The springs and autumns of politics in Asia have taken a toll on US-Saudi relations. When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this month, no amount of briefs and dossiers will be enough to prepare him for the challenges facing him. The Saudis will demonstrate their mistrust and lack of confidence in his leadership. Strong bonds with Israel and the architecture of nuclear diplomacy with Iran will weigh heavily on him. He will have to perform a balancing act between three centres of power in the region. Israel, the most trusted ally and an outpost of US interests in the region; Saudi Arabia, edging to define its dominating role; and an emerging Iran, high on the priority list of the State Department. In the backdrop will be the successive waves of springs that become autumns, an influx of battle hardy militants in Syria and Iraq, and the growls and grunts of a Russian bear awakening from hibernation. A globalised and shrunk world, though economically feasible also means that the ripples of localised conflicts travel at lightning speed to all corners, complicating politics. In a primordial Arab world, fractures run deeper than technology can fathom.

Though the Middle East and West Asia are essentially the same thing, the names suggest a gulf of difference between the Arabs, the Persians and many religions and ethnicities that inhibit this region. First, the Middle Eastern connotation relates to the origin of Abrahamic religions. This reflects a mind-set of superiority ably demonstrated by oil rich Arab kingdoms. Second, Western Asia is considered a Eurocentric term, disliked by the Arabs. It represents an era when countries like Turkey and Persia, through trade and proximity were more relevant to British imperialism than the poor Bedouins yet to benefit from their oil resources. However, to the Americans sitting across the Atlantic, the Arab world extending towards Central Asia, with Israel at its centre was greater in proximity and hence the term Middle East.

Arab-Persian rivalry is rooted in history and successive Muslim Caliphates failed to quell it. The mutual rivalries crisscross amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions such as Manichaeism, Yezidi, Druze and Yarsan in Arab lands, and Mandeanism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, and the Bahá’í Faith in Persian areas. The ethnic groups in the region comprise Arabs, Turks, Persians, Balochs, Lurs, Mandeans, Tats, Jews, Kurds, Somalis, Assyrians, Egyptian Copts, Armenians, Azeris, Maltese, Circassians, Greeks, Turcomans, Shabaks, Yazidis, Mandeans, Georgians, Roma, Gagauz, Mhallami and Samaritans. This diversity and the linkages between them complicate the sensitivity of the region.

The area, despite being the centre of civilisations, religions and commerce has remained restive throughout history.  For almost three millennia, the region was ruled by one or two powerful states including Asian and European based polities that included Assyrian, Babylonians, Achaemenids, Israelites, Seleucids, Parthians, Romans, Sassanid, Byzantines, the Pious, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates and Safavids. Post the Great War, the stability in the region remained temporary and subject to outside powers filling the vacuum through local alliances and changing geographies. The French and British in the past and Americans of late, provide artificial stability to this cradle of religion and civilisations.

Though the post Khomeini revolution isolated Iran, the spring policies also led to instability in Iraq and activation of Shia populations in Arab States. By 2014, Iran emerged from its isolation, militarily stronger and politically more credible. It also strengthened its linkages with major Shia and ethnic groups in the Middle East that irk Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Its alleged nuclear capability poses a threat to Israel. With all this combined, President Obama’s walk along the razor’s edge will be engaging with unknown dimensions. Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Centre sums up this dilemma by writing, “Conflicting interests and views concerning Egypt, Syria, Iran and Palestine have created big rifts in the relationship. Unless the President is prepared to alter his approach to these issues, and be more careful about what he says to journalists about supposed Saudi difficulties with accepting ‘change,’ the best he can do is contain the damage. Even this won’t be easy.”

President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been overwhelmed by other events. Uncertainty about the ‘oft on oft off’ visit adds to the mystery. American suspicions of strong Saudi linkages with terrorists were addressed by Saudis through a series of royal decrees that denounced terrorism on one hand and banned the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Some analysts believe that strong Saudi backing to the military regime in Egypt and the banning of the Brotherhood did not auger well with the US. It was followed by a series of discreet counter allegations by Saudi Arabia and its propagandist media against the personality of President Obama and his relatives. As a gesture of trust building, President Obama cancelled his combined meeting with the heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Qatar; a country that supports the Brotherhood. Either Saudi Arabia does not understand the limits of its leverage or it is prepared to go to any extent to pursue its interests in the region.

These developments cast doubts on the success of this visit. As written earlier, the purpose of this visit was primarily to redo a Palestinian peace plan with Saudi approval in lieu for allowing Saudi Arabia a free hand for regime change in Syria. But if the US intelligence assessments are correct, then Saudi Arabia has already embarked on limited defiance that could make Obama pliable. These include high handedness against the Brotherhood in Egypt, the isolation of Qatar and the fresh influx of Al Qaeda aligned militants in Syria.  It appears that diplomacy may be rocky and the meetings marred by anything from implied or direct implications.

Both sides however, seem unprepared to call the bluff. Policy differences will not result in a cut off. In all probability, the couple will fight over their differences, mutually ignore them and agree to meet again. As Miller has commented, “Divorce isn’t an option. Couples therapy is unlikely to work. But mutual dependence will prove its mettle. The relationship will remain troubled but still at least clingingly functional in a region where that may be the new norm in America’s ties with all its Arab (and perhaps even its Israeli) allies.”

Pakistan and its rulers must stay away from the events in the country’s best interests.

n    The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist and a television anchorperson.