Gates meets Saudi King amid tensions

Laura Rozen

Defense Secretary Bob Gates was in Saudi Arabia today for a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, at a low point in U.S.-Saudi relations.

Gates' one-on-one meeting with the Saudi monarch Wednesday was expected to be "lengthy and tense," wrote the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller citing Pentagon aides, who did not accompany Gates into the meeting.

Washington-Saudi ties have been increasingly strained over the United States' push for reform among allied Arab regimes, and Obama's decision not to prop up Egypt's autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak in the face of democratic street protests in February.

The Saudis have signaled their displeasure in ways subtle and harder to ignore. Gates was in neighboring Bahrain last month and had been due to meet the King when the Saudis abruptly informed the U.S. delegation that a visit at that time wouldn't be possible, as the King was unwell.

Two days after Gates' meetings in the region, some 2,000 Saudi troops, along with 500 police from the United Arab Emirates, moved into Bahrain. The maneuver completely blindsided Washington, and starkly demonstrated Riyadh's sharp displeasure with what it perceived as the United States badgering Bahrain's Sunni leaders to do more to strike up a national dialogue with anti-government protesters, many of them from Bahrain's Shiite majority.

The "Arab spring"--and Washington's encouragement of political reforms among allied Arab regimes--has created profound anxiety in Riyadh, and empowered Saudi counter-reformers, writes former CIA and NSC official Bruce Riedel.

"For the Saudis the call for reform, accountability and the rule of law in the Arab world is a challenge to their absolute monarchy," Riedel, a former Obama campaign and NSC South Asia advisor, writes at the National Interest. "The House of Saud has resisted all but very small and limited political reform at home for decades and is very nervous that revolution is contagious. The Saudis had worked closely with Hosni Mubarak for decades; they were appalled by what they saw as an American abandonment of an old friend."

In the view of Riyadh, the Saudi intervention in Bahrain "sends a clear signal to the two Shia powers in the gulf, Iran and Iraq, not to interfere in the business of the peninsula," continued Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution. "It also sent a clear signal to Obama not to support reform in the Kingdom's backyard."

The challenge for Obama in the region now, Riedel says, is considerable: "We want to have good relations with the new regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and soon Libya--we share values with them--but we also want to keep strong ties to the Saudis who have oil and influence."

Gates wrapped up the Saudi visit and headed for a three-day visit to Iraq.

(Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah as Ambassador to the U.S. Adel Al-Jubair translates April 6, 2011, at the king's Palace in Riyadh. Chip Somodevilla/AP)