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Obamaís foreign policy: Arab Spring but donít mention Saudi Arabia

By Jo Coghlan - posted Tuesday, 24 May 2011


Barrack Obama's headland speech "A Moment of Opportunity" has pledged billions of dollars in aid supporting the recent uprisings referred to as "Arab Spring". Obama pledged continuing aid for Egypt and Tunisia, pledged support for democratic reform in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, singled out particular criticism of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, confirmed the imposition of sanctions on al-Assad and six senior officials because of human rights abuses, and called on the world's financial institutions to underpin the region's economies.

But he made no mention of powerful American ally Saudi Arabia, which has not escaped the Arab Spring. With the White House backing the uprisings beginning with the fall from power of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, another long-time US ally, Saudi Arabia was worried about what Obama's 19 May 2011 speech might contain. As a result, Saudi Arabia rebuffed a visit from the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They need not have worried.

The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is a long and complex one. The Arab Spring drives a wedge between America and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia rejects the idea that they are reliant on the US for protection. But it was only in 1990, when Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait that the Saudis turned to the US military for protection. Iran is a common enemy of both. Saudi Arabian concerns about US policy are also deep-seated, dating to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which brought into being the first Shiite-led Arab nation in modern history. In Lebanon, Washington has not been able to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from steadily expanding its political clout.

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What is ominous is that the Saudis, armed with the best U S military technology, are claiming to be guardians of the Arab status quo. They have made it clear that they will not accept popular rule anywhere in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).

It is the status quo (including American support) that is the very thing the Arab Spring protesters want to overthrow. The American dilemma has steadily worsened, hence its slow official response to the events that have been occurring in Northern Africa and the Middle East since December 2010. Successive American administrations have not been as strident on human rights' abuses in Saudi Arabia as they have been elsewhere. This is the trade-off for Saudi Arabia as an American sphere of influence in the region. Now with the protestors demanding reform, a rejection of regimes backed by outside states for geo-political self-interests, and the delivery of human rights, America is itself wedged and the Saudi's have been worried about what Barrack Obama might do.

Britain's Amnesty International has already issued a press release saying Obama needs to make it clear that his administration is "committed to promoting freedom, justice and accountability with friend and foe alike".

For a president elected on a platform of change and with a speech embracing opportunity, Obama's silence on Saudi Arabia is deafening.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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