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President Prepares To Meet King As U.S.-Saudi Divisions Deepen


President Obama's next stop is Saudi Arabia. Washington's relationship with Riyadh has rarely been simple, but the issues dividing the two countries have seldom been so stark as they are today. Iran's role in the Middle East, its nuclear ambitions, the war in Syria, the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood, these are all points of difference between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. And to hear how serious those divisions are and how they might be resolved, we've called in Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome.


SIEGEL: If you can imagine what the Saudis would really like to tell President Obama, how they would sum up their problems with U.S. policy in the Middle East, what do you think they'd say?


SIEGEL: It'd be a long conversation. They would probably begin with Syria. It's hard to exaggerate just how emotional it is for them - it really is their kith and kin - as they see it getting slaughtered or being made homeless. Secondly, they would probably focus a lot on Iran, not just on the nuclear threat but on the threat more broadly that they see Iranian foreign policy playing and disrupting the region. Thirdly, they'd probably turn to Egypt, which is still somewhere about a quarter or third of the Arab world, and they would talk about the need for the United States to do more to stabilize what will soon be the government of former general and soon to be president Al Sisi.

Just talk a little bit more about Iran's nuclear program because the U.S. is against Iran having a nuclear weapon. The Saudis are against Iran having a nuclear weapon, but there the agreement ends, I gather.

HAASS: As is often the case in these things, the devil will be in the details. And the question is, can you negotiate an agreement that's enough for the Iranians and not too much for others? And what the Saudis are worried about is that it will be possible to negotiate an agreement that's enough for Iran and not too much for the United States, but the outcome might be too much for the Saudis and, interestingly enough, it might also be too much for the Israelis.

SIEGEL: Well, if President Obama actually were to hear this list of criticisms of U.S. policy in the region, what do you think his best response to them would be?

HAASS: He needs to reassure the Saudis that the United States has not walked away from the Middle East in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan. And after all the signs of what it is we're not prepared to do in Syria, I think he has to make them feel comfortable about the support for the stability of the kingdom, for the future stability of Egypt, that the United States does not hold a secret agenda of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. So what I think what the Saudis really want to hear is, one, we're involved and, two, we're not naive in what it is we're trying to bring about.

SIEGEL: Talk about American support for the stability of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I mean, there is a view that the Saudi Arabia is just unsustainable. The king turns 90 this year. His crown prince heir apparent is 78. The oil wealth doesn't go so far when your population is pushing 30 million. Very few Saudis work in the private sector. It's an Arab Spring waiting to happen is the way that argument goes.

HAASS: It's a bit overdone in terms of saying an Arab Spring ready to happen, but Saudi Arabia does face real challenges in the long run. As you correctly say, the oil money doesn't go - get around as much as it used to because the denominator of population has become so large - 25, 30 million. They've also got a problem of - I don't know of the latest number - 9,000, 12,000 people who, to one degree or another, are royals, many of whom want to get a degree, shall we say, of public largesse to support their lifestyle. So Saudi Arabia does face the challenge of becoming a more normal society, putting its people to work. And you still don't have a formula of political participation.

SIEGEL: But there's no point in the U.S. hedging its bets on the future of the Saudi leadership?

HAASS: I would say not. Every time the United States hedges its bets, it gets the worst of all worlds. It distances itself from the existing powers and it doesn't do enough to bring about better alternatives. The best thing the United States could do in Saudi Arabia would be to be I would call it conditionally supportive of the monarchy but if need be, pretty much unconditionally supportive.

SIEGEL: In that rather lengthy conversation you truncated for us of what the Saudis would tell the U.S. of what they'd like to see happen, you didn't mention Israel and the Palestinians.

HAASS: You're right, and the reason is that this issue, if ever did hold the key to the region, no longer does. Even if it were to be resolved, and I don't think the prospects are good for it, it would not change the dynamics on the ground in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, or really anywhere else. This issue has now become a local issue. It's of great importance to Israelis and Palestinians, but it's only of secondary importance to the Saudis and other Arab countries.

SIEGEL: OK. Richard Haass, thank you very much for talking with us.

HAASS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.