President Barack Obama met Jordanian king Abdullah II for five minutes in the VIP lounge at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on January 14th.
Jordan is one of the US’s top Middle East allies, a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, host of some 633,000 Syrian refugees, a lynchpin in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the recipient of $1 billion a year in US aid, and a generally moderating and stabilizing force in a combusting region.
In the past, a meeting between a US president and a Jordanian king would include a potentially lengthy closed-door session followed by a joint press conference and a photo op, as occurred during the king’s December 2014 visit to the US.
This time — at a moment when Jordan would appear to be an especially critical US partner — the leaders didn’t even meet long enough to give off the impression of having had a substantive or productive interaction.
It’s unclear exactly why the White House is treating Abdullah this way. The official American explanation is that Obama’s schedule is full, as Abdullah’s visit coincided with the president’s final State of the Union address along with a trip to Nebraska pegged to the speech.
But that only raises the question of why the president’s schedule couldn’t be altered to accommodate a leader so relevant to so many US interests — and someone who has taken on a certain personal risk over the years in allying so closely with the United States.
Regardless of the actual reason for the short meeting, the US’s relations with its Arab allies are now historically strained.
Although none of the Arab states officially opposed the Iran nuclear deal, it’s now clear that many of them are convinced it will empower an enemy state and usher in a period of US-Iranian detente at their own expense.
The Arab Gulf states have long believed that the US is at odds with them over the conflict in Syria and have suspected that Washington doesn’t actually want to see the overthrow of the Assad regime.
The US had higher level contacts with Iran than Saudi Arabia during this month’s crisis sparked by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a leading Shi’ite cleric, with Secretary of State John Kerry reaching out to Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif before contacting his Saudi counterparts.
And over the past year, some of the US’s Arab allies in the Middle East have been acting as if they don’t expect to receive further serious US’s diplomatic backing, as when Saudi Arabia organised an Arab coalition against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It’s unclear if Obama was uninterested in meeting Abdullah, honestly believing his trip to Nebraska was a higher priority — or if relations between the US and one of its most trusted Arab partners have turned into an afterthought in the administration’s mind.
But if the Arab states and the US really are in the midst of a strategic divergence, that would actually enhance the importance of someone like Abdullah, who is in a position to minimise any potential fallout of such a fundamental change in American policy.
Certainly a high-profile meeting between Abdullah and Obama could have pushed back against this narrative of Washington angling away from its traditional Arab regional partners.
Instead, the brief, perfunctory meeting raises the question of how bad relations have really gotten.
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