US President Barack Obama has learned a lot about the camera's eye over his six and a half years in office, but it won't be until Tuesday night that reporters will see whether he's learned to balance image with diplomacy.
On Tuesday, Obama will make a detour from India to Riyadh to pay his final respects to the late King Abdullah and offer condolences to his half-brother, the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz. With luck, Crown Prince Muqrin will be by Salman's side.
Obama was smart enough on Sunday to realize that as important to America as Asia is, Saudia Arabia and its central role in the Middle East is absolutely key. Nor is he unaware of the fact that as it is, he is not in the best odor possible with the royal family in Riyadh.
So as much as he wanted to see the Taj Mahal and strengthen ties with India, he courteously explained the situation and penciled in a trip to Mecca. Too late for apologies to the late monarch, he will now have to continue the efforts he began during his last trip to Riyadh and try to explain his latest actions to the new king and his advisers.
Abdullah was disappointed with his American protege, from whom he clearly expected better when he first took office and made his first visit abroad to bow to the king.
The United States under Obama frankly – to coin a phrase – “made a mess of things” in the Middle East. Starting with Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, America's foreign policy in the region resembles nothing so much as that of a 3-year-old wielding an AK-47, fully loaded.
In fact, he touched off the absolute conflagration in the Middle East that became what locals referred to euphemistically as the “Arab Spring.” Nations are still reeling from the hurricane. Endless murders, rivers of blood and more than four fallen regimes later, the region is still more tense as a coiled spring than refreshed as that December 2010 “Arab Spring” was to be.
Obama had started reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad well before he was even elected to the White House, and by the time he entered the Oval Office he was all set to send a new ambassador to Damascus. Never mind that Assad was systematically torturing and murdering his own people. Not to mention playing with his scattered arsenals of illicit chemical weapons of mass destruction.
(Of course, Obama's new ambassador – and his embassy – didn't last very long. Crimes against humanity don't go down very well with the American public. American officials who insist on poking their noses into Syrian affairs don't do well in Damascus, either.)
Nor did Obama seem overly concerned that Saudi King Abdullah was concerned over America's interest in the Assad regime. Ditto for the king's concern over Obama's behavior in Cairo, where he stomped on Egyptian presidential hospitality in muddy shoes, inviting top officials of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to sit in front row seats during his speech.
How could President Hosni Mubarak be expected to even attend the event where his own mortal enemies, outlawed for decades, were invited by the leader of the free world in his own capital city?
One must assume that Obama's Middle East adviser had already told him what the ramifications of that would be, so either it was a deliberately provocative chess move, or his adviser was incredibly stupid. Or both.
What message did Obama's behavior send to Muslim extremists in Egypt, and to the average grassroots Egyptian? Abdullah was horrified and exasperated at Obama's stupidity. Later he was sad but unsurprised at the Arab Spring washing ashore in Cairo to pull Mubarak from his seat. He made very sure, however, that it did not wash away his own throne.
(One might be prompted to wonder about Obama's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, given that scenario, and some of those that followed. One example is Obama's order to cut off the new administration of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after he deposed Muslim Brotherhood-backed former president Mohammed Morsi a year after election to office. It took some time for Washington's ire to thaw, despite the fact that millions of Egyptians had supported the coup. And it's not as if Washington has ever been finicky about supporting dictators or military generals who depose others. Assad was and is no angel.)
Even Obama's brash insistence that he could and would find a way to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority “to their senses” at the negotiating table to find peace made no sense, as the more experienced king knew.
But what concerned the late Saudi king most of all in diplomatic discussions was America's move towards Iran. Obama was and still remains convinced that “talks” will win the day. He appears to believe diplomacy will bring an “understanding” between Tehran and world powers that its nuclear development program must have limits.
What Obama does not understand – and what the average American diplomat rarely understands about most rulers in the Middle East – is that agreements are almost never worth the paper they are written on. If one is very lucky, they may last as long as the whim of the person who signed the agreement, maybe. One has to secure such agreements with more than just diplomacy.
One creates security in the Middle East only by moving the pieces on the chessboard, as the old Saudi king well knew. This is something he tried very hard to explain to the younger American president, but it is a culture code that he never seems to have understood – or simply chose to ignore, to the peril of those living in the region and ultimately even his own people back home.
Nuclear power is not something to trifle with – not in the hands of the fickle extremist Islamist Shi'ite Iranian government and certainly not in the hands of the radical Islamist terrorists to whom they will definitely gift their powerful weapons once they have created them.
More than half a century ago, two single atomic bombs wiped out two entire cities half a world away. The fallout has taken forever to address. Literally.
Now Iran is racing towards the very same technology and Obama is still allowing Tehran to stall for time and talk about it until they can secure it.
No wonder the Saudis are worried. King Abdullah left this world deeply concerned about this problem, and over the past several years began to form interfaith ties in an effort never before seen from a Saudi monarch.
Here is a possible reason why:
Consider the rise of a new Persian Empire fueled by nuclear weapons of mass destruction and possibly even backed by an updated Ottoman Emirate armed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Now add to that a rogue Islamic State masquerading as a Caliphate and deciding it's time to capture Mecca, the seat of ultimate Islamic authority.
Suddenly it was Saudi Arabia that came to the aid of Egypt in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas terror organization, keeping its Muslim Brotherhood backers along with Qatar and Turkey at bay.
Saudi Arabia reined in its resistance to military force and likewise suddenly sent its air force pilots to join the US-led coalition in fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organization.
That's essential, because to its south, the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Houthi rebels have just completed a coup against the Yemeni government and the palace is in the hands of the Houthi tribe.
Iran also now effectively controls Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia's two longest borders reach along Yemen and Iraq – both controlled now by Iran and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group. Via Iraq, Iran has a direct land route to Saudi Arabia, in fact, should it choose to attempt an invasion. But even if not, Tehran already has a good head start on the resurrection of a Persian Empire. All that's missing is the ultimate weapon.
The Saudis are terrified that Obama, in his naivete, may allow Tehran to reach that goal. It will be up to the American president to convince the new Saudi monarch that he has learned the harder lessons of Mideast diplomacy, the language of the desert. Obama must be able to prove he can be trusted to keep his allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and yes, even Israel – safe.
King Salman must be able to remember whatever Obama says to him for long enough to at least repeat it to whomever else in the kingdom needs to really know, for the new monarch is already failing, and his time is limited. Suffering from dementia, upon taking the throne Salman immediately named his half-brother Muqrin Crown Prince, as his older half-brother Abdullah had wisely directed prior to his death.
It may very well be that Muqrin will join Salman for meetings, as did Abdullah with his older half-brother Fahd in the final ten years of his reign, following the stroke that felled him. That clearly would be in the best interests of all.
The stability and economy of the kingdom will determine the stability of the region, because Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of oil in the world. Should that supply or its transport be disturbed in any way, more than just the Middle East will be at stake.
If Saudi Arabia fails, World War III will look like a walk in the park.