Obama seems now to recognize—in fact, has recognized for some time—that the Saudis have much to offer along the spectrum of U.S. interests and, given certain realities in the region, it’s a good moment to mend those ties.
Since Bandar’s outburst, and especially in the past few months, the Saudis have joined the fight against ISIS, offered their land to train “moderate” Syrian rebels, refrained from criticizing the nuclear talks with Iran (or the broader diplomatic overture that they might herald), and kept up their output of oil, even though this has abetted the sharp plunging of prices.
The Saudis are doing these things not to curry America’s favor but rather for the same reason that nation-states do most things—because it’s in their interest. They fear the incursion of radical jihadists, even Sunni jihadists like ISIS, because their own territory and thus their rule have come under attack. They host the “moderate” rebels to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (and want to encourage Obama to apply more pressure). They stay mum on the Iran talks because they accept, however unhappily, that an accord might delay development of an Iranian A-bomb. And they’re promoting lower oil prices, even at the cost of their own reduced revenue, because they know that it hurts Iran even more.
In short, to an extent that wasn’t true a year ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a complex of interests (another being the continuation of peace with Israel) that go well beyond the supply of oil. It’s important for an American president to acknowledge these shared interests, proclaim them loudly, and there are few forums more suitable for sending this message than the memorial for a dead king in a nation-state of patrimonial rule.