Thursday, April 24, 2014
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The Bewildered Kingdom

LONDON – During the three years of political upheaval in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring” began, Saudi Arabia has attempted to maintain its dominant status in the region by any means necessary. In 2013, the Saudi royal family searched for regional allies, and sought – as in Egypt – to restore old allies to power. The Kingdom also used its vast oil wealth to bring about the type of regional stability with which they have been familiar for decades.

To the relief of the Saudi royals, the Arab Spring did not lead to the creation of functioning democracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, or Syria. Better still, from their perspective, the Islamist regimes that emerged proved to be either fundamentally incompetent, and thus easily overthrown (as with President Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt), or merely dysfunctional (as in Tunisia), and thus possessing no appeal as a model for other countries.

Still, the Arab Spring revolutions did fundamentally undermine the pillars of the old regional system with which the Kingdom was so comfortable. It ousted reliable old allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (now hiding out in Riyadh), and turned once-tolerable regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria into murderous opponents.

Saudi Arabia’s initial response to the fracturing of a system that it had underwritten with petrodollars was to increase support for those of its allies that were still standing – Jordan, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Its next move was to underwrite the Egyptian army’s removal of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, thumbing its nose at the United States in the process.

As became clear in 2013, Syria is now the main focus of Saudi Arabia’s attention in the region, and for existential reasons. The Saudis consider the struggle between Assad and his opponents a proxy war against their own main adversary, Iran. The Kingdom has been the primary source of financing and weaponry for Sunni Syrian rebel forces fighting Assad’s army, which is backed heavily by Shia Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia militia.

Of course, in their struggle against an Iranian regime that is backed by Russia, the Saudi royals would like continued protection from their main ally, the US. But they no longer feel constrained to wait for US approval of their actions or even to refrain from acting against American preferences. Saudi Arabia is experiencing a fear of abandonment by the US, and it is acting accordingly.

Since World War II, the Kingdom has been nurtured by the US – and has relied on it for military and political support since the first oil concession in 1938. Following US President Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce his “red line” concerning the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the Kingdom’s rulers concluded that they were facing a different America from the one that 22 years ago sent a half-million troops to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from neighboring Kuwait.

The question for the Saudi royals now is this: Will the US merely be indifferent to their deepest fears, or will American policy in the region actually aggravate these fears? Iran will be the litmus test for Saudi-US relations in 2014 and beyond.

Iran, a US rival in the region ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, may be in the early stages of normalizing its relations with America. In fact, this may not prove as difficult as three decades of animus might suggest.

As Henry Kissinger has often argued, the US and Iran have strategic interests that are fundamentally in harmony; what is abnormal is the post-1979 estrangement. Indeed, before the Islamic Revolution, Iran formed the bedrock of US policy in the Middle East and South Asia. The Kingdom’s rulers, like all royals, think in the past, remember this history well, and fear its repetition.

Of course, the Saudi royals recognize why America wants to reach a deal with Iran. There is no easy military response to Iran’s nuclear program, and no bombing campaign can eliminate the country’s nuclear knowledge. But, though sanctions alone will not stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, their progressive tightening has severely damaged the regime. Now, instead of applying another turn of the screw – and possibly causing the regime to buckle – Obama is easing the pressure.

The issue for the Saudis is not merely Iran’s putative nuclear capability. A deal on Iran’s nuclear program would legitimize the regime’s regional influence in a way that has not occurred in decades, thereby serving its hegemonic objectives. The deeper threat or fear is that Iran’s ultimate target is leadership of Mecca, the cradle of Islam.

That is why the Saudi royals prefer to keep Iran chained with international sanctions. True, even under economic sanctions, Iran has intruded ever more deeply into Arab politics, but it was the US that opened the door by overthrowing Saddam’s Sunni-minority regime in Iraq, which ultimately brought an Iranian-backed Shia government to power.

The Saudi regime is particularly wary of Iran’s decade-long efforts to persuade the small Gulf sheikhdoms to create security and economic arrangements that exclude the US. This is one reason why the Kingdom moved troops into Bahrain when Arab Spring protests by the country’s Shia majority erupted – and why America, having learned its lesson in Iraq, gave its tacit consent.

Making matters more bewildering is the declining potency of Saudi Arabia’s trump card – oil. New energy supplies – particularly shale oil in the US and Australia – have diminished America’s need for the Kingdom. The potential return of Iran as a major oil exporter if a nuclear agreement is reached in 2014 would further loosen the Saudi grip on oil prices as “Shia” oil from Iran and Iraq flood the market. In that case, even the Saudi king’s adopted title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” would not guarantee leadership of the Muslim world.

Read more from "2013: Reversing Gears" here, or on Kindle and iBooks.

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  1. CommentedMark Skinner

    It seems desirable for the United Sates to finally normalize relations with Iran. It's dependence on the double headed hydra of Wahhabi Saudi and an intransigent Israel has significantly distorted US foreign relations in the Middle East. Combined with a lesser need for mid eastern oil some semblance of a realistic policy may emerge. A major issue to avoid will be taking sides in what appears to be the broadening conflict between Shiite and Sunni. However it falls I won't be surprised if the more natural alliance is the USA and (a more moderate) Iran. Surely if there is an extension of democracy it's there that we may see slow but real improvement.

  2. Commentedjohn zac

    Bravo Mai,
    I ordered your books for a deeper understanding of Saudi identity. So basically you are saying the royals are backed into a corner and inevitably they will have a showdown with Iran And If and when they fight this battle, it'll be without mommy (US). I'm sure this has been gamed out already by the Pentagon and the obvious starting point will be in the House of Khalifa. Sad Mai..

  3. Commentedtemesgen abate

    merely ``as custodian of the two holiest mosques``,the kingdom could wrought considerable soft power.but financing the whole Al-Qaeda affiliated insurgencies in Syria ,and even Iraq,sponsoring the Egyptian-military complex clamp down on Muslim Brotherhood and its nymphatic democracy,,the Bahraini incursion and the recent pogroms against illegal immigrants made it a despicable crypto-fascist islamist sowed a wind,hence will harvest ``whirlwind``.

  4. Commentedhari naidu

    Asia Society (NY) conducted a video debate on the current nuclear issue with two US and one former Iranian senior policy experts concluding that a genuine *political breakthrough* was achieved on 24 Nov 2013 in Geneva.

    For Iran nuclear policy wonks this is politically a rare transparent interview on the subject :

    What remains to be seen, however, is whether Bibi Netanyahu/AIPAC lobby on the Hill will succeed in derailing the Geneva talks and its implementation.

    US policy experts want a focused P5+1 diplomacy now to achieve final status agreement with Iran in the New Year. They don’t want any other issue to be introduced including Syria.