WASHINGTON: “Even the best of friends are going to disagree on issues,” said the US State Department as President Barack Obama left home on Tuesday for a relation-mending visit to Saudi Arabia.

“What’s healthy is that you can have a discussion and you can have a debate and you can differ over whatever the issue is,” said John Kirby, the State Department’s spokesman, when asked to characterise the US-Saudi relationship.

The admission of differences followed a Saudi threat to sell more than $700 billion of US assets if Congress approved a bill that would allow Americans to sue the government in Riyadh for the 9/11 attacks. US lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, seem determined to pass the bill.

The Obama administration is trying to persuade the lawmakers not to do so, but politicians, both in and outside Congress, have urged the administration to ignore the Saudi threat.

“Our concerns about this law are not related to its impact on our relationship with one particular country. In fact, our concern is about an important principle of international law,” warned White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

“The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake and it is one that has more significant consequences for the United States than any other country.”

But the mistrust between the two countries is deeper than the dispute over this bill. Although the two allies started drifting away from each other sometime ago, their differences came to the surface last summer when the United

States signed a nuclear deal with Iran. Since the deal also allows Iran to rebuild its economy, the Saudis see this as a move to restore Iran’s status as a major power-player in the Middle East.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that many in Saudi Arabia see President Obama as “the source” of their troubles.

“Policy-makers across the kingdom have long said that they feel Mr Obama does not share the country’s regional interests. And after he criticised the Saudis as ‘free riders’ last month, those suspicions have hardened into fears that he may be actively undermining them,” the newspaper noted.

But at the State Department, Mr. Kirby insisted that Saudi Arabia “remains a key partner” and the United States would “continue to look for ways to improve” these ties.

But US lawmakers do not seem to share the State Department’s enthusiasm. Besides the bill seeking to sue Saudi Arabia for 9/11, the US Senate is also considering another piece of legislation that proposes a restriction on sales or transfers of US-made air-to-ground weapons to Saudi Arabia. They argue that the Saudi bombing of Yemen was not in the US interest.

The resolution, moved last week, followed a Human Rights Watch report alleging that Saudi Arabia used US-supplied bombs in one of its deadliest attacks yet in Yemen.

And in an interview to New York Times, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal acknowledged that US-Saudi differences were deep. “America has changed, we have changed and definitely we need to realign and readjust our understanding of each other,” he said.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2016

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