King Salman of Saudi Arabia didn't greet President Obama upon his arrival in the country for summit last week, an obviously intended snub. It appears the president's recent words are having their desired impact.
While the president has never been as obsequious as his predecessor, George W. Bush, when dropping in on Riyadh, Mr. Obama has visited the ostensible US ally more than times than any other US president. This time, however, he spoke truth to power shortly before his visit, noting in an Atlantic magazine interview that the Saudis rely too much on Washington to settle Middle East disputes and have demonstrated "an unwillingness to put any skin in the game" in defending their regional interests.
Oil has made Saudi Arabia wealthy and influential, but it has too often used its wealth and influence counterproductively, while expecting the US to deal with local rivals like Iran. It has stirred up trouble in the Middle East by repressing its Shiite minority and exported religious extremism abroad. Imitating the United States' disastrous invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen last year to punish the government for its Iranian sympathies, but the billions of dollars of weapons it purchased from the United States haven't prevented it from getting caught up in a bloody guerrilla war it wasn't remotely prepared for.
President Obama eventually met with King Salman during his visit, which didn't produce much in the way of tangible results. He did put the nation on notice, however, that his successor, from either party, is sure to expect more from its government.
While Muslims get lumped together as suspicious figures by Republican presidential candidates, in Saudi Arabia the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is dangerously exploited. The nation's ruling Sunnis too often imprison, punish (often with lashings) and even execute Shiite dissidents. The Wahhabi religious sect, an extreme version of the Sunni faith, preaches jihad in schools financed by the Saudi government. These schools, or madrassas, are also financed abroad in hotbeds of terrorism like Pakistan.
Applying litmus tests to foreign cultures would make it difficult for the US to have allies in the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia's misogyny is a severe test of 21st century American values. Women are essentially treated as second class citizens, including the anachronistic barring of women from driving.
President Obama did not address calls in Congress for the release of 28 pages of a report on the September 11 terror attacks that some think reveals a Saudi connection. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian citizens affiliated with al-Qaida — a fact that got lost when the Bush administration rushed headlong into Iraq — but the Saudi Arabian government had no apparent incentive to attack its American ally. It is likely that those 28 pages contain something that the Saudis find embarrassing or else they would not be insisting on their secrecy, and the controversy won't go away as long as the pages remain hidden.
Assertions by Saudi government officials that President Obama is turning away from Saudi Arabia and toward its enemy Iran are simplistic. The Obama administration has been pursuing paths toward peace in the Middle East without confining itself to traditional allegiances that lead only to roadblocks. Assuring a nuclear weapons-free Iran, as the White House has attempted to do, will make Saudi Arabia safer, so negotiations with Iran are hardly anti-Saudi.
The US needs an ally in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, but that friendship must go both ways. Saudi Arabia must contribute more to the fight against ISIS in terms of money and manpower, it needs to make major progress domestically in terms of human rights and it must stop sowing religious extremism abroad. The Saudi government can play the blame game but it is responsible for its cooling relationship with Washington.