Obama and the Saudis: Cheek to Cheek, but a World Apart

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Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, right, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama during a welcoming reception at the King's ranch outside Riyadh

After a cheek-to-cheek greeting on the tarmac Wednesday, President Barack Obama walked the red carpet with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to the foot of an airport escalator. There, the President paused a fleeting moment in the blistering desert heat, ceding the right of way to his host. But the King would have none of it. So the two men rode together, feet on the same step. The extent to which they're in step on Obama's bigger agenda, including an effort to relaunch the Middle East peace process and repatriate Guantánamo detainees, remains to be seen.

Images of close fraternity between the rulers of the United States and the desert kingdom were evident throughout Riyadh. Along highways and on landmarks, the stars and stripes flapped alongside the green Saudi flag to honor Obama's visit. A graphic logo on Saudi television's coverage of the event depicted Obama and Abdullah in the corner of the screen, their faces nearly touching. (See pictures of Obama in Saudi Arabia.)

But the official display of fraternity goes only so far in backing Obama's effort to "remake relations between the United States and countries in the Muslim world." Deep cultural and political divisions remain with a country that is, at once, one of America's closest economic and political allies in the region but also the principle exporter of an austere brand of Islam that has been exploited by jihadists around the world — and also the home country of most of the 9/11 hijackers. The Kingdom supported Operation Desert Storm in 1991, in which a U.S. multinational force drove Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, and its Prince Sultan Air Base served as a command-and-control center for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saudi Arabia has also championed a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, offering full normalization of relations with the Jewish state if it withdraws from Arab territory conquered in the war of 1967. And as the leader of the Sunni Arab world, it has joined with Washington in efforts to contain the growing regional influence of Shi'ite Iran. (Read "Jihad Waning in Osama's Homeland.")

Still, what Obama has been hoping to elicit from the Saudis and other moderate Arab regimes are some new gestures of outreach to the Israelis, in the hope that these could help persuade Israel to make concessions of its own. It was not immediately clear during Wednesday's talks whether Obama had managed to persuade King Abdullah to offer Israel new inducements towards negotiating a two-state solution.

Saudi Arabia is certainly a challenging environment for U.S. leaders, given its approach to questions of human rights and democracy. Ruled by a hereditary monarchy, the country is governed under a strict interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law that sharply restricts the rights of women, and it empowers clerical bodies like the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to police civil society. Days before Obama's visit, a man convicted of a double murder was beheaded by sword and then hung on a cross in a public square in downtown Riyadh.

According to a recent Gallup poll, less than a third of Saudi's 28 million inhabitants approve of U.S. leadership, a sharp contrast to the close cooperation between the two nations' governments. The Saudi kingdom prohibits the study of evolution, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Western music or Western philosophy in its universities, according to the U.S. State Department. The public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited, and the Shi'ite minority, which makes up 8% to 10% of the population, faces significant official discrimination.

Still, Western culture has increasingly grabbed a foothold in the nation. Though ads for alcohol are blacked out of imported magazines, an Arabic version of MTV, featuring shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen, is shown in hotel rooms and via satellite dishes that are readily available throughout the country (though not officially permitted). Mai Yamani, a Saudi scholar who is the daughter of former Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, describes an ongoing political tension within the government between more secular reformists and traditionalists, for which there is no clear resolution. "Abdullah's strategy is one of political appeasement," Yamani wrote in a recent article on the nation's political situation, "to make just enough concessions to appease Saudi Arabia's subordinated and disheartened peoples and relieve pressure for reform."

Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia, however, will focus more on regional strategic interests than on the kingdom's domestic situation or on winning over its population, which sees American influence in Riyadh as deeply controversial. While Obama plans to address the people of Muslim nations on Thursday in Cairo, his visit to the Saudi capital was confined to private meetings with the King — although before beginning his private meetings, Obama did try to connect the two. "We'll be visiting Cairo tomorrow," he said upon arriving at Abdullah's private farm. "I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek His Majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East."

A few minutes later, the two men departed from public view.

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