Saudi Arabia may experience another lurch into change as another of the kingdom’s aging royal leaders is, according to news reports, seriously ill. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal al Saud is reportedly sidelined by a terminal medical condition and foreign affairs responsibilities are being turned over to his deputy, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah al Saud. Saud has been foreign minister of Saudi Arabia ever since 1975 when a nephew of King Faisal shot and killed Faisal during a royal audience at the royal palace in Riyadh.
Faisal, a moderate domestic reformer who appointed non-Wahhabi Sunni minority Shi’a and Ismaili Muslims to the Saudi government, held the foreign minister portfolio. King Khalid, Faisal’s successor, appointed Prince Saud as foreign minister. The post-Faisal government reversed course on the inclusion of non-Wahhabis in Saudi society and Prince Saud’s policy was to back the United States in a variety of schemes involving the most radical elements of Islam, from arming the mujaheddin in Afghanistan during the Soviet military foray into that country to supporting Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in Pakistan. Saud also ensured Saudi support for pro-Wahhabi rebels from crisis zones extending from North Africa to Chechnya to Southeast Asia.
Abdulaziz is representing Saudi Arabia at the NATO-maligned Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran scheduled for August 30-31. Abdulaziz’s presence in Tehran is in direct contravention of the wishes of Saudi Arabia’s NATO allies coordinating the largely Saudi- and Qatari-financed insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis had also supported the NATO-backed rebels in Libya who overthrew and assassinated Muammar Qaddafi.
The United States, Israel, and the European Union tried, but failed, to persuade world leaders to boycott the Tehran conclave.
The ascension of Abdulaziz, an expert on Syrian and Lebanese affairs in the Saudi foreign affairs hierarchy, may or may not portend a change in Saudi Arabia’s strong alignment with the interests of the United States and, by default, Israel, in the Middle East. Just a few months ago, Abdulaziz was in Paris at a meeting of supporters of the Friends of Syria, the Western and Gulf Arab contrivance created to marshal international support for the Syrian rebel movement.
Saudis like Abdulaziz may be sensing an international shift from unipolar global geopolitics dominated since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact by the United States. The NAM summit includes a number of emerging economic power houses that are clearly thumbing their noses at dictates from Washington, Jerusalem, London, and Brussels about isolating the Iranian government. The Saudi de facto acting foreign minister will be rubbing shoulders in Tehran with not only Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had just attended the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Mecca at the invitation of Saudi King Abdullah, but Syria’s Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who representing the government in Damascus that Saudi Arabia is trying to overthrow.
The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) quoted Ahmadinejad as telling his Saudi hosts in Mecca, “A significant portion of the energy of Muslim governments and groups is spent in internal conflicts and damaging each other . . . Perhaps it would be good for Muslim countries to consult with each other on this issue.” Ahmadinejad’s words may have had some effect on the Saudi leadership. Abdulaziz reciprocated Ahmadinejad’s visit by accepting Iran’s invitation to the NAM summit in Tehran.
Abdulaziz, unlike Prince Saud, who has, as the longest serving foreign minister, may be facing a new global reality. Nations opposed to U.S. and NATO hegemony are establishing new global and regional alliance that include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Asia; the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) in Latin America and the Caribbean’ and the Brazil (represented in Tehran by its Vice President)-Russia-India-China-South Africa (represented in Tehran by its Foreign Minister) (BRICS) economic group. The attempt by Iran, India, and South Africa, among other nations, to breathe new life into the NAM is a recognition by these nations that the world is transitioning into a multipolar reality in which Russia, China, and India are playing greater roles.
In addition, the Organization of Islamic Conference, which also is gaining in international importance, will soon have one of Abdulaziz’s foreign ministry subordinates, Nazar Madani, as its new Secretary General. For Saudi Arabia, its real and perceived links to the United States and Israel are becoming an uncomfortable liability.
During the Cold War, the NAM, the brainchild of such anti-imperialist nationalist leaders as Sukarno of Indonesia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, was seen as a counter-balance between the West and Soviet blocs. After the end of the Cold War, NAM became largely irrelevant. However, as can be seen with the attendance of world leaders in Tehran, the dictates from the West and the neo-conservatives fell on deaf ears. The message was heard loud and clear in the royal palaces of the Gulf states. Joining Saudi Arabia’s Abdulaziz in Tehran were the Emirs of Qatar and Kuwait, the Sultan of Oman, and the Foreign Ministers of Bahrain
Saudi Arabia has been stung by criticism by other Islamic nations, as well as non-aligned countries, for its consistent policies of always supporting the United States and Israel on issues ranging from Western intervention in Iraq, Libya, and Syria to propping up the royalist regime in Bahrain. More and more news outlets in the Middle East and Islamic world are carrying reports that the House of Saud is descendant from a Jewish merchant family that once lived in what is now Kuwait several centuries ago. King Faisal, who likely was also irritated by such rumors, always made it a point of presenting to visiting heads of state a beautifully-bound copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a reputed false history of Zionism written by the Russian Czarist secret police.
NAM members represent 14 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, something that is not lost on the petroleum and natural gas exporting Saudis. Saudi Arabia is also keenly aware that China attended the Tehran summit as an observer and Russia as a special guest. Even United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who weathered a barrage of criticism from the neo-conservative power centers in the West, is attending the Tehran summit. Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said of the NAM summit, “This conference will doubtless be exploited by the Iranian regime for propaganda purposes and will try to create the impression of legitimacy for its policies.” Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed had a good response for the United States and Israel when he said, “Certain NAM states too have upheld sanctions against Iran which is a totally unwise move because the sanctions are not on the part of the UN, rather unilaterally leveled by the U.S. The U.S. can issue any sort of sanctions it wants against Iran but there is no reason other countries to follow suit.” It was clear that Mahathir had the Saudis and their Gulf allies in mind when he made his statement.
There were attempts by the neo-conservative oligarchy in Washington, represented notably by Robert Kagan of the elitist Brookings Institution and his State Department spokesperson wife Victoria Nuland, to convince Ban, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, and other recipients of U.S. aid to boycott Tehran.
Nevertheless, present in Tehran will be a collection of leaders propped up with U.S. support: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zaradari, Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelillah Benkirane, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdul Aziz, Philippines Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Benin President Yayi Boni, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Saudi Prince Abdulaziz is likely more adept than the ailing Saudi foreign minister at sensing the shifting sands of geo-politics in the Middle East. Saudi foreign policy may also shift with these prevailing political winds.