Published: September 11, 2013.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly disenchanted with the Middle East policy of United States President Barak Obama’s administration, which Riyadh sees as inept and fostering discord rather than security.
The unprecedented rift between Riyadh and Washington is coming to a head over Syria. Saudi Arabia is a major supporter, with money and arms, of the Syrian rebels, and advocates muscular international intervention in the civil war to oust the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Riyadh strongly supported retaliation against the Assad regime following allegations Syrian forces, on August 21, attacked rebel sympathisers in a Damascus suburb and killed about 1,200 people with chemical weapons.
But Saudi officials were unusually public and blunt in characterising Obama’s plans for a limited air strike against Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles as too timid. Saudi officials, and counterparts from other Arabian Gulf states who also back their fellow Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels against the Assad regime, which follows the Alwyte branch of rival Shia Islam, have expressed even more alarm at the latest compromise proposal from Russia.
Moscow picked up on an apparently off-the-cuff remark by United States Secretary of State John Kerry, and proposed that Damascus put its chemical weapon stockpiles under international control.
Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Mouallem said on Tuesday that the Damascus government is committed to the Russian plan, which would see it abandon its chemical weapons and join the international convention prohibiting the production of these weapons.
In Saudi Arabia, and its neighbours in the Gulf, this is seen as a crafty gambit by Syria’s staunch ally, Russia. They believe it will force Obama to hold off on any attack on the Assad regime, while allowing Damascus to delay and obstruct the process of identifying and quarantining its chemical weapons. Meanwhile the civil war, in which the United Nations estimate at least 100,000 people have died, will go on. This point was underlined by Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, speaking on Tuesday to reporters during a meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
“We’ve heard of the initiative,” he said. “It’s all about chemical weapons but doesn’t stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people.”
At the heart of Riyadh’s disenchantment with Washington, and its divergent view of security in the Middle East, is a nearly 1,400-year-old rift and often-bloody rivalry between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Saudi Arabia is seen by Sunni Muslims as the heartland of their religion.
Shia Muslims, on the other hand, look for leadership to Iran where they are the majority sect. Shias are also the majority in neighbouring Iraq, and most other Middle East countries as well as Pakistan have significant Shia minorities.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for power and influence in the Middle East has sharpened significantly in recent years, driven in part by the rise of violent, radical Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its many off-shoots such as al-Qaida.
From several perspectives, the continuing sectarian violence in Iraq and parts of Pakistan as well as the Sunni insurgency in Syria are proxy wars between Tehran and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the U.S. has been a pillar of stability in the Middle East for three decades and more. There have been disagreements, of course, but what has marked the relationship is that Riyadh has been content either to mute its criticism, or else to express its misgivings to Washington privately and at the very highest levels.
That began to change when the Arab Spring revolutions swept into Egypt at the beginning of 2011. Riyadh was alarmed and dismayed when the Obama administration responded to the street protests in Cairo by appearing to withdraw its support for President Hosni Mubarak. Despite being little more than a dictator, Mubrak had also been a staunch U.S. ally for three decades and a guarantor of security in the region, especially with Israel.
Saudi Arabia was not alone in believing that it was Obama’s evident lack of support for Mubarak that prompted the Egyptian army to depose him and set in motion a process aimed at political reform.
But this produced an administration led by Mohammed Morsi, political leader of the radical Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi disregarded the diversity of Egyptian society. He started pursuing policies to make the country into an Islamic state, which brought tens of thousands of secular-minded Egyptians out on the streets again in June.
On July 3 the army again moved in, and deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood administration.
It was then the turn of Brotherhood supporters to take to the streets, and in mid-August the army responded brutally, killing at least 650 protesters.
The bloodshed caused alarm in Washington, and on Capital Hill there were proposals that the U.S. suspend its annual $5 billion in aid to the Egyptian military.
But in an unusually blunt and public expression of dissent with Washington, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah went on television the day after the crackdown and said Riyadh stands “with our brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism and sedition.”
A couple of days later senior Saudi officials underlined their support for the interim military government in Egypt by saying they would replace any cuts in aid to Cairo by western governments.
What is emerging is a Middle East far less susceptible to American discipline and pressure than in recent decades, and a region where countries believe they must be vigorous in pursuing their own national interests.
At the same time, the evident public and political reluctance in Europe and North America to take action against Syria suggests a willingness to let the Middle East confront its own problems, whatever that may entail. Jonathan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe