'No, Mr. Obama, We Are Not the Free Riders'

Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Salman (Saudi Press Agency / AP) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

President Obama’s use of the term “free riders” in Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story to describe some U.S. allies has prompted a sharp response from Turki al-Faisal, a senior Saudi prince who previously served as his country’s ambassador to Washington.

In an open letter to the president in the Arab News newspaper, Turki lists what he says are Saudi Arabia’s contributions to its relationship with the U.S. They include, among other things, intelligence sharing, the creation of the Arab anti-ISIS coalition, his country’s role in Syria and its military intervention in Yemen, the thousands of Saudi students at U.S. universities, and the purchase of U.S. treasury bonds.

Turki does not hold an official position in the Saudi leadership, and his remarks, published only in English, suggest his intended audience was Western, specifically American. But Turki is a longtime insider and his views are likely to be shared by many in the Saudi foreign-policy establishment, as well as his fellow princes.

The reaction is the strongest yet to be delivered publicly by the Saudis following publication of Goldberg’s article, “The Obama Doctrine.”

The president’s candid remarks on his frustrations about U.S. allies have already dominated headlines in the U.K. But the Saudis were, until now, silent—though it’s worth noting Obama did not specifically use the term “free riders” to describe them. Turki’s reaction, published today, comes just days after Secretary of State John Kerry visited the kingdom to discuss relations and ways to end the conflict in Yemen and Syria.

Remarks by Kerry and Adel al-Jubair, the Saudi foreign minister, after that meeting did not explicitly deal with Obama’s comments, but Saudi officials are likely to have been irritated by Obama’s comments—especially his assertion that the kingdom needs to “share” the region with Iran, its biggest rival. Here’s more from Goldberg’s story:

“Iran, since 1979, has been an enemy of the United States, and has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, is a genuine threat to Israel and many of our allies, and engages in all kinds of destructive behavior,” the president said. “And my view has never been that we should throw our traditional allies”—the Saudis—“overboard in favor of Iran.”

But he went on to say that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

Turki, in his letter, asked Obama whether he was “petulant about the Kingdom’s efforts to support the Egyptian people when they rose against the Muslim Brothers’ government,” which he said Obama supported. “Or is it the late King Abdullah’s (God rest his soul) bang on the table when he last met you and told you ‘No more red lines, Mr. President.’” That’s an apparent reference to Obama’s famous “red line” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, a threat that was not acted upon despite Assad’s use of the weapons, a moment that Obama, in Goldberg’s article, describes himself as being “very proud of.” Turki continues:

Or is it because you have pivoted to Iran so much that you equate the Kingdom’s 80 years of constant friendship with America to an Iranian leadership that continues to describe America as the biggest enemy, that continues to arm, fund and support sectarian militias in the Arab and Muslim world, that continues to harbor and host Al-Qaeda leaders, that continues to prevent the election of a Lebanese president through Hezbollah, which is identified by your government as a terrorist organization, that continues to kill the Syrian Arab people in league with Bashar Assad?

“No, Mr. Obama. We are not the ‘free riders’ … to whom you refer,” he wrote. “We lead from the front and we accept our mistakes and rectify them.

“We will continue to hold the American people as our ally and don’t forget that when the chips were down, and George Herbert Walker Bush sent American soldiers to repel with our troops Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait, soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with soldiers. Mr. Obama, that is who we are.”