November 6, 2008 / 11:07 AM / 11 years ago

ANALYSIS-Saudi king seeks sense of Obama policy on U.S. trip

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Wary about the direction of U.S. policy in the region, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will have a chance to put out feelers to president-elect Barack Obama during a visit to the United States next week.

The Saudi monarch and his delegation will attend a two-day United Nations session in New York on an "interfaith dialogue" he launched this year and then attend a summit of world leaders in Washington on the global financial crisis.

"They will do their best to sound out what the president is going to be like, but these sorts of things always take time," said Saudi political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil.

Obama’s election pitch featured a promise to end U.S. dependence on Middle East oil within 10 years, open dialogue with Iran and a draw down of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Those all have the potential to deeply trouble the Saudi leadership, which has relied on an oil-for-security U.S. alliance since the 1940s that has survived regional upheavals and kept the Saud family in power against often tall odds.

A message of congratulation from the 85-year-old king to Obama, 47, betrayed what was on the Saudi leadership’s mind.

"On this occasion we praise the strength of the firm historical bonds between the two friendly nations and hope for the peace and justice and strengthening of security and stability in the Middle East region," it said.

Saudi media showed few signs of a preference during the long presidential campaign.

Diplomats in Riyadh say the Saudi rulers felt comfortable with outgoing president George W. Bush, based on a history of close personal ties with the Bush family and the Republicans.

But Obama’s slogan of "change we can believe in" could lead to a host of foreign policy shifts troubling to conservative rulers suspicious of anything suggesting breaks with the past.

"The portrayal of Obama as a candidate of change has disturbed them," said Kent F. Moors, an energy policy expert at Duquesne University in the United States.



POST 9/11 STRATEGY

The absolute monarchy has consolidated its domestic and international position after the debacle of the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001, where 15 of the 19 al Qaeda militants were Saudis.

The ruling elite in Saudi Arabia’s traditionally closed Islamic society has expanded its political, economic and military ties with the outside world towards Asia and Russia, diluting its historic dependence on Washington’s good will.

"The potential for friction related to energy policy is probably overblown," said Greg Priddy of Eurasia Group. "The long-term trend is going to be a gradual decline in U.S. oil consumption and more crude from Saudi Arabia going to Asia."

Priddy said U.S. and Saudi interests coalesced over the hit Iran is taking from low oil prices. Riyadh shares U.S. concerns that Iran’s nuclear energy programme is a cover for plans to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

The rise of Shi’ite power Iran following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, toppling a Sunni Arab regime that acted as a bulwark against any Iranian expansionism, has formed the main concern of Saudi foreign policy since 2003.

"I think he (Obama) will have a tough time with Iran. I’m one of those who are convinced Iran is after a nuclear weapon," said Dakhil. "This will give a chance for the Saudis to back the new president and to earn his standing and cooperation."

Saudi rulers, who see themselves as the bastion of majority Sunni Islam, fear Washington could cut its own deal with Tehran that would make Shi’ism a key part of a new regional political order at peace with America.

Riyadh fears a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could consolidate Shi’ite power there at the expense of Sunni Arabs who Saudi leaders want to have a bigger share of the political cake.

Another unwelcome change would be renewed U.S. interest in spreading democracy. The government has instituted some social reforms to improve the country’s image and dilute the power of clerics, but Islamists could gain even more power in a vote.

A U.S. diplomat made a pointed reference to democracy and "open society" in a speech before Saudi journalists at an embassy election night party in Riyadh this week.

Dakhil said Saudis could not help but be struck by the vibrant popular participation in U.S. politics. "They have already made the connection and the comparison," he said.



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