Saudi Arabia

Tension in ties

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh on November 3. Photo: JASON REED/AP

Saudi Arabia, piqued by its failure to get the U.S. to effect a regime change in Syria, refuses to take its hard-won seat in the Security Council, accusing the U.N. body of "double standards" and "inability to perform its duties" in Syria.

THE Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did something unprecedented in the annals of post-War diplomatic history. It refused to take up its seat in the United Nations Security Council after having lobbied for it strenuously and winning the support of 176 states. The Saudi Foreign Ministry had said initially that winning a seat in the Security Council was a historic achievement and a vindication of its stance on issues relating to Syria, Iran and the region. Abdallah Al-Moullimi, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.N., even described it as a “defining moment” in the country’s history. But shortly afterwards, the government in Riyadh cut short the celebrations, shocking its close ally, the United States, and the diplomatic world by declaring its refusal to take its seat in the highest organ of the U.N. system.

A statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry castigated the Security Council for its “inability to perform its duties” in Syria and accused the body of having “double standards”. The statement said the U.N. stood aside and did nothing as the Syrian government killed its own people “with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment”. Riyadh was parroting the allegation that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on August 21 on civilians. The Syrian authorities accused Saudi intelligence agencies of having a hand in that atrocity so as to provide an excuse for U.S. military action against Syria.

The Saudis had staked their diplomatic and political capital on regime change in Syria. The monarchy had opened its purse strings liberally in order to make this a reality. It had even offered Russia, Syria’s long-time ally, a $15-billion arms deal and an assurance that it would not oppose Russia’s gas pipeline deals in Europe. Three weeks before the last chemical attack, the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, met President Vladimir Putin and told him that the situation in Syria was about to deteriorate further and that foreign military intervention in that country was inevitable.

Since late last year, the Saudi government has taken the lead role, sidelining the Qatari government, in its efforts to topple the legitimate government in Syria. Initially, Qatar had provided the bulk of the funding for the rebels in Syria, but it had tilted too much in favour of the jehadist forces, to the detriment of the so-called moderate groups fighting the Syrian Army. With the Syrian government forces gaining the upper hand and the opposition’s dismal failure to unite, the Saudi authorities reckoned that the shortcut to regime change was through American military intervention. It was the astute eleventh hour diplomacy of the Russians that helped avert yet another U.S.-triggered war in the region. That, along with the decision of the Syrian government to give up its chemical arsenal, has virtually ended the prospect of a U.S.-led military intervention, much to the chagrin of the authorities in Riyadh. Speaking at a conference in Washington, Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said the U.S.-Russia deal to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons was a “charade” designed to help President Barack Obama backtrack on his pledge to bomb Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lachtar Brahimi, on October 29 that no political solution to end the violence was possible as long as foreign powers backed the rebel forces. “The success of any political solution is tied to stopping support for the terrorist groups and pressuring their patron states,” the Syrian President told the veteran Algerian diplomat. The Hizbollah chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who is an important figure in the unfolding drama in the region, speaking in the last week of October, said the Gulf Kingdom was “furious because the situation in Syria had not worked out in its favour”. Sheikh Nasrallah alleged that while the international community wanted a political dialogue to find a solution to the conflict in Syria, Saudi Arabia continued to send in foreign fighters, weapons and money to the rebels. He said the Saudis were trying their best to sabotage the Geneva-II peace talks scheduled to be held in late November but added that they would not succeed. “The region cannot be torn apart by war because a state is furious and is trying to hinder political dialogue and push back Geneva-II,” Sheikh Nasrallah said in a speech.

Hindering dialogue

The Saudis have opposed Iran’s presence in the Geneva talks. Brahimi and the Russians want Iran to be present in Geneva. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, without naming Saudi Arabia, said that those who sought regime change in Syria and “helped voluntarily or involuntarily to create an extremists’ state there are unable to hide their emotions”. Senior Saudi officials said they would no longer coordinate with the U.S. in the efforts to overthrow the government in Syria. Instead, they said, Saudi Arabia would enhance its cooperation with countries such as France and Jordan in aiding the rebel forces in Syria. According to Michael Weiss, an expert on the region based in Beirut, Saudi Arabia independently backs around 50 “brigades” under the leadership of the Salafist Liwa al-Islam. The Saudi authorities were also clearly taken aback by the Obama administration’s decision to restart negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. The U.S. President was even willing to shake hands with the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, during his visit to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Though a diplomatic breakthrough between the old adversaries is not imminent, it is not improbable either. Such an outcome will constitute the worst-case scenario for the Saudi monarchy. WikiLeaks cables have it that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had urged the Bush administration to use the pretext of Iran’s nuclear programme to launch a military attack and “cut off the head of the snake”.

Abdullah al Askar, head of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran would be “at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia”. Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Saudi Arabia has backed attempts to destabilise Iran. It initially backed the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 along with the U.S. The Iraq-Iran war lasted for eight years and caused immense havoc in both countries. More than a million Iraqis and Iranians lost their lives in that conflict instigated by the West and its proxies in the region.

The Saudi authorities have other serious grouses against Washington. They are unhappy with the Obama administration’s position on Egypt since the onset of the “Arab Spring” and the mild criticism of the brutal suppression of pro-democracy activists in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It was basically Saudi military intervention that helped the Sunni monarchy in Shia-majority Bahrain to survive. The Saudi royal family also blames the Obama administration for allowing the ouster of its loyal ally, Hosni Mubarak, and for encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood and multiparty democracy in populous Arab countries like Egypt. There is no love lost between the Saudi authorities, along with some of the Gulf Emirates, and the Brotherhood and its affiliates in the region. The Saudis have always been openly hostile to the Brothers and their activities. Only the tiny but extremely rich emirate of Qatar was an open supporter of the Brotherhood.

Qatar and Turkey were the main benefactors of the cash-strapped Egyptian government that was led by Mohamed Morsy. As soon as he was toppled by the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia, along with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, rushed in with $12 billion in aid. While the Obama administration, though not categorising the ouster of the civilian government as a military coup, sharply cut down its financial and military support to Egypt.

Now the Saudi monarchy has threatened to look for new partners to replace its friend and benefactor through the ages—the U.S. The Saudis, according to experts of the region, do not have too many cards to play. Russia has made it clear that it will not dump Syria at this critical juncture.

China and India are the other countries Saudi Arabia may like to partner with. It has strengthened relations with India considerably in the last decade and is the largest supplier of oil to India. The two countries have also cooperated increasingly in terrorism-related security issues. But China and India know their limitations. Both countries have had good relations with Iran. Besides, suspicions linger in both countries about the continuing export of fundamentalist Takfiri and Wahhabi ideology and funds from the kingdom.

The fit of diplomatic pique exhibited by the Saudi monarchy in all likelihood is only a fleeting one. As the American commentator Scott McConnell wrote recently in Foreign Policy, Saudi Arabia and Israel are the two pillars of the American alliance system in the region. “It’s a pretty pure protection racket: we provide protection to the Saudi monarchy, and they use their oil wealth to aid the U.S. in other objectives, most importantly to keep the price of oil stable,” wrote McConnell. After Israel, Saudi Arabia is the second largest recipient of American armaments. The relationship, noted McConnell, made sense during the Cold War, as the primary aim was to keep the USSR (the United Soviet Socialist Republic) from the oilfields of West Asia. But, he said, the situation was different now and “the inherent problems of a close relationship dealing with a medieval theocracy with piles of money are now becoming more obvious”.

Israel lobby

The neoconservatives and the influential pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. are visibly upset with the Obama administration for allegedly short-selling two of America’s closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, by firstly not bombing Syria and then adding insult to injury by showing a willingness to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Saudi Arabia in early November to massage bruised egos in Riyadh.

Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli Foreign Minister and currently the country’s chief negotiator in the ongoing talks with the Palestinians, recently said that Saudi Arabia was on the same page with Israel on the issue of Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli Parliament that a rare commonality of interests has emerged between Israel and the Arab states. On November 1, according to the Saudi Arabian television network Al Arabiya, Israeli planes attacked Syrian military bases in Latakia, targeting surface-to-air missiles supplied by Russia. Two other Israeli attacks on Syrian targets were reported this year alone.