U.S. Sends Another Top Official To Saudi Arabia

The Obama administration is sending another official to Saudi Arabia to try to smooth over relations damaged by the so-called Arab Spring. The Saudis think the U.S. is being naive about the democracy movements and canceled recent plans for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit. They hosted, but only briefly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week, and this week it is National Security Adviser Tom Donilon's turn. Analysts say it will be difficult for the U.S. to support democracy in the Middle East and keep this strategic alliance on track.

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The U.S. government has sent another top official to Saudi Arabia. His job? To smooth relations damaged by the revolutionary fervor now roiling the Arab world.

National security adviser Tom Donilon arrived in Riyadh today. The Obama administration insists that relations are good and contacts continue.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the two countries' priorities in the region have diverged.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Saudis canceled recent plans for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit, saying King Abdullah was too ill at the time. The Saudi king did host Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week but only briefly. This week, it's national security adviser Tom Donilon's turn, and White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that the relationship is, quote, "very strong."

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Press Secretary): It's an important relationship. We've had meetings and phone calls on a regular basis.

KELEMEN: But the Saudis have not been shy in private in telling the Americans that the U.S. is being naive about the uprisings in the Arab world. They saw Egypt as an example of the U.S. dropping a longtime ally.

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told NPR today that the U.S. really has to work on its relations with the Saudis.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee): They're very upset. I understand that. And I think we need to work quietly and carefully to respect the fact that each country is different. Each country will approach the need for changes and reform differently.

KELEMEN: The challenge for the Obama administration, according to Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, is to find a way to rebuild trust with Saudi Arabia while at the same time nudging the king to move forward on reforms.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution): If the Saudis are determined to erect a wall against the political tsunami that is sweeping the region, it won't work.

KELEMEN: One immediate source of tension is Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Saudi Arabia sent forces to Bahrain amid anti-government protests there, and Indyk says the U.S. has to figure out a way to persuade the Saudis to ease their grip on the country.

Mr. INDYK: Now, the Bahraini government under Saudi dictators is cracking heads, and that's threatening to ignite a Sunni-Shia conflict with the Iranians on one side and the Saudis on the other.

KELEMEN: Indyk says a lot's at stake and suggests that the U.S. open a discreet diplomatic channel to the king.

But another Saudi watcher, Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont, says no amount of talking will paper over the differences between the two countries. He says he hasn't seen such U.S.-Saudi tension since the shah of Iran fell in 1979.

Dr. GREGORY GAUSE (Professor of Political Science, University of Vermont): The Saudis wonder about American credibility. We wonder about their role in the region. We do seem to be on different pages.

The thing back in '79 that pushed us back together was geopolitics. The Iranian revolution created a regime that turned out to be a threat to both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and that helped push us back together.

KELEMEN: Iran and the need for stability on the oil markets could once again force the Saudis and Americans back to a closer relationship, he says, but much will depend on what sort of lessons the Obama administration draws from the Arab spring or, as Gause calls it, the winter of Arab discontent.

Dr. GAUSE: If the lesson is that the United States really does have to push for a democratization policy across the Middle East, then we and the Saudis will definitely be on different tracks in the Middle East.

KELEMEN: There is one area where the two can work together, Gause says, and that's Yemen. If the Saudis, through the Gulf Cooperation Council, can broker a solution to the political crisis there, that would help the U.S., which wants to ensure counterterrorism cooperation continues in the country.

Secretary Clinton says she's supporting the GCC efforts to spell out a timeline for transition in Yemen.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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