U.S. Sends Another Top Official To Saudi Arabia
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the two countries' priorities in the region have diverged.
MICHELE KELEMEN, Host:
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."
JAY CARNEY: It's an important relationship. We've had meetings and phone calls on a regular basis.
KELEMEN: 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.
JOHN KERRY: 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.
MARTIN INDYK: If the Saudis are determined to erect a wall against the political tsunami that is sweeping the region, it won't work.
KELEMEN: 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.
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: 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.
GREGORY GAUSE: 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.
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: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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