SPEAKING FREELY Riyadh takes wrong road to stability
By Nicola Nasser
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
As the Arab Spring spread in 2011, some analysts thought Saudi Arabia had what it would take for full-scale revolt.
Rachel Bronson, writing in The Washington Post in February 27 that year, asked: "Could the next Middle East uprising happen in Saudi Arabia?" Her answer was: "The notion of a revolution in the Saudi kingdom seems unthinkable."
However, On September 30 the next year, the senior foreign
policy fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy Bruce Riedel concluded that a "revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable".
To preempt such a possibility, the kingdom in March 2011 made a "military" move to prevent the tide of the Arab popular uprisings which raged across the Arab world from reaching its doorstep.
That rapid Saudi military move into Bahrain heralded a series of reactions that analysts describe as an ongoing Saudi-led counter-revolution.
Amid a continuing succession process in Saudi Arabia, while major socioeconomic and political challenges loom large regionally, the kingdom is looking for security as far away as China. It seems blind to the shortest route to stability in its immediate proximity - a regional understanding with its geopolitical Arab and Muslim neighbors.
In his quest to contain any fallout from the "Arab Spring," Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz proposed inviting the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to join the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), leading The Economist on May 19, 2011 to joke that the organization should be renamed the "Gulf Counter-Revolutionary Club." Iraq and Yemen would be much better additions if better security was the goal.
On March 5, the kingdom led two other members of the six-member GCC, namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar, risking the survival of the GCC.
Riyadh's multi-billion dollar support for the change of guard in Egypt in early July, and the kingdom's subscription to Egypt's make or break campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) inside and outside the country following the ouster of the MB's former president Mohammed Morsi, reveal a much more important Saudi strategic accord with Egypt's new rulers.
On the outset of the so-called "Arab Spring," the kingdom also bailed out Bahrain and the Sultanate of Omen with more multi-billion petrodollars to buy the loyalty of their population.
More multi-billion petrodollars were squandered inside the country to bribe the population against joining the sweeping popular Arab protests.
Yet still more billions were squandered on arms transfers which make the kingdom the world's fifth-largest importer of arms. More Saudi orders for arms are outstanding, according to a new study released on March 17 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Had all of those squandered billions of petrodollars been spent more wisely they could have created a revolution of development in the region.
Not assured by US assurances
The Saudi message is self-evident. They don't trust their decades-old American security umbrella anymore. The US sellout of close allies like the former presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen sheds doubt on any "assurances' Washington would be trying to convey during Obama's upcoming visit.
President Obama is scheduled to be in Riyadh by the end of March to assure Saudi Arabia of what his Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns on February 19 told the Center for Strategic and International Studies - that the United States takes Saudi security concerns "seriously."
"The US-Saudi partnership is as important today as it ever was", said Burns. "Security cooperation is at the heart of our agenda" with the GCC, he said, reminding his audience that his country still keeps about 35,000 members of the US military at 12 bases in and around the Arabian Gulf.
Obviously, the Saudis are not assured internally, regionally or at the international level. As Burns said on the same occasion: "We don't always see eye to eye" and it is natural that Gulf states would "question our reliability as partners" given US efforts to achieve energy independence and US warnings that traditional power structures, such as the gulf monarchies, are "unsustainable".
Obama's upcoming visit to the kingdom has been described as a "fence-mending" one. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, at a joint press conference alongside visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry in November, hinted that fences might not be mended because "a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor, and frankness rather than mere courtesy."
What Prince Al Faisal described as "frankness" is still missing: His brother, prince Turki al-Faisal, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last December, bed the Obama administration for keeping his country in the dark on its secret talks with Iran: "How can you build trust when you keep secrets from what are supposed to be your closest allies?"
The senior associate of Carnegie's Middle East program Frederic Wehry on March 10 wrote that, "There is a growing sense in Gulf capitals … led by Saudi Arabia" that "the United States is a power in retreat that is ignoring the interests of its steadfast partners, if not blithely betraying them."
What Burns described as "tactical differences" with Saudi Arabia and its GCC co-members, the Saudis are acting on the premise that those differences are much more strategic than "tactical" and accordingly are overstretching their search for alternative security guarantees worldwide because they seem to disagree with Burns that "our Gulf partners know that no country or collection of countries can do for the Gulf states what the United States has done and continues to do."
Pressured between two 'crescents'
Three threatening developments have led to Saudi distrust in US security assurances. The first was the selling out of a US ally like the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the second was the Qatari, Turkish and US coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood regionally and the third was the assumption to power of the MB in Egypt.
The first development set the precedent of selling out of a long regional US ally against the fervent public advice of the kingdom. Mubarak's ouster set the red lights on in Riyadh of a possible similar scenario in Saudi Arabia.
The second development put the kingdom on alert against the emerging MB, Turkey, Qatar and the US axis that would have encircled Saudi Arabia had the kingdom allowed this axis to hand the power over to the Brotherhood in Syria in the north and in Egypt in the west.
The MB is influential in Jordan, the kingdom's northern neighbor, and in Yemen, its southern neighbor. The Hamas' affiliation to the MB in the Palestinian Gaza Strip would complete what a Saudi analyst called the "Brotherhood crescent" in the north, west and south, to squeeze the kingdom between the rock of this "Brotherhood crescent" and the hard place of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the east.
The third development surrendered the western strategic backyard of the kingdom to the MB, which has become untrustworthy politically in view of its membership in the emerging US-led ""Brotherhood crescent" after decades of sponsoring MB leaders who found in the kingdom a safe haven from their suppression in Syria and Egypt.
Unmercifully pressured between the "Brotherhood crescent" and what King Abdullah II of Jordan once described as the "Shi'ite crescent" extending from Iran through Iraq and Syria, the kingdom seems poised to find an answer to the question of whether or not a revolution in Saudi Arabia is unthinkable.
The Saudi answer so far has been reactive more than proactive. "It is difficult to avoid the impression that Saudi policy is more re-active than pro-active," Sir Tom Phillips - British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia 2010-12 and an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme - wrote on February 12.
Following the lead of the United States and Europe, who have come to deal with the fait accompli of Iran as a pivotal regional power, a more Saudi proactive regional policy would engage Iran and Syria in a much shorter and cheaper route to internal security as well as to regional stability.
Feeling isolated, besieged and threatened by being left in the cold as a result of what it perceives as a withdrawing US security umbrella, the kingdom's new experience of trying to cope on its own is seeing the country indulge in counterproductive external policies.
At the end of the day, the kingdom's recent historical experience indicates that the Saudi dynasty lived its most safe and secure era during the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian trilateral understanding, which was developed as a regional axis of stability, as the backbone of the Arab League regional system and was reinforced by the trilateral coordination in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
The revival of the Saudi coordination with Egypt in the post-Morsi presidency was a crucial first step that would lead nowhere unless it is completed by an overdue Saudi political U-turn on Syria that would revive the old trilateral axis to defend Arabs against Israel. A partnership with Iran would be a surplus; otherwise the revival of the trilateral coordination would at least serve as a better Saudi defense against Iran as well.
However such a Saudi U-turn would require of course a strategic decision that would renege on the kingdom's US-inspired and ill-advised policy of dealing with Syria and Iran as "the enemy," while dealing with Israel, which still occupies Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories, as a possible "peace partner" and a co-member of an anti-Iran and Syria "front of moderates," which the successive US administrations have been promoting.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. [email protected]