Middle East

Shifting sands, not shifting realignment
By Ehsan Ahrari

The appetite of the US mass media for creating cliches never ceases to amaze, even those of us who are in the midst of it. The latest example of this phenomenon is the attempt to label the Bush administration's long-expected decision to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia as a "shifting alignment" of a major proportion. The implication was that now that it is pulling out of that country, the United States is also about to give less significance to Saudi Arabia in its strategic calculation of the Persian Gulf region.

Where have these cliche-makers been all these months? Saudi Arabia lost its significance to the US not too long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It has been concluded in Washington that the domestic environment of that country is so acutely anti-American that it cannot play the role of a credible ally anymore. One also has to glance at the coverage of Saudi Arabia in the US media since September 2001 to get unequivocal evidence of that reality.

US-Saudi relations had undergone several changes even before the events of September 11. After defeating Saddam Hussein in 1991, the United States did not show much interest in getting out of the kingdom. The stated rationale was to keep Saddam "in the box". Consequently, there would never be any chance of the Iraqi dictator repeating any sneak invasion into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis also had to pay the price of allowing a more or less permanent stationing of US forces on their territory, thereby adding to the litany of complaints and resultant anger of all anti-regime forces. The Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden regularly mentioned the presence of US forces on the birthplace of Islam as "sacrilegious", a characterization that found considerable sympathy in the world of Islam.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia also neutralized whatever threats it faced from the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s by signing a strategic agreement in April 2001. About the only question it might have nurtured prior to the September 11 events was how long-lasting that agreement was going to be.

The post-September 11 security environment in South Asia and the Persian Gulf regions fundamentally altered the very nature of the strategic environment of Saudi Arabia for the better. President George W Bush's declaration of war against global terrorism, and then his inclusion of Iran in a so-called "axis of evil", definitely put the Islamic republic on notice. Since then, the ayatollahs knew how important it had become for their country to behave as an integral part of the community of nations of the Gulf region and of the international community at large. Even though hardliners inside Iran were slow to comprehend how serious the United States had become about its near-zero tolerance for any aspect of Iran's behavior in the neighborhood that could have been construed as sponsoring terrorism, they were not interested in pushing the envelop.

The US dismantled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and kept its troops in that country, thereby making Iran nervous about its long-term intentions. In this context, the already-fledgling Saudi-Iranian strategic partnership came in handy in mollifying the leadership of both countries about not worrying about each other's strategic intentions.

When the United States' rhetoric about attacking Iraq was heating up, Saudi Arabia made its opposition to such an action quite clear. Whatever secret understandings were made between Riyadh and Washington about the use of Saudi military bases, the fact of the matter is that publicly the Saudi monarchy remained aloof from its long-term ally. That development turned out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Since then, both sides have been looking for an opportune moment for the withdrawal of US forces from Saudi Arabia.

The United States' toppling of the Saddam regime has inserted radical changes into the security environment of the Gulf region. Now a major source of instability and a threat of future war is no more. Saudi Arabia does not have to look nervously across its northern borders anymore.

If the US were to gain military bases in Iraq in the coming months - speculations about which surfaced in the last week of April - then any potential resurgence of Iran's desire to export its Islamic revolution would also be eliminated. It should be noted that even though Iran has stopped acting along those lines for about 15 years, Washington has never stopped getting anxious over its prospects.

The post-Saddam Persian Gulf region is also different for the US in the sense that it has gained permanent bases in Kuwait and Qatar. As unimportant as those emirates are as small states, they are much more vulnerable to US attempts to bully them for future basing needs than Saudi Arabia. Washington will have no problem living with that hard reality. It will have a hard time getting over the fact that Riyadh withstood its pressure for allowing the use of its bases to carry out air attacks on Iraq.

Under these circumstances, the decision of the Bush administration to station forces permanently in Qatar is merely an inconsequential shift - which may be compared to a minor sandstorm that slightly alters the shape of insignificant sand dunes - not a realignment of a major strategic import.

Now the US must assess what it wants to achieve in the Persian Gulf region. An important item on the agenda is to contain Iran and keep it from influencing the nature of government that the United States is attempting to build in Iraq. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have their respective agendas of seeing a Shi'ite- and Sunni-dominated Islamic government in Iraq. However, they are not likely to quarrel over it, given how crucial it is for the US to have its own way in Iraq - a secular democratic government. Riyadh and Tehran are not likely to be too unhappy to see a moderate Islamic democracy as a neighboring state. That would be a better choice for both of them than having a secular government headed by a pro-American expatriate.

By the same token, Saudi Arabia will also assess its ties with the United States, especially when King Fahd is no longer around. Until then, the withdrawal of US troops is a welcome relief for the Saudi monarchy.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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May 15, 2003

Saudi Arabia: The pendulum swings
(May 7, '03)

Farewell to US arms in Saudi Arabia (May 2, '03)

Afghanistan: Launchpad for terror
 (May 3, '03)

Time up for US troops in Saudi Arabia (Apr 26, '03)


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