RIYADH (Reuters) - A senior Saudi Arabian prince on Monday condemned comments attributed to U.S. President Barack Obama, saying the American leader had “thrown us a curve ball” in criticizing Riyadh’s regional role.
Obama, in comments to The Atlantic last week, described Saudi Arabia as a “free rider” on American foreign policy, and criticized what he saw as Riyadh’s funding of religious intolerance and refusal to come to an accommodation with Iran.
“No, Mr Obama. We are not ‘free riders’,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Washington and London, wrote in an open letter carried by the local Arab News English-language daily.
Prince Turki listed Riyadh’s support for Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group, its humanitarian aid for refugees in the region and its creation of an Islamic anti-terrorism coalition.
Ties between old allies the United States and Saudi Arabia, the top oil exporter, have been bumpy since the 2011 Arab uprisings when Riyadh faulted Washington for not doing more to stop the ousting of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak.
Riyadh has since watched in alarm as Obama forged a deal with its top regional foe Iran over its nuclear program and as he declined to use air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s ally, after a poison gas attack in Damascus.
In the interview, Obama said he did not believe the U.S. could have effected a meaningful result in Syria without a big commitment of ground forces and said that competition between Riyadh and Tehran helped feed proxy wars across the region.
Although Prince Turki does not presently hold any official position in the Saudi leadership, his views are described by insiders as often reflecting those of the kingdom’s top princes and as influential in Riyadh foreign policy circles.
In his letter, Turki asked whether Obama had “pivoted to Iran so much 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”.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; editing by Ralph Boulton