Sunday, May 15, 2011

Amid the Arab Spring, a U.S.-Saudi split

By Nawaf Obaid, Published: May 15
The Washington Post


A tectonic shift has occurred in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Despite significant pressure from the Obama administration to remain on the sidelines, Saudi leaders sent troops into Manama in March to defend Bahrain’s monarchy and quell the unrest that has shaken that country since February. For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.

The backdrop for this change are the rise of Iranian meddling in the region and the counterproductive policies that the United States has pursued here since Sept. 11. The most significant blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in enormous loss of life and provided Iran an opening to expand its sphere of influence. For years, Iran’s leadership has aimed to foment discord while furthering its geopolitical ambitions. Tehran has long funded Hamas and Hezbollah; recently, its scope of attempted interference has broadened to include the affairs of Arab states from Yemen to Morocco. This month the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, harshly criticized Riyadh over its intervention in Bahrain, claiming this act would spark massive domestic uprisings.

Such remarks are based more on wishful thinking than fact, but Iran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors are tireless. As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies.

Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies — the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco. In Yemen, the Saudis are insisting on an orderly transition of power and a dignified exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh (a courtesy that was not extended to Hosni Mubarak, despite the former Egyptian president’s many years as a strong U.S. ally). To facilitate this handover, Riyadh is leading a diplomatic effort under the auspices of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council. In Iraq, the Saudi government will continue to pursue a hard-line stance against the Maliki government, which it regards as little more than an Iranian puppet. In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia will act to check the growth of Hezbollah and to ensure that this Iranian proxy does not dominate the country’s political life. Regarding the widespread upheaval in Syria, the Saudis will work to ensure that any potential transition to a post-Assad era is as peaceful and as free of Iranian meddling as possible.

Regarding Israel, Riyadh is adamant that a just settlement, based on King Abdullah’s proposed peace plan, be implemented. This includes a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. The United States has lost all credibility on this issue; after casting the sole vote in the U.N. Security Council against censuring Israel for its illegal settlement building, it can no longer act as an objective mediator. This act was a watershed in U.S.-Saudi relations, guaranteeing that Saudi leaders will not push for further compromise from the Palestinians, despite American pressure.

Saudi Arabia remains strong and stable, lending muscle to its invigorated foreign policy. Spiritually, the kingdom plays a unique role for the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims — more than 1 billion of whom are Sunni — as the birthplace of Islam and home of the two holiest cities. Politically, its leaders enjoy broad domestic support, and a growing nationalism has knitted the historically tribal country more closely together. This is largely why widespread protests, much anticipated by Western media in March, never materialized. As the world’s sole energy superpower and the de facto central banker of the global energy markets, Riyadh is the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, representing 25 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the Arab world. The kingdom has amassed more than $550 billion in foreign reserves and is spending more than $150 billion to improve infrastructure, public education, social services and health care.

To counter the threats posed by Iran and transnational terrorist networks, the Saudi leadership is authorizing more than $100 billion of additional military spending to modernize ground forces, upgrade naval capabilities and more. The kingdom is doubling its number of high-quality combat aircraft and adding 60,000 security personnel to the Interior Ministry forces. Plans are underway to create a “Special Forces Command,” based on the U.S. model, to unify the kingdom’s various special forces if needed for rapid deployment abroad.

Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities. In some issues, such as counterterrorism and efforts to fight money laundering, the Saudis will continue to be a strong U.S. partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda. With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.

The writer is a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies.

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Nawaf Obaid is a glib Saudi representative who for some time sported a luxuriant, back-of-the-collar hairdo on American television – rather a novelty among those speaking for the desert kingdom, where mullahs are preferred to mullets. He has been known since the mid-1990s as an indefatigable Washington gadfly.
Obaid has been associated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), and most recently was affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In 1999 he published, in the Middle East Quarterly (MEQ), a study of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist cult that is the Saudi state religion and which inspires Al-Qaida. There he issued a warning against the Wahhabis – who he called by that name, without adopting the term "Salafi" or any other deceptive terms. He wrote, "American analysts have underestimated, overlooked, or misunderstood the nature, strength, and goals of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. This led to a failure to predict the oil embargo, the ferocity of anti-American sentiments after the Kuwait war, and to understand what the Taliban would become."
After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Nawaf Obaid could have added the rise of Al-Qaida to his roster of unexpected results of Western obliviousness about the Wahhabis. But curiously, he did not. Rather, he suddenly forgot all that he had previously said about Wahhabism, and on cable TV talk shows tried to deny that "Wahhabism" even existed. According to him, the concept was an invention of authors like myself, who he claimed knew nothing of the kingdom.
Last year Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, the wheeling, dealing, and vodka-serving Saudi ambassador to the U.S., departed Washington. Bandar had once bragged that unlike Israel, the Saudis did not need a formal lobby in America, because they had a grip on the White House. The kingdom appointed a new ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Turki is more sophisticated than most of the desert denizens who come to Washington, and he hired the slick Obaid as his "private security and energy adviser." Obaid therefore operated in the shadow world powerful Saudis typically prefer – he was both a D.C. think-tank "expert" and a semi-official functionary. He remained a narcissistic fool, according to Saudi dissidents.
Then Nawaf Obaid did something extremely provocative. On November 29, 2006, The Washington Post published a shocking op-ed column signed by him, titled "Stepping Into Iraq." Therein, Obaid warned, in aggressive language, that "massive Saudi intervention" would support Sunni Arab terrorists if the U.S.-led coalition were to leave Iraq abruptly. Further, according to the arrogant Obaid, "it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn't attack U.S. troops." A Saudi thrust into Iraq on the Sunni side must be considered inevitable: "Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks – it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse."
Obaid was even impudent enough to allege that when Vice President Dick Cheney met with Saudi King Abdullah late in November, Abdullah delivered the same menacing message to Cheney. Obaid's inciting language was especially outrageous to those like myself who follow Saudi events closely, because it has been obvious in recent months that King Abdullah wants exactly the opposite outcome. The king, as Obaid himself admits, seeks reconciliation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias, not more Sunni violence.
Extremist Saudis (among whom I do not count King Abdullah) were, not long ago, happy to see Wahhabi bloodshed carried out far from their borders, in the U.S. on 9/11, in Israel, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But the fire of the Sunni jihad burns too hot for them when it flares up on the northern border of the kingdom itself. No normal person wants a house ablaze next door.
The consequences are already felt: Sunni Arab terror in Iraq draws most of its "foreign fighter" volunteers from the Saudi kingdom. When they are killed, their biographies and photographs appear in Saudi media. Some of them have come back to Saudi Arabia complaining that the Iraqis did not desire the establishment of a Taliban regime; but these veterans of mass murder in Iraq nonetheless express a renewed desire to halt change in the Saudi kingdom.
So Nawaf Obaid, speaking from the pages of one of America's leading newspapers, issued a threat: play the Saudi way or risk even worse terrorism in Iraq. Soon, more curious events transpired. The Saudi government immediately repudiated Obaid's statements, and within a week he who had once flaunted his mullet in the green rooms of American cable networks was fired from his job as a Saudi adviser. In an admirably cold-blooded and even amusing dismissal comment, Ambassador Turki said of Obaid, "We felt that we could add more credibility to his claims as an independent contractor by terminating our consultancy agreement with him."
What really happened here? Will Saudi Arabia send armed fighters into Iraq on the pretext of protecting Sunni Arabs, but also with the inclination to attack U.S.-led coalition forces? Credible sources from inside the kingdom say no. Rather, they point out that an anti-reform clique in the royal family opposes King Abdullah's efforts for peace in Iraq. Nawaf Obaid allegedly published his screed in the Post as a trial balloon for these ultra-reactionaries. Post columnist David Ignatius called it a "bargaining chip" [note: the italics appeared in Ignatius' column]. But Ambassador Turki reported to King Abdullah, and Obaid was supposed to work for Turki. Obaid overstepped his bounds, as a pawn in an anti-Abdullah conspiracy... or so it appeared.
But then Prince Turki abruptly resigned and flew home. Was he a victim of Obaid's intrigues, or a participant in them? Following on his hilarious explanation for Obaid's firing, Turki had recourse to the oldest excuse known in Washington: he suddenly "wanted to spend more time with his family."
If it is not beyond imagining that Wahhabi maniacs could try to bring about a Saudi invasion of Iraq, it is much more realistic to think that the moment is coming, and soon, when Abdullah will consolidate his power and may strike decisively against the Wahhabis. While Nawaf Obaid lost his job, some of those who share his dreams of aggravated meddling in Iraq may lose their heads.
Another question remains: how did Obaid's manifesto make into the pages of the Post? The newspaper reported on Obaid's firing from Saudi service in a diffident manner, merely reprinting a wire service account but inserting the following novel comment: "[Fred Hiatt, The Post's editorial page editor, declined to comment on Turki's announcement.]"
As a former op-ed editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, I see more issues here: will the Post now publish columns by Saudi dissidents and their supporters, to provide balance? Did Obaid himself submit his text, was it offered by Turki's embassy, or was it solicited by someone at the Post who shares the crazed view that the Saudis must be appeased at any price?
The curiosities that accompany Saudi actions in the West will get more, rather than less, common. Nawaf Obaid may have revealed, and prevented, a major change for the worse. Don't believe the Saudi hype, and watch this space!


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