LONDON – The old saying “lonely is the head that wears the crown” has literally taken on new meaning for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Not only has he watched close regional allies, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, be toppled, but fellow crowned heads in Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan have also felt their thrones quake from public protest.
Now the Kingdom’s longtime protector, the United States, which let down Abdullah by (reluctantly) embracing the Arab Spring, is poised to pull its troops out of neighboring Iraq. Who, Abdullah wonders, will keep the Iranian wolf from the Kingdom’s door?
According to a security agreement reached with Iraq’s government, the US is to withdraw its forces by the end of this year. Saudi Arabia, along with its Sunni-ruled Gulf neighbors, is anxious that some US troops remain in Iraq to help keep a resurgent Iran at bay. The US government does not need to be convinced about that, but the American people – and ordinary Iraqis – want to see the troops go home. No Iraqi political faction wants to be blamed for prolonging the occupation, but most, with the exception of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, will agree to extend America’s military presence by another five years.
Although the US and the Gulf monarchies share a fear of Iran, much else about Iraq and the region is now in dispute. Saudi Arabia still loathes the idea of a democratic Iraq under majority Shia rule. The Shia, considered apostates by the Kingdom’s Wahhabi establishment, are viewed as a threat to the Saudi state’s legitimacy and existence, not only because of Iran’s power, but also because of the Kingdom’s large, indigenous Shia population, which is concentrated around the country’s oil fields.