U.S. Report: Saudis Replacing Egypt as Regional Leader

Report indicates Saudis reluctant to accept role, due to growing threat Iran poses to the Arab world.

A recent U.S. National Intelligence Council report suggests Egypt has lost its superior status among Arab states, and that leadership in the Middle East is passing to Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom's efforts to avoid it.

The study, "Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan: Policies on Regional Issues and Support for U.S. Goals in the Middle East," is based on a workshop held last summer, but was released only in December, after U.S. President Barack Obama was elected and senior intelligence officials in his administration took office.

The National Intelligence Council describes itself as a center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking within the U.S. intelligence community. It is subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence, and provides intelligence estimates to the president and senior decision makers on foreign policy issues.

While the council is a government agency, the report emphasizes it does not necessarily reflect the administration's foreign policy.

According to news reports yet to be confirmed in Washington, Obama intends to appoint Chas W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the intelligence council. Some Israeli officials have expressed concern that Freeman's political views are not in line with those of Jerusalem.

The experts convened to draft the study agreed Egypt is no longer the undisputed leader of the Arab world as it had been in previous decades, and that the torch of regional leadership is being passed to Saudi Arabia. However, the report indicates the Saudi regime is loath to accept that role, largely because of implications of the growing threat Iran poses the Arab world.

"Mubarak is getting older and no longer has the energy to provide the leadership he once did," the report states. "No one in the government, including his son or Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian External Intelligence Service, has replaced him in regional relations."

U.S.-Egyptian relations remain strong, it says, but officials in Cairo have begun to doubt how these ties benefit Egypt. The report's authors do not expect either of Mubarak's potential successors to effect a significant change in relations with Washington, but they believe the leader's son Gamal may embark on a process of internal political liberalization.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, the report notes that the regime's foreign policy has been ineffective in recent years, having failed in attempts to reconcile between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, as well as Hezbollah and Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora.

The kingdom is interested in seeing Iran weakened, and to that end seeks a stable, united Iraq free from Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia also would like an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that could pave the way for Saudi relations with Israel.