The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.
The policies were upsetting; but the deeper damage resulted from the Saudi feeling that they were being ignored — and even, in their minds, double crossed. In the traditional Gulf societies, any such sense of betrayal can do lasting damage, yet the administration let the problems fester.
“Somebody needs to get on an airplane right now and go see the king,” said a former top U.S. official who knows the Saudis well. The Saudi king is “very tribal,” in his outlook, this official noted, and in his mind, “your word is your bond.” It’s that sense of trust that has been damaged in the kingdom’s dealings with Obama. One good emissary would be John Brennan, the CIA director, who was station chief in Riyadh in the late 1990s and had a good relationship with the Saudi monarch. Another would be George Tenet, former CIA director, who visited the kingdom often and also developed a trusting relationship with Abdullah.