US President Barack Obama’s speech on Middle East policy on 19 May was being cast by administration officials as a shift in American policy. In the end, it turned out to be a disappointment.
Criticism by Obama of regimes in Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Iran and Yemen, while well-intentioned, will be easy to ignore. No key US allies received any mention, let alone criticism of their attempts to stamp out dissent.
The main principle of Obama’s message was that US policy in future would be values driven, rather than pragmatic or self-centred. Although Washington has belatedly started to support the anti-autocracy protests that have swept the region, an ideological foreign policy shows signs of quickly unravelling. Primarily because it will bring the US head-to-head with one of its biggest allies in the region, Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh is becoming a leading member of the regional counter-revolutionaries club. It was loath to see Mubarak ousted from Egypt, has propped up the regime in Bahrain and Oman, and is trying to expand the GCC to provide cover for other monarchal autocracies in Morocco and Jordan.
As Riyadh becomes more assertive, the US will face a tough choice. How does it pursue its foreign policy objectives while Saudi Arabia does the opposite? Managing that relationship will ultimately determine US policy in the region much more than the idealism of Obama’s speech. That means a strategic shift is unlikely.