What are the Saudis Thinking?

Two stories made a big splash today, suggesting US-Saudi ties are fraying and that Riyadh is hugely disappointed by U.S. policies. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is at the center of both the Wall Street Journal and Reuters articles. European diplomats reportedly met with Prince Bandar (pictured) over the weekend. He made it perfectly clear to them that Riyadh was ready to scale back cooperation with the U.S. on Syria and arm rebel factions now fighting the Assad regime. Sources told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would reconsider arms deals with the U.S. and oil sales just days after the Kingdom rejected a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Three recent developments have inspired Saudi Arabia to beat its own path of late. With this post, I’m trying to capture the logic driving Riyadh. This post is deliberately sympathetic because the media has largely failed to express their views. Saudi leaders haven’t articulated them carefully, either.

Start with Syria. For two years the U.S. has hinted at arming rebels but held back. These hints hardened into explicit promises in June, when the Obama administration first accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons and crossing the president’s “red line.” In response, the White House pledged to arm rebels. Even then, the goal was not to oust Assad, but to create a stalemate that would force both sides to negotiate.

Countless stories since then have made it clear that rebels are not receiving enough arms or aid from the U.S. and that allies have withheld aid so as to not anger Washington. As reported by Greg Miller on October 5, an ongoing CIA training program “is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces [.]”

The August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus neighborhood changed everything—it seemed. With 1,400 dead, evidence mounting, and outrage rising, the Obama administration prepared to strike Syria. Warships were positioned off the coast and the White House appeared deadly serious. It encouraged the Saudis to rally Arab opinion at the Arab League and beyond. Saudi officials made the case for war and, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer, they even asked for target lists to study, so that they could join an attack.

But the strikes never came. British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to secure enough votes to intervene. In the U.S., Obama decided to seek congressional authorization after a brief public debate turned against an attack. The Saudis, for their part, made their case loudly and in many venues, even offering to pay in full for an expanded effort to oust Assad rather than teach him a lesson. They did so with confidence that the U.S. would follow through and were subsequently humiliated by the U.S. climbing down. Settling for a Russian deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, while pursuing a deeply flawed peace process in Geneva and not punishing the regime in any meaningful way, has created a sense of abandonment in Riyadh.

This may sound absurd to those who hate Saudi Arabia because they think the system is morally bankrupt—but there is a moral component to Saudi foreign policy in Syria. Their support for rebels is not simply a cold calculation to cut off Iran’s right hand in the Arab world. Leaders like King Abdullah see a country under siege from outsiders, both Sunni jihadists and Iranian agents, and a brutal regime defended by Russia and China at the United Nations. They believe the only way to save Syria and stop the killing is to remove Assad by force.

Then there’s Iran. It’s widely assumed that the Saudis fear a “grand bargain” that would allow them to dominate the region. According to this reading, a comprehensive nuclear deal would really be a prelude to a regional security agreement that lessens the burden on the U.S. and gives Iran more breathing room. This fear isn’t new. It dates back to before the Shah fell. Gulf Arab leaders worry that Iran—with its larger population, stronger military and formidable nationalism—could dominate the neighborhood unless outsiders help secure the Gulf.

But why would the Saudis be unhappy with nuclear deal that satisfies the rest of the world? What they’re most alarmed by, I’m guessing, is the public outreach that creates immense pressure to reach a deal even if it’s flawed. A thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations is not out of the question for Saudi Arabia. It’s easy to forget, in a time of heightened sectarianism and bloody proxy battles, that the Saudis have an embassy in Tehran and the two sides occasionally do business in spite of mistrust.

Egypt is another point of contention. The Saudis genuinely believe they backed a popular uprising in Egypt this summer, when the democratically-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, was ousted by a military supported by millions and millions of Egyptians. The ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mursi belonged, has killed over one thousand people. Thousands of others are in jail. But the general who led the coup is hugely popular and could win the presidency if he ran for office today. This is good enough for Riyadh.

At the same time, the Saudis sees the growing insurgency in Sinai and Islamists resorting to terrorism as proof that violence is part of the Brotherhood’s DNA. The Saudis are quick to frame their support for Egypt’s military as a response to this threat.

In an effort to bolster the interim government, discredit the Brotherhood, and improve Egypt’s fiscal standing, the Saudis have committed $12 billion in aid along with Kuwait and the UAE. By contrast, the U.S. decided this month to strip Egypt of military aid, leaving the Saudis to scratch their head in astonishment. Such confusion could have been avoided if the U.S. acted decisively in the early days of the coup and withdrew aid immediately. But the delayed reaction has only complicated the relationship. Why do it now when the worst of the crackdown is over and terrorism is a serious threat gaining momentum?

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What other factors are driving Saudi policy today? Please comment.

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