RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Blunt assessments by Barack Obama of longtime US ally Saudi Arabia have triggered unprecedented criticism of the president as he prepares to visit for a key summit with Gulf allies next month.
Obama’s comments, published in the April edition of US magazine The Atlantic, have met with a chorus of outrage across the kingdom’s tightly controlled media and the pan-Arab newspapers it owns.
One of Saudi Arabia’s most recognisable faces in the West, former ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal, has helped lead the charge.
After seven decades of a “special relationship” in which criticism has generally been voiced privately, the US president’s public chiding has been seen as a betrayal.
His call for Riyadh to “share” the Middle East with its bitter regional rival Tehran and end proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen infuriated Saudi leaders, who feel encircled by clients of Shiite Iran.
His criticism of the kingdom for exporting its fundamentalist “Wahhabist” version of Islam to other Muslim countries struck at the very heart of the ruling family’s legitimacy.
“I don’t think any US president has ever been so outspoken about Saudi Arabia,” said Toby Matthiesen, a Middle East specialist at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
“This is really unprecedented,” he added, calling Obama’s views “embarrassing” for the kingdom.
Mohammed El Oifi, a specialist in Arab media at Sorbonne Nouvelle university in Paris, said that Obama’s comments about “Wahhabism” attacked the very foundations of Saudi legitimacy.
Since the creation of the kingdom in the first half of the 20th century, the Saud family has ruled in alliance with clerics of the Wahhabi school and regarded itself as the champion of Sunni Islam.
Saudi kings refer to themselves first and foremost as custodians of Islam’s holiest places, Mecca and Medina, and have poured billions of dollars into facilitating pilgrimages by Muslims around the world.
Prince Faisal, also the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, questioned in an opinion piece published in several Saudi newspapers whether Obama had “pivoted to Iran.”
“You accuse us of fomenting sectarian strife in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism,” Faisal wrote.
Veteran Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed followed with a series of commentaries in Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat and other media last week.
He wrote that Obama’s “frankness has angered his friends,” not only Saudi Arabia but also Britain, Turkey and Israel — all of which The Atlantic article mentioned as subjects of the US president’s frustration and disappointment.
Obama ‘betrayed’ friends
There has also been a spate of editorials in the Saudi press attacking Obama’s policies, from the nuclear deal with Iran that led to the lifting of sanctions in January to his 2013 decision to step back from planned air strikes against the Syrian regime over its chemical arsenal.
“It is hard to conceive of a more terrible miscalculation,” an Arab News editorial said of Washington’s “rapprochement” with Iran.
“Obama has betrayed Washington’s loyal regional friends.”
Obama’s decision to accept the negotiated dismantlement of Syria’s chemical arsenal was a “prime example of the US losing its credibility,” a Saudi Gazette editorial said.
“It’s the first time in the history of relations between the two countries that the Saudi regime has given the green light for such acerbic and direct criticisms,” Oifi said.
Frederic Wehrey, of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the Saudis’ public response “is part of a broader image management strategy.”
He said the airing of differences “has become quite personalized,” while Oifi said Obama “is not perceived as a friend of Saudi Arabia.”
The president, a Democrat, is in the final months of his term and if a Republican is elected in November, the Saudis expect “normal relations” with the US can resume, Oifi said.
Following The Atlantic article, the White House announced that Obama would visit Riyadh on April 21 for a summit of Saudi Arabia and the other five Gulf Arab states.
“I don’t think it’s meant to sort of repair, or in reaction to, this (Atlantic) interview,” said Wehrey.
But with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies bogged down in a year-old military intervention in Yemen and under pressure to accept a negotiated end to a rebellion in Syria in which they have invested heavily, the summit threatens to be an uncomfortable one.
Obama knows he is facing “a weakened Saudi government” that has misread the regional environment, and his demands at the summit “risk being very hard to swallow,” Oifi said.