The King And O

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from TIME Magazine,

A series of disagreements have chilled the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But the two countries can’t do without each other.

The first time Barack Obama met with the King of Saudi Arabia, it was at a London conference in April 2009. Greeting the elderly monarch before the cameras, Obama slightly lowered his torso as he shook the King’s hand–a bow, in the eyes of his conservative critics back home.

In recent months, the American approach to three regional hot spots–Iran, Syria and Egypt–has shaken the U.S.-Saudi relationship to its core. Obama’s diplomacy with Tehran, the hated Shi’ite Muslim enemy of devoutly Sunni Saudi Arabia, has alarmed Riyadh no less than it has Jerusalem. Obama’s failure to follow through on his threat of military strikes on Syria last year inflamed worries about Washington’s willingness to use force in the region. And Saudi leaders deride Obama’s criticisms of the Egyptian generals who seized power last summer and are cracking down on their rivals. Throw in America’s growing energy independence, shrinking military budget and talk of a strategic shift toward Asia, and Saudi Arabia is wondering whether it can still rely on Washington’s longtime security guarantees or if it needs to form new alliances–and perhaps go nuclear itself.

“There’s a lot of talk in Saudi Arabia about America abandoning them,” says Greg Gause, a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “The more extreme view is ‘The U.S. is going to cut a deal with Iran and sell us out.’ The less extreme view is ‘It’s going to pivot to Asia and cut us out.’”

The insecurity may be mostly on the Saudi side, but the U.S. can’t afford to be complacent. For all the alarm over Vladimir Putin’s designs in Eastern Europe, the Middle East still dominates Obama’s foreign policy agenda: a nuclear deal with Iran and the Arab-Israeli peace process are his best prospects for an enduring international legacy.

Then there is the question of the King himself, approaching 90 and in increasingly frail health. His obvious successors are elderly, and their successors are not obvious. A royal succession could be tricky–and when Obama sees King Abdullah, he may worry less about their relationship than what might replace it.

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