Writing at Harvard University’s “Iran Matters” website, Saudi analyst and government advisor Nawaf Obaid offers his take on the recent deal reached between Iran and the “5+1 group. In sum, while the Kingdom is always interested in international agreements that tend toward peaceful resolution of issues, it is wary about Iran’s expansionist foreign policy and the likelihood of its acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Iran deal: a view from Saudi Arabia
The fundamentals of Saudi foreign policy stem from its role as the cradle of Islam, the world’s central banker of energy and the Middle East’s economic and financial engine. As the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the location of the religion’s two holiest sites, the Saudi Kingdom is in a unique standing vis-a-vis the more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. This situation makes it incumbent on the Kingdom to remain extremely conservative at its core and outlook. This reality is enhanced by the Kingdom’s role as the world’s largest crude exporter. This has made Saudi Arabia the largest economy by far in the Middle East-North Africa region and the world’s third largest holder of foreign exchange reserves and is giving it the firepower to expend formidable financial and economic resources in assisting other nations in dire straits to maintain stability. The Kingdom’s enhanced role has generated an ever expanding foreign policy assertiveness that is being transformed from a primarily reactive based doctrine to a proactive one. The implications are that the Saudis will amalgamate political and financial incentives with an ever-growing military capability to sustain a forceful diplomacy to pursue vital national security imperatives.
From Foreign Policy magazine, a piece discussing how Saudi Arabia — finding that the US is not a useful partner at the moment — is looking for their own solutions to what they consider serious international problems.
Saudi Arabia’s Shadow War
The Kingdom is turning to Pakistan to train Syria’s rebels. It’s a partnership that once went very wrong in Afghanistan. Will history repeat itself?
BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban. Some of the insurgents, meanwhile, transformed into al Qaeda and eventually turned their weapons against their former patrons.
While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom’s effort as having two goals — toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself “these extremists who are coming from all over the place” to impose their own ideologies on Syria.
Marc Lynch, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University has a good piece in Foreign Policy magazine.
In it he notes the cynical, political use to which sectarian differences are used as a matter of identify politics rather than actual, theological differences. It’s worth a read.
The thrust of his piece is about the often-contrived conflict between Sunni and Shi’a populations. He mentions the tensions between Muslims and Christian Copts in Egypt. He might have expanded it to include the visceral, but unfounded hatred of Jews. Or, for that matter, the sense of some American fundamentalist Christians that Islam is the problem.
The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism
A group of Syrian-Americans arrived at an academic conference at Lehigh University last week in Bashar al-Assad T-shirts and draped in Syrian flags adorned with Assad’s face. They repeatedly heckled and interrupted speakers, and one told an opposition figure that he deserved a bullet in the head. When a speaker showed a slide picturing dead Syrian children, they burst into loud applause. When another speaker cynically predicted that Bashar would win a 2014 presidential vote, they cheered. In the final session, they aggressively interrupted and denounced a Lebanese journalist, with one ultimately throwing his shoe at the stage. The panel degenerated into a screaming match, until police arrived to clear the room.
This spectacle might seem notable in that it unfolded at an American university, but otherwise it would pass for an alarmingly normal day at the office in today’s toxically polarized Middle East. Such intense mutual hostility, irreconcilable narratives, and public denunciations are typical of any number of highly polarized political arenas across the region. A similar scene between supporters and opponents of Egypt’s military coup is all too easily imagined — just add bullets. That’s why the disproportionate focus on sectarian conflict as the defining feature of the emerging Middle East seems dangerously misplaced. Sunni-Shiite tensions are only one manifestation of how a number of deeper trends have come together in recent years to give frightening new power to identity politics writ large.
Saudi Gazette and other media are reporting that Saudi researchers have found the MERS-CoV flu virus in a camel owned by a patient who had come down with the new flu. This is the first time the exact virus has been identified in a camel, though earlier research had shown the presence of a similar, related virus in camels. Saudi public health officials consider this a major breakthrough in their investigation of the disease.
Camel owned by Jeddah patient tests positive for MERS-coronavirusSaeed
Al Khotani | Saudi Gazette
RIYADH — The Ministry of Health announced that an initial investigation on a group of camels conducted by its experts indicated that one of these camels tested positive to MERS-coronavirus.
“We had to conduct this investigation on this group of camels that was owned by a 43-year-old citizen, also a MERS patient. He is currently under treatment at a hospital in Jeddah. The investigation was part of the surveillance procedures, ” the ministry said.
According to the ministry, whenever there is a suspicion of a infection a surveillance process is conducted that includes the patient himself, and the people, and animals that were in contact with him. The process includes lab tests of samples taken from these people and animals.
“The Jeddah patient appeared to own camels, so the tests were made on his camels as part of the process, and also on everything that he was in contact with,” the ministry said.
The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDREP) of the University of Minnesota also reports:
Writing at pan-Arab Al-Hayat (here translated by Al Arabiya TV) Abdullah Hamidaddin goes after the ultra-facile ‘analysis’ of CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria, in my view, gets some things right in his global analyses. At other times, he gets them very wrong. His latest piece on Saudi Arabia and US-Saudi relations, alas, falls in the latter camp and Hamidaddin calls him on it.
Ranting or analyzing? Fareed Zakaria and Saudi foreign policy
Fareed Zakaria is a very influential media figure, but his understanding of the region is somewhat limited, and his approach to foreign policy analysis is quite immature. Both qualities featured in his recent Time Magazine article: “Zakaria: The Saudis Are Mad? Tough! Why we shouldn’t care that the world’s most irresponsible country is displeased at the U.S.”
Criticizing the foreign policies of any State is absolutely necessary. The one who benefits most is the target of the critique. But it is one thing to offer political critique and another to offer political ranting; which is what Zakaria did in his article. But the problem is not his rant, rather, the problem is that it would be taken as a serious political analysis. Saudi Arabia is stereotyped. And as a result people are allowed to think about it in certain ways, regardless of the facts. Worse still, people are allowed to analyze it nonsensically and still be taken seriously. This is a fundamental problem. If the logic which Zakaria used in his article was applied in an analysis of German or Russian foreign policy, it would become a laughing matter. But applying that logic to Saudi Arabia made it a political analysis.
He starts by saying: “America’s Middle East policies are failing, we are told, and the best evidence is that Saudi Arabia is furious.” And then he sarcastically says: “Surely the last measure of American foreign policy should be how it is received by the House of Saud.”
Over the last decade — and increasingly — there have been suppositions that, push come to shove, Saudi Arabia would be able to request nuclear weapons from Pakistan. The reasoning usually starts with the idea that Saudi Arabia provided much of the funding for Pakistan’s nuclear program. The fact that Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that it is not going to accept a nuclear Iran with equanimity adds to the equation.
Below is a link to an article from a security blog, Stratrisks, that explores the issue, based on the BBC’s “Newsnight” program.
Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will, a variety of sources have told BBC Newsnight.
While the kingdom’s quest has often been set in the context of countering Iran’s atomic programme, it is now possible that the Saudis might be able to deploy such devices more quickly than the Islamic republic.
Earlier this year, a senior Nato decision maker told me that he had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery.
Last month Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran got the bomb, “the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.”
Since 2009, when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned visiting US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross that if Iran crossed the threshold, “we will get nuclear weapons”, the kingdom has sent the Americans numerous signals of its intentions.
Al Arabiya TV runs an Associated Press report saying the Pres. Obama intends to nominate Joseph Wesphal as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Westphal, currently Under Secretary of the Army, is a consummate Washington insider. He has an academic background as well as a range of experience with both the legislative and executive branches of the US government. He is not, however, a Middle East expert.
The publishing of the announcement suggests that the US government has already received agrément from the Saudis and that, following Senate confirmation, he will be the next ambassador in Riyadh.
Obama picks ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Hungary
Associated Press, Washington
President Barack Obama is nominating a top Defense Department official to become the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
The White House announcement Wednesday comes as tensions mount between the two countries over Obama administration policy toward Syria, Iran and Egypt.
Obama says he intends to nominate Joseph William Westphal to fill the critical Middle Eastern diplomatic post. Westphal has been undersecretary of the Army since 2009.
Writing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Anthony Cordesman says that the recent flaps concerning US-Saudi relations and Saudi Arabia’s renunciation of a seat on the UNSC are perfectly understandable and should have been expected.
Saudi Arabia, he argues, is acting rationally in the face of manifold threats, both foreign and, given Saudi demographics, internal. It sees itself endangered by discord in many of the countries surrounding it as well as by an aggressive Iranian foreign policy. At the same time, it must deal with the fact that as more young Saudis — female as well as male — enter the job market, there must be jobs.
There is no doubt, however, that the Saudi government sees American reaction to the threats as insufficient, if not utterly naive.
The whole, brief piece is worth reading.
Saudi Arabia and the Arab “Frontline” States
Anthony H Cordesman
The United States needs to rethink its attitudes and polices towards Saudi Arabia and the Arab “frontline” states. The “Arab spring” has not become some sudden window to democratic reform. It has instead unleashed a broad pattern of regional instability in an area already deeply destabilized by extremism and terrorism, growing religious struggles between Sunni and other sects as well as between Sunni extremists and moderates, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its removal as a military counterbalance to Iran, a growing Iranian set of threats at every level, and massive demographic pressures on weak structures of governance and economic development.
The day may come some years in the future where the resulting convulsions in states like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen produce the conditions for effective reform: political parties capable of producing effective leaders and governance, politics based on compromise rather than a history of conspiracy and winner’s take all, elections that produce national rather than ethnic and sectarian tensions, and a rule of law rather than winner takes all and repression. Today, however, upheavals mean political instability and violence, massive new economic problems, power struggles, repression and refugees. The issue is not democracy and the more ideal human rights, it is the most basic set of human rights: security and the ability to lead a safe and secure life.
The legal case of Homaidan al-Turki is once again before the courts. According to the linked Denver, CO news site, the government of Saudi Arabia is seeking his repatriation to the Kingdom where, it is promised, he will serve the remainder of his sentence for “the unlawful sexual contact by use of force, theft, and extortion” of a domestic servant while he was a graduate student in Colorado.
Homaidan and his many supporters Saudi Arabia argue that he is the victim of a political plot to punish Saudis for the events of 9/11. The jury, however, disagreed, finding personal responsibility on his part.
If he is repatriated, it’s unlikely that he would serve a 28-year sentence, never mind a life-term. Abuse of domestic servants, while a crime in Saudi Arabia, is rarely punished and never terribly severely. This will be a factor in the court’s decision-making.
Saudi Arabia is seeking the release of Homaidan al-Turki, a Saudi national who is serving a Colorado prison sentence for sexually assaulting a housekeeper whom he kept as a virtual slave in his home.
Security was increased Thursday for a hearing that was held for al-Turki at an Arapahoe County Courthouse. According to a report by 7News, snipers could be seen on the roof of the building and there was an added security checkpoint directly outside of the courtroom.
Fahed Al-Rawaf of the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. appeared in the courtroom to ask the court to allow al-Turki to complete his sentence at home.
Al-Turki was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 28 years to life for committing unlawful sexual contact by use of force, theft and extortion. He has maintained his innocence and has argued that the case was politically motivated and stems from anti-Muslim sentiment following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Washington Post picks up on a Reuter’s news story about a rift in US-Saudi relations. The Post article notes six factors that serve to push the two countries apart, starting with Egypt, Syria, and Iran, but also including oil markets, Afghanistan, and Iraq (plus two that draw them together). The Saudis see the US as trying to treat the events in Syria and the US seeking rapprochement with Iran as two separate issues where the Saudis believe them to be one and the same: Iran’s extension of its power in the region.
Still, the US and Saudi Arabia have very much the same interest when it comes to terrorism and the fight against it. Both will continue to cooperate, whether in Afghanistan or Yemen, in Syria or the greater Arab world to quash the influence of Al-Qaeda.
Ever since the United States and Saudi Arabia fell into something of an alliance in the late 1970s, the world’s most unlikely partnership has had lots of down moments. Another big one came this weekend, when Saudi intelligence chief Bandar Bin Sultan Al-Saud told European diplomats that his country would step back from cooperating with the United States on Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. Bandar said that his country’s recent decision to refuse a seat at the U.N. Security Council was meant as a show of public protest against the U.S.
This very public Saudi jab at the U.S. is the latest in a series of increasingly frequent disputes between the longtime allies. They are probably not on the verge of breaking up, as observers have been predicting since 1990, when the kingdom was roiled by popular outrage against the alliance. But many of the mutual interests that have brought the two countries together seem to be falling apart.
Here’s a partial list of those interests and how they’re changing in ways that could turn the two countries against one another, very roughly ranked from the biggest disagreement to the smallest. The first six are bad news for the relationship, the last two are good news:
For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia was invited to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member. It rejected the offer, pointing out that the UNSC has been ineffective in dealing with critical issues including Palestine, Syria, and nuclear disarmament for the Middle East region. The Saudi government states that the UNSC is ineffectual and operates a system of double standards and would prefer to not aid it in continuing to do so. Instead, it calls for reform and the creation of mechanism that will permit the body to actually perform its functions of security peace and security around the world.
Saudi Arabia blasts U.N. Security Council, rejects offer to join
Yousuf Basil, CNN
(CNN) — The U.N. Security Council is riddled with double standards and has failed the Middle East, Saudi Arabia said Friday as it rejected an offer to join the body.
The kingdom claims that the council is incapable of keeping the peace internationally, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement published by the state news agency SPA.
“To have the Palestinian cause remaining without a fair and permanent solution for 65 years, which resulted in several wars that threatened international peace and security, is evidence and proof of (the) Security Council’s inability to perform his duties and responsibilities,” the ministry said.
It also blamed the Security Council for not preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the region — especially nuclear weapons, a likely allusion to Saudi Arabia’s adversarial neighbor Iran.
Lastly, the kingdom brought up the civil war in Syria, blaming the U.N. for not punishing the government after a poison gas attack there killed hundreds of civilians.
The Washington Post: Day after election, Saudi Arabia rejects seat on UN Security Council
Al Arabiya TV: Saudi Arabia turns down U.N. Security Council membership
Several human rights groups had decried the Saudi nomination to the Security Council. I suspect they’re glad for the refusal.
According to the Oil Price newsletter, the US has surpassed both Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production. New technology — primarily fracking — has not put US oil back on the international export market.
PIRA, a leader in worldwide energy market analysis, has recently announced that the US has finally surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest oil producer in the world, after an explosion in the use of hydraulic fracking created the largest oil boom in nearly 40 years, only beaten by the production boom in Saudi Arabia between 1970 and 1974.
The US remains the largest consumer of crude oil and liquid fuels in the world, but the plethora of cheap oil being produced domestically, of which total output has grown by 3.2 million barrels a day since 2009, has actually allowed it to begin exporting gasoline and other distilled fuels.
Note: James Burgess is no relation.