Arabian Slights: Why the Saudis Are Angry About American Policies

U.S. President Barack Obama’s state visit to the kingdom on Friday will be dominated by strong talks about other Mideast countries, primarily Iran and Syria.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Saudi King Abdullah at the start of their bilateral meeting at the King's Farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 3, 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Saudi King Abdullah at the start of their bilateral meeting at the King's Farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 3, 2009.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Why are you abandoning your allies?” fumed Faisal Abbas, editor of Al Arabiya News’ English website, in an op-ed published in Arabic. “You” referred to the United States – and, more specifically, President Barack Obama, who arrives in Saudi Arabia on Friday for a state visit. Abbas, who reflects the prevailing opinions of the Saudi royal court, lists a large number of missteps that he believes characterize the Obama administration. The most important one is the interim deal signed last November with Iran regarding its nuclear program, as well as the present negotiations over a final agreement.

“Has Washington forgotten the long-standing cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States in the war on terror?” Abbas asks. “Has it forgotten that it was Iran that destabilized Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein? That it’s rocking Lebanon and Bahrain, that it supports Hezbollah and has captured three islands in the Persian Gulf that belong to the United Arab Emirates? An American strategy that ignores all these to placate Iran, while negotiating over its nuclear ambitions, raises grave concerns.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have written a more scathing article.

Abbas’ list of litanies does not stop at Iran. He reminds Obama of his last-minute pullback from attacking Syria over its use of chemical weapons, and his alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, despite it “being defined as a terror organization.”

The writer does credit Obama with closing the Syrian Embassy in Washington and expelling its diplomats, but these are trivial in comparison to the sweeping policy that is perceived as a betrayal of an old ally.

Substantial change

This bitter and angry reception sets the tone for the president’s visit, which was arranged in February as part of the U.S. administration’s efforts to appease the Saudis. This effort came after a warning last October by Bandar bin Sultan, the chief of Saudi intelligence, who said that negotiations with Iran would lead to a substantial change in Saudi-American relations.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of the most influential figures in the royal court – he also headed Saudi intelligence before 9/11 – defined Obama’s policies as “regrettable.” Although in past years Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to criticize American policies in the Middle East, the wording was always more polite and veiled. Now, it seems that the Saudis have decided to show who the regional boss is, demanding that the Americans choose between them and Iran.

This is not an ultimatum or a challenge; the relations between the two countries are excellent. Last year, the United States exported goods and services worth $119 billion to Saudi Arabia, while importing oil to the tune of $52 billion. Fifteen percent of U.S. oil imports come from Saudi Arabia. Three years ago, the two countries signed a $29.5 billion deal involving the sale of 84 F-15 fighter jets to the Saudis, as well as another $18 billion deal for the sale of Hercules transport planes and technology.

These deals consolidate a long-term relationship between the two countries, building on a long-standing deep alliance – often based on personal ties – between Saudi kings and American presidents. These almost cause one to forget the role of Saudi nationals in toppling the Twin Towers.

However, the revolutions in the Arab world, the war in Syria and, mainly, the changing status of Iran from pariah state to country with whom one can do business, have compelled the Saudis to abandon the shadow diplomacy that characterized its international and Arab foreign policy, and to strike out in a public and incisive offensive.

It has sided with the Free Syrian Army, which it finances along with Islamist organizations that are not affiliated with Al-Qaida. It also spearheaded the drive by Arab countries to arm the Syrian rebels and expel Syria from the Arab League. Despite depositing funds in Egyptian banks while Mohammed Morsi was in power, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it unequivocally supports the military that ousted Morsi from power. It even gave Egypt billions of dollars as the regime was changing. It is investing heavily in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a counterweight to Iranian attempts to gain influence there.

Unprecedented move

In an unprecedented move, it caused a break in relations between several Gulf states (Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and itself) and Qatar, due to the latter’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its close relations with Iran. Qatar, incidentally, is home to some of the most important American bases in the Middle East, such as the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, as well as a forward air base.

When the Americans enquired recently whether they could mediate between the Saudis and Qatar, they were publicly informed by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal that “this was an internal Saudi affair, and Washington need not interfere.”

The Saudis will try to extract a more clearly defined and determined policy from Obama, to replace the zigzagging one shown until now. The Saudi royal family realizes that the negotiations with Iran cannot be stopped at this stage, so it will demand U.S. guarantees for the security of the kingdom and its neighbors in case negotiations fail. In turn, Washington will try to defuse tensions between the Saudis and Iran, and Obama, according to Arab sources, will try to convince King Abdullah to receive Iranian President Hassan Rohani on a state visit.

The Saudi king will demand that the United States change its policies toward Egypt, resume aid that was suspended following the army’s seizure of power, and openly support Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s regime, even before the presidential elections in Egypt. Sissi’s announcement that he is resigning his post as defense minister, and the preparations for elections, will make recognition of the interim regime easier for the U.S. administration, which opposed imposing sanctions on Egypt but succumbed to pressure by Congress.

Syria is a tougher issue. Against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine and U.S. sanctions on Russia, the chances for a collaborative diplomatic effort to reach a resolution of the crisis are bleak. Saudi Arabia will insist that Obama approves the supply of high-grade weapons to the rebels – in addition to recent shipments that included anti-tank and shoulder-held missiles – in order to facilitate a military resolution. Washington prefers a nod-and-wink policy and shadowy agreements that allow for supplying the rebels without admitting to it. The Saudis prefer a combative and open approach that will counter Iran’s aggressive stance in Syria, as expressed by the participation of fighters from Hezbollah and Al-Quds battalions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

If any time remains, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also be discussed at the summit meeting. The Saudis made their contribution to the peace effort at this week’s meeting of the torn and decimated Arab League, by opposing demands to withdraw the Arab League initiative that was originally formulated by Saudi Arabia in 2002. The Saudi representative – Crown Prince Salman – did join the sweeping opposition to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, fully backing the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but the Arab initiative remained intact.

Saudi Arabia has replaced Egypt as the leading Arab country. Or, rather, it has emerged from its backstage dominance to take a more public role. This may be Obama’s last meeting with King Abdullah, who turns 90 this year. The ailing king can no longer stand and falls asleep during meetings. He still sets policies, but the wars of succession are already out in the open. It’s still unclear whether the successor will be the last surviving son of King Ibn Saud – 70-year-old Prince Muqrin, who was appointed last year as the second deputy to the prime minister, considered a stepping stone to the throne. The crown prince is ailing and may be suffering from dementia. It could also be Muhammad bin Nayef, who was appointed to the important post of interior minister in November 2012.

Abdullah, according to his own decree, will be the last to king to nominate his successor. The next ruler will be nominated by a family council of 35 members. These changes should not change the relations with the United States, but could foster internal change – mainly in the spheres of human rights, poverty and treatment of the Shi’ite minority, all important issues that will determine the kingdom’s stability.

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