Saudi Defense Minister, Prince Salman, was the guest last week of his American counterpart Leon Panetta and, in an unusual step, was also hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama. On the agenda: Iran and the unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia's neighbor and the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, the American naval power in the Persian Gulf.
The number 3 man in the Saudi ruling house could soon move to the top. He is young and healthy - everything is relative - compared to his half-brother, King Abdullah, 89, and Crown Prince Nayef, 79. The Americans have been working hard for many years to foster ties with the Saudi security forces. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, headed from 2001 to 2003 a delegation of advisors to the Saudi National Guard.
A thin veneer of stability purchased with oil money covers a well that threatens to swallow a thousand wealthy princes. In a population of 27 million people, 5.5 million do not have Saudi citizenship. The unemployment rate among young people in the kingdom is 30 percent and the literacy rate is only 80 percent.
That is the background to the interesting message directed at Israel through an article published by a Saudi general in the American military magazine Joint Force Quarterly. Since a senior officer, a brigadier general in the royal family, does not pretend not to have the authority to reflect the conservative stand of the regime and does not publish for his own amusement statements and conclusions with diplomatic significance, it seems that Saudi Arabia is thus hesitatingly and conditionally courting Israel. The condition: that there be movement toward an agreement in the spirit of that promoted by Saudi King Abdullah. If Israel moves in this direction, he wrote as long as a decade ago, Saudi Arabia must express willingness for peace with Israel and influence the rest of the Arab world in this direction.
This time he went one step further. He praised President Shimon Peres and called for "encouraging Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs to get to know each other at least initially over the Internet while discussing sports, photography and other common interests - including peace prospects."
The general-prince-Ph.d. is His Royal Highness Naef Bin Ahmed Al-Saud, who holds advanced degrees from Georgetown University and Cambridge. His military expertise: strategic planning and special operations, international diplomacy and cyber warfare. When he studied at the National Defense University in Washington D.C., among his classmates was Israel Air Force officer Zeev Snir, now a brigadier general in the IAF reserves, who, at the end of his studies was appointed the IAF's chief procurement officer and currently heads the security establishment's special means branch.
Naef is sensitive to the impact of social processes on the Saudi regime. In 2002, also in an article in the Joint Forces Quarterly, he predicted that "Riyadh has found it prudent to modernize its military and acquire advanced weapons. But future increases in population require allocating considerable resources to meet domestic needs such as education, housing and medical services." He also wrote that the Saudi rulers would lose their credibility if they did not take public opinion into consideration.
This month, in the same quarterly, Naef scrutinizes social protest in Israel from an angle that is of great interest to the kingdom's rulers - the social network's role in organizing protests but also in assisting police and security services in monitoring them.
Saudi Arabia has prepared itself to push back a wave of the Arab Spring if it comes to its shores, and it wants very much to learn the lessons of last summer's protests in Israel, as well as those of the riots in Britain in August. "The Kingdom's leadership has been observing developments in Israel as a test of social media's effectiveness in organizing non-violent protest to create significant shifts in security and economic policy," he wrote in the Joint Forces Quarterly.
Naef is trying to persuade his readers that the Saudi government's monitoring of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and text messages has a legal foundation similar to that in the West and in "the world's largest democracy, India."
He also justifies Israeli opposition to the arrival of foreign agitators by boat or plane. "Ultimately, Western leaders do not want to see 'social media' sources organize large protests erupting in Riyadh or downtown Beijing," causing chain reactions that would lead to the collapse of Western economies.
There is a thread here that is begging to be followed. Israel and Saudi Arabia have a mutual enemy, Iran, and a mutual buttress, the United States. Dialogue between them, perhaps beginning with military people like Naef, will help both countries and promote a diplomatic agreement in the region.
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