- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2016

President Obama will leave the U.S. on Tuesday on what could be dubbed an apology tour of allies he has offended, starting with a visit to Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are fuming at the president’s criticism of Gulf states as “free riders” and are pressuring the administration to kill a bill in Congress that would allow 9/11 victims to sue foreign governments.

The president will meet Saudi King Salman on Wednesday and attend a summit Thursday with other leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss the fight against the Islamic State group, a plan for containing Iran, efforts to stabilize Syria and the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen.

From Saudi Arabia, Mr. Obama will travel to London, where Britons are smarting over the president’s perceived interference in their upcoming referendum on whether to remain as part of the European Union.

Mr. Obama also ruffled feathers in Britain by saying Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted” after the allies launched airstrikes that led to the overthrow of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, creating a power vacuum that allowed extremists to gain a foothold there.

But as Mr. Obama tries to push the Saudis to contribute more in the battle against Islamist extremists, the trip is also renewing attention about the Saudis’ role in the 9/11 attacks and Mr. Obama’s uneasy relationship with the kingdom’s rulers.

Various reports surfaced ahead of Mr. Obama’s trip that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has warned the U.S. that Riyadh will sell off billions of dollars in American assets if Congress approves the legislation allowing victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments. The measure is sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and John Cornyn, Texas Republican.

Lawmakers say the administration is pressuring Congress to block the bill by warning of economic consequences. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said the measure would “create a terrible precedent.”

Former Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and a co-chairman of the 9/11 congressional inquiry, said Saturday that he is “outraged but not surprised” by the Saudi government’s warning.

“The Saudis have known what they did in 9/11, and they knew that we knew what they did, at least at the highest levels of the U.S. government,” Mr. Graham said on CNN.

Families of 9/11 victims have been calling on the administration to release 28 classified pages of the 9/11 commission’s report, which is said to implicate the Saudis in the attacks. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals. Families of victims and survivors in the 9/11 attacks did sue the Saudi government, but a judge threw out the lawsuit last year, ruling that the kingdom had sovereign immunity.

A White House aide said the president’s agenda in Riyadh also will include talks on the “stability of the global economy” — meaning the price of oil. A sharp drop in oil prices this year has hurt producers from Moscow to the shale-oil industry in the U.S. and contributed to turmoil in financial markets.

Mr. Obama’s characterization of Gulf allies as “free riders” in an interview last month angered Saudi officials. A prominent Saudi said Mr. Obama may be “petulant” about the kingdom’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or possibly unhappy at the late Saudi King Abdullah’s chastising him for backing down on his infamous “red line” pledge to intervene in Syria if the regime used chemical weapons.

Some analysts on the Middle East say the episode was emblematic of Mr. Obama’s poor relationship with the Saudi rulers.

“The end of the Obama administration can’t come quickly enough for some of these leaders,” said Perry Cammack, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In their mind, the real question is what comes with the next administration. It’s clear that the president’s kind of cerebral, dispassionate approach to the Gulf isn’t really well-suited to some of the Gulf leaders.”

White House aides tried to downplay the president’s remark ahead of the trip, saying the U.S.-Saudi relationship has always had “complexities.”

“The region itself has gone through the most tumultuous period probably in decades,” said Rob Malley, a senior adviser to the president on the Middle East. “That has meant that our views and those of some of our partners in the region, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have not always been perfectly aligned. The differences are not going to disappear, but our work together is not going to disappear, either.”

Mr. Malley said the Saudi summit also will feature agreements “to increase our cooperation on counterterrorism, streamlining the transfer of critical defense capabilities to our GCC partners, bolstering GCC ballistic defense systems and defending against the cyberthreat.”

The GCC alliance, in addition to Saudi Arabia, consists of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Saturday that the U.S. hopes the Gulf nations will support Iraq politically as it tries to establish a more successful multisectarian government. He told reporters at the al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates that he will talk with his commanders in the coming days to identify additional ways the U.S. can intensify the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including more airstrikes, cyberattacks and American troops on the ground.

The Obama administration has sold about $95 billion in arms to Riyadh, and observers don’t expect that part of the relationship with the U.S. to change fundamentally. Mr. Obama has been pushing the Saudis to contribute more to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, also known as ISIL and ISIS.

“The only way to truly deal with global challenges is if everybody does their part,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “The nature of the threat from ISIL is not restricted to the targeting of one nation. We see ISIL posing a threat to the entire world, certainly posing a threat to both the GCC countries and to our European allies.”

The State Department issued a travel warning last week saying there were credible threats against American citizens and other Westerners from the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other terrorists groups during the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

The report suggested that terrorists could be targeting locations where Westerners congregate, including housing compounds, hotels, restaurants, shopping areas and international schools.

The security situation in Saudi Arabia appears to be deteriorating. The State Department cited reports indicating that Saudi authorities thwarted extremists’ plans to attack a festival in Riyadh in February, and noted that there have been “multiple attacks on mosques” and other gathering places of the Shiite Muslim minority.

In May 2015, the Islamic State claimed credit for a suicide bomb attack in Saudi Arabia that killed at least 20 people. If true, it would be the militants’ first attack inside the kingdom.

Iran will loom over the summit. Mr. Obama wants Saudi Arabia to take a more forceful role in confronting its longtime adversary, while the Saudis strongly opposed the president’s nuclear deal with Tehran that lifted economic sanctions.

With the sanctions lifted, tensions are rising between Iran and Saudi Arabia over oil production. The Saudis say they will not participate in a freeze on oil production to stabilize prices unless other countries go along. But Iran has said it won’t agree to a production cut as it works to reap fresh revenue from post-sanction oil sales.

Considering the multiple challenges and Mr. Obama’s weak rapport with the Saudis, Mr. Cammack said, “I think the immediate interest is just making sure the photo-op looks very good.”

“I don’t expect on either side that the word ‘free-rider’ will come up,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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