During the past fortnight, Saudi Arabia raised the bar by several notches in its rhetoric to express fury over the US’ regional policies in the Middle East, especially over Syria and Iran. The rhetoric reached a high pitch last week with two key figures in the Saudi regime alternatively lampooning and threatening the Obama administration.
Is this strategic defiance of the US by the Saudi regime sustainable or will turn out to be mere bravado or even a defensive strategy to cover up dark fears? There is every reason to anticipate that it is the expression of an anger with many faces. There is a hint of an American warning appearing on the horizon to the House of Saud that discretion is the better part of valor and the latter is in no position to threaten the White House. The Saudi regime couldn’t have missed this subtle message but how it assimilates it will bear watch.
The Saudi rhetoric against the Obama administration during the past fortnight was indeed startling for its unprecedented tone of defiance and sabre rattling.
Not only was such a thing impossible during the George W. Bush presidency (because the president’s family for three generations had kept close ties with the House of Saud), but such rhetoric has never been the Saudi style. Riyadh always preferred to operate in the subsoil away from prying eyes when it came to the all-important relations with Washington.
On the face of it, the two things that have infuriated the Saudi regime have been President Obama’s apparent resolve to push forward the US’ engagement with Iran, and, secondly, Washington’s unmistakable disengagement from the ‘regime change’ project in Syria. Obama is now openly speaking about the prospect of a final US-Iranian deal over the nuclear issue and authoritative American opinion-makers and officials are increasingly voicing the opinion, including at the recent meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ at London, that it could be in the interests of Syria’s stability and the struggle against al-Qaeda – as well as of regional security on the whole – that President Bashar Al-Assad continues to play a leadership role and be a participant in the presidential election that is scheduled to be held next year.
Most certainly, gone are the days when Washington spoke of «all options» being on the table on Iran or of the bottom line in Syria being Bashar’s exit from power. This has sunk in well in Riyadh as well as the realization that the Saudi lobby’s robust campaigning in Washington and even the implicit threat that Saudi Arabia would cozy up to other big powers as counterweight to the US have failed to impress the Obama administration. Put differently, Saudis are coming up against an altogether new experience, namely, that they no longer wield a veto power over the conduct of the US’ Middle Eastern policies that are henceforth to be riveted on the pursuit of American geostrategic interests as part of Washington’s global strategies. For a regime that placed full faith on the power of money to command and dictate and to navigate the way through the corridors of power in Washington, this is a paradigm shift. And it is not going down well in Riyadh.
This was evident from the highly vitriolic attack on the Obama administration by a leading Saudi prince, Turki-al-Faisal (who is the brother of the incumbent foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and himself a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington) at a recent security conference in Monaco, which was attended by senior European and Arab politicians and business leaders, as well as in his interview with the Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the conference.
Turki virtually accused the Obama administration of perfidy by working behind Riyadh’s back aimed at bringing about the rapprochement with Tehran and alleging that Washington is responsible for «criminal negligence» of the violence in Syria which has claimed 130000 lives. Turki said, «What was surprising was that the talks that were going forward [between Washington and Tehran] were kept from us [Riyadh]. How can you build trust when you keep secrets from what are supposed to be your closest allies?»
Obviously, the Saudis are livid that the Obama administration not only did not notify Riyadh about the secret talks with Iran until this fall («when things became substantive»), but it also rubbed salt into the wounded Saudi vanity by initiating these contacts last March in Oman right under the Saudi nose. To be sure, the interim accord with Iran on the nuclear issue that was worked out in Geneva last month has rattled the Saudis and Turki voiced concern that it did not go far enough to ensure Tehran won’t develop nuclear bombs. At the back of it all, of course, is the existential angst that the US-Iranian détente would incrementally erode the status of Saudi Arabia as the preeminent ally of Washington in the Middle East.
Equally, the stark differences over Syria have isolated Saudi Arabia internationally and in the region. Two days after Turki spoke, the assault against the Obama administration was carried forward by the Saudi ambassador to the UK and a member of the House of Saud, Mohammed bin Nawaf Abdulaziz al Saud, who in an article in the New York Times last Tuesday virtually threatened that the US policies in both Iran and Syria are a «dangerous gamble» and Saudi Arabia «cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by». He alleged that the US policies risk the stability of the Middle East and the security of the Arab world. «This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs… Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region… We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners. Nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab world».
Most important, the article was fairly explicit that the Saudi support for the extremist Islamist Front in Syria will not only continue but will also be strengthened. «Saudi Arabia will continue on this track for as long as proves necessary,» Mohammed bin Nawaf wrote.
However, the big question is how far will the Saudi regime be willing take the hazardous journey on «this track» of strategic defiance of the US?
For an answer to such a question, we may have to go well beyond Syria and Iran questions and travel in a time machine all the way back to September 2001. Inexplicably, the Obama administration has permitted for the first time two Congressmen – Walter B. Jones (Republican) and Stephen Lynch (Democrat) – to access the 28 redacted pages of the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry [JICI] report on the 9/11 attack, which were long believed by the victims’ loved one, injured survivors and the public at large to hold some answers about the Saudi connection to the attack. After all, fifteen out of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attack were Saudi nationals and there have been sporadic reports that some of them were linked to the Saudi royals and might even have received financial support from the Saudi government as well as from several mysterious moneyed men from Saudi Arabia living in San Diego at that time.
This was how Congressman Jones reacted after reading the highly classified 28 pages of the JICI report: «I was absolutely shocked by what I read. What was so surprising was that those men whom we thought we could trust really disappointed me. I cannot go into it any more than that. I had to sign an oath that what I read had to remain confidential. But the information I read disappointed me greatly».
To cut a long story short, in early December Jones and Lynch introduced a resolution that urges President Barack Obama to declassify the 28 pages (which his predecessor had ordered to be classified on the grounds that releasing the pages would «violate national security».
A cat-and-mouse game seems to have begun involving the White House, Capitol Hill and the domestic public opinion – and the US judiciary – and the House of Saud.