Arabia wants to arm the "moderate" opposition in Syria but, so far, it doesn't seem like Washington is convinced that there is a moderate element in the crisis and is afraid to put those weapons into the "wrong hands"? Essentially, it doesn't look like Washington intends any kind of military intervention unless it is made by another nation.
It seems as though Obama's visit was meant to send a reassuring message to the Gulf states after the recent friendliness shown between the U.S. and Iran, as well as with Egypt. Even though the U.S. won't call what happened in Egypt a "military coup" (doing so would require cutting military aid to Egypt, according to U.S. law), Washington is still dissatisfied with the excess violence used against demonstrators by the army and police in Egypt and has emphasized this a number of times. This has made some of the Gulf states supporting the current regime dissatisfied with the U.S. The U.S. has made it clear, however, that it is mostly concerned with stability in Egypt and with resolving any differences with Saudi Arabia regarding the matter.
The problem with Obama's visit is that it seems more and more that Washington is distancing itself from the important issues in the Middle East and, consequently, America’s allies are concerned, even after Washington reassured them that it cares about the security of the Gulf and that it won't allow Tehran to gain control over the Gulf states. At the same time, however, there is nothing from Obama to reassure anyone about the future of U.S.-Iranian relations and the consequences thereof on the Gulf. There are also no indications of any future trip by Obama to the Arab world.