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World

Holding hands in Riyadh

The stakes are high for Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh. Not only because the Saudis are worried that the region around them is imploding, but because ties have been strained since Obama's last trip to the kingdom.

The new president did not waste time. Less than half a year into his first term, Barack Obama travelled to Saudi Arabia to pay a visit to King Abdullah, traditionally a close US ally in the region. Their first meeting didn't go well at all.

The two simply did not see eye-to-eye on the Middle East peace process. Whether it was due to a lack of preparation because Riyadh was added late to the president's Middle East itinerary or because King Abdullah went off script or both, the damage was done.

"It wasn't a great visit and it had a chilling effect on the US-Saudi relationship for a bit and didn't form the best foundation for the two countries to resolve the problems that currently divide them," Steven Simon, who worked as a senior director for the Middle East in the Obama White House, told DW.

Perfect storm

From a Saudi position, things have only gone worse since 2009. The Arab Spring not only uprooted the fragile status quo in the Middle East, but the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak stripped King Abdullah of one of his closest regional partners.

Husni Mubarak

Old Saudi ally Mubarak was deposed and jailed

Making matters worse, while Mubarak was swept away quickly by a popular uprising, fellow autocrat Bashar al-Assad - and ally of Saudi Arabia's Shiite nemesis Iran - is still clinging to power three years and counting into a brutal civil war that has ravaged the country. While the Saudis invested a great deal to oust Assad, they feel the Obama administration has been lackluster at best in its efforts to get rid of him.

And to top it all off for Riyadh, since the election of new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, ties between Washington and Tehran have not only improved but both sides have even struck an interim deal to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and normalize relations.

For the Saudi monarchy then, the last couple of years must have felt like a perfect storm. "To some extent they (the various threats - the ed.) are interconnected because they all fuel a fear on the part of the Saudis of encirclement either by Sunni adversaries in the form of the Muslim brothers or Iran," said Simon, now the executive director for the US and Middle East at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Need for a partner

The Saudis are deeply worried about what's happening "and the Kingdom itself doesn't have the capacities or the necessary influence to stir the direction of change to where it wants to go by itself," Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation in Geneva, told DW. "It needs a partner, it needs the United States."

That's why the meeting is critical for the Saudis. While they have made some public noises lately suggesting they could shift away from the US if Washington does not make more of an effort to include them and their point of view in its Middle East policy, those may have been mostly for show.

More important for the Obama administration is that the Saudis recently made a key internal change by replacing Prince Bandar who had been in charge of the Syria portfolio and a vocal critic of the Obama administration. Bandar, a former long-time ambassador in Washington, was known for his close ties to the Bush family.

Ousted official

"I was in Saudi Arabia not long ago and one of the people I was talking to said, 'Oh Bandar, he's not a Saudi, he's a Republican,'" said Simon. "So I see in that a sign that the Saudis would like to turn things down a bit and try themselves to get things back on track."

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But the need to talk is not just one-sided. While Washington is becoming increasingly independent from Saudi resources due to its domestic shale gas boom, it still needs Riyadh, because America's allies still rely on Saudi exports. What's more, Saudi Arabia still remains a key regional power with large coffers and influence.

The expectations for the summit are clear. While relations between both countries are unlikely to get as chummy as during the Bush years anytime soon, the Saudis want to hear from Obama that the US is not abandoning them.

Good preparation

"Saudi Arabia and the region need a lot of assurances," says Koch. Riyadh, he adds, wants a continued dialogue over the policies that are being pursued in the framework of negotiations with Iran, how the US sees developments in the region and how both countries can agree on a fundamental policy for the region. "This is why this visit is quite important."

A lack of preparation shouldn't be an issue this time around, notes Simon: "This visit has been very well prepared. Both sides really want it because it's important for both to really show the world, particularly the region, that they remain close."

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