[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/03/10/mini.summit/art.king.afp.gi.jpg caption="Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah."]
CNN State Department Producer
Today I attended an interesting conference about US-Saudi relations called "US-Saudi Relations in a World Without Equilibrium".
The event took place in an enormous ballroom at the Four Seasons, yet there was still standing room-only for a crowd of close to 500 oil executives, current and former diplomats, academics and journalists twittering away. Another 4,000 or so followed the conference on line by video stream. It was a real testament to just how important the relationship with Saudi Arabia is.
The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons, who organized the conference, assembled quite a line-up. The Saudi Ministers of Finance and Commerce were there, as well as Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the US and intelligence minister. Undersecretary of State William Burns spoke to the group about the importance of the US-Saudi relationship.
The people who couldn't make the conference, and why, said just as much about how critical US-Saudi ties are today. Adel Al-Jubeir, the current Saudi Ambassador traveled home to Riyadh to attend a meeting between Saudi King Abdullah Ambassador and Dennis Ross, the current shepard of US policy toward Iran who just left for the region. Special envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell is about to take a trip to the Kingdom himself.
All this diplomatic activity is evidence that Saudi Arabia is at the center of many key issues facing not just the Middle East, but the world. Most people think closer to home: such as King Abdullah's Arab peace initiative and the Saudi role in helping mediate between Palestinian factions, stabilizing Iraq and serving as a counterweight in the region to Iran's rising influence and nuclear ambitions.
But it doesn't stop there. Saudi Arabia is seen as critical to stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a growing role in helping solve the world financial crisis as a member of the G-20.
Which is why there is serious talk within the Obama administration about putting more stock in the US-Saudi alliance, which took a serious beating during the Bush years. By the end of the Bush administration the Saudis were so disappointed with the United States policy in the Mideast that Riyadh ignored Washington's pleas to increase oil production when oil prices were at their highest. King Abdullah even declined President Bush's invitation to the White House for a State dinner.
Commerce Minister Abdullah Alireza described the Bush years as a "long hibernation," referring to what many Arabs viewed as a hands off approach by President Bush to Mideast peace making. He said the Saudis wanted to get past the "trials and tribulations of the past," and he and other Saudi officials spoke favorably about what they see as a positive change in tone by President Obama.
Since 9/11 there has been a tendency for peoples in both countries to reduce each other to stereotypes: the Saudis as Islamic fanatics who fund terrorism and the US as occupiers and torturers of Muslims.
The truth is far more complex than these convenient labels. To be sure Washington and Riyadh have serious disagreements. And although many people at the conferenced today said the US and Saudi Arabia have "simliar values," that is certainly a stretch. The US has concerns about Saudi Arabia's record on human rights and its adherence to the Wahabi brand of Islam. Saudi Arabia wants the US to do more to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reduce its military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But today's conference went a long way toward showing that despite those issues, the US-Saudi partnership is critical to help solving many of the major problems facing the United States today and needs to be nutured.
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