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The Saudi Anger Has Many Faces (III)

Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR | 25.12.2013 | 12:16

Part I, Part II

Jamal Kashoggi’s fusillade against Prince Bandar bin Sultan is as far as criticism can go in the Saudi press against a powerful member of the House of Saud, but, to be sure, the tensions between rival princes are spilling over to the press and the policies that Bandar, presently the chief of Saudi intelligence, has been expounding have come under attack.

Besides, it is not only the Syria front where Bandar has been involved. Bandar was also the Saudi point person who piloted the military coup in Egypt. In fact, none of the theatres where Bandar’s footprint is discernible – Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria – things are going well for Saudi Arabia and all are interconnected. 

Egypt is likely to turn out to be an Albatross on the Saudi neck. The Saudi expectation was that the country would be pacified in no time but the ferment continues and there is no end in sight. The latest development is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is by far the best organized and the most popular political platform in Egypt, has been declared a «terrorist» organization. «Inclusive» democracy and stability and economic recovery in Egypt seems a chimera for a generation. 

Yet, Saudi Arabia is bankrolling that bankrupt and paralyzed state. How long can this continue? 

The UAE has already given notice to Cairo that Arab support for the junta would not last long. Comparison has been drawn that the UAE’s latest tranche of aid to Egypt ($3.9 billion) is like blood transfusion to a patient who is bleeding incessantly and uncontrollably. Meanwhile, the clash over the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has actually impacted regional alignments. It has driven Turkey into the arms of Iran. Tehran has begun describing the Iranian-Turkish relations as «deep-rooted and brotherly». Suffice to say, the Egyptian front is going terribly wrong for Bandar. Clearly, a stage has come when the tensions over such adventurist policies are morphing into the power rivalries within the House of Saud. 

In sum, the strident rhetoric of late over the Saudi foreign policies, which have been traditionally discreet and cautious and conducted unobtrusively, has many faces. It needs to be viewed as the eruption of a variety of overlapping tensions in the complex matrix involving the House of Saud where rival groups are vying for the old king’s attention and the rivalries have spilled over to the direction that the Bandar group is taking Saudi foreign policies. Dwelling on this topic recently, Guardian newspaper’s David Hearst recapitulated, «Intrigues within the royal court may explain why Saudi foreign policy, which has traditionally been discreet and cautious and conducted largely behind bead curtains, is so overt. It could all be a product of an age-old obsession of absolute monarchies – the battle for succession». 

However, the big question remains unanswered: How far will Saudi Arabia push the envelope and defy the US strategies in Syria or Iran to the extent of actually undermining them? The Saudi intervention in Bahrain shows that where its core interests are involved, Riyadh is capable of acting forcefully. Clearly, Riyadh is petrified that the Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain would have resonance in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, which are Shi’ite-dominated, and Shi’ite empowerment as such could have ripple effect on a variety of theatres in regional politics. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia spearheaded the violent repression of the Shi’ites in Bahrain. No amount of western criticism could compel the Saudis to rethink their policy toward Bahrain. 

Thus, question marks have been put on the massive order that Saudi Arabia has placed with the US for anti-tank missiles – 15000 pieces of Raytheon anti-tank missiles costing over $1 billion. It is inconceivable that Saudi Arabia faces threats of a tank invasion and in any case it has a stockpile in excess of 4000 anti-tank missiles already. Unsurprisingly, experts are asking, What’s the threat? 

There is not even a remote chance of Saudi Arabia getting involved in a ground war with Iran. Any conflict between the two adversaries, if at all, would only be in the nature of a naval or air encounter. Such sophisticated anti-tank missiles are not needed for the Saudi operations in Bahrain or Yemen. Saudi Arabia faces no threat from Iraq, either. 

The only plausible explanation that experts have reached is that the latest Saudi deal could be connected with Bandar’s war in Syria. Conceivably, Saudis could be sending their stockpiles of anti-tank weapons procured from diverse sources (other than the US, which strictly monitors any transfer of weapons by recipients to a third party) and are replacing them with replenishments from the US. As a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman noted, «I would speculate that with an order of this size ($1 billion), the Saudis were flushing their current stocks in the direction of the opposition and replacing them with new munitions». 

If so, Bandar is indeed pressing ahead with the Saudi war against the Syrian regime, notwithstanding the recent signals from the western powers that the peace talks at Geneva 2 next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar Al-Assad, and that not only will his Alawite minority remain a key presence in any transitional administration but he also might run again next year in the presidential election. 

On the other hand, there is also another way of looking at it. To quote David Kenner, associate editor at the Foreign Policy magazine, «But purchasing the weapons, rather than any intent to use them, may be the point for the Saudis. At a time when they are at odds with Washington over the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran and non-intervention in Syria, the kingdon’s deep pockets can at least make sure their ties to the Pentagon remain as strong as ever». Indeed, there is reason to believe that thick layers of bluff and bluster obfuscate the real intentions behind the Saudi rhetoric. 

Take, for instance, the supposedly clandestine meetings between the Saudis and Israelis. Of late, the curtain has inexplicably lifted on such meetings, whereas it has been an open secret for years that Saudi-Israeli cogitations, including at intelligence level, have been a strand in the complicated Middle East political tapestry. Clearly, the current leaks are supposedly part of «psywar». Whereas, in actuality, there can be only be limited coincidence of Saudi-Israeli interests. 

The fact of the matter is that Israel and Saudi Arabia operate at vastly different levels in Washington. Israel’s connections in the US are profound and they encompass the political, cultural and religious templates of American society, whereas Saudi Lobby operates on a superficial level. At the core of the difference lies the ground reality that Israel has the capacity to act autonomously to safeguard its security interests and even if it may at times put strains on the atmospherics of the ties with the White House, that would remain a transient feature and the overall relationship recovers without any serious damage. The House of Saud, on the other hand, relies completely on US military protection. 

In an insightful article recently written jointly by Bernard Haykel, the well-known professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, and Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, they summed up: «Unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia has little influence in the domestic politics of the United States, beyond the support of a few oilmen and arms manufacturers. The Saudi royals do not even enjoy the warm personal relationship with President Barack Obama that they once did with President H. W. George Bush, President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, who managed bilateral relations directly. Just as neither Saudis nor Israelis are likely to downgrade their relations with the US, they are even less likely to embrace each other». Haykel and Kurtzer estimate that any «joint Israeli-Saudi diplomatic and military coordination makes for good news copy, but it is probably fiction». 

So, how does the bubbling Saudi discontent add up to? The point is, Riyadh is increasingly desperate. It considers Syria a proxy war with Iran and wants the US to lend support. But that is not happening. Instead, Washington is engaging Iran and in the process giving Tehran a new legitimacy that is anathema to Riyadh. It is a conundrum that is not going to go away easily and Saudi Arabia will have to learn to live with it – during the Obama presidency, at least… 

Tags: Egypt Middle East Saudi Arabia US

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Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR

Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union.  After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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