By Ali Hussein Bakeer
Over the last decades Saudi Arabia has faced many difficult challenges both internally and externally. These challenges have grown since the Iranian revolution in 1979, with the Iraq-Iran war, the (second) Gulf War and its implications during the 1990’s, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its geopolitical consequences, and last but not least, the outbreak of the Arab uprisings at the end of 2010.
Throughout out all these challenges and almost until 2011, the nature of the regional and international balances and alliances were helping the kingdom overcome these challenges. Saudi Arabia had managed to use other players on the geopolitical chess board effectively: Iraq at one stage, Egypt and Syria at another, and of course the U.S. – its major ally during all those times – was always a part of the equation.
However, with the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia seemed to face its biggest challenge to date, especially with the breakup of the regional balances and the US decline in the Middle East.
It was obvious that the United States didn’t have a definite, general position regarding the Arab uprisings. The U.S. has been hesitant and reluctant and has evaluated each case separately. These evaluations lead the U.S. administration to intervene against the Qaddafi regime in the Libyan case, stay out of the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, and to make a deal with the Assad regime in the Syrian case.
During all these stages, Saudi Arabia, a country known to prefer silent diplomacy, has shown an unusual and uncustomary boldness in its foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has presented several rare challenges to the American line: perhaps the most important being the decision to deploy the Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain and its public calls to arm the Syrian opposition since its formation.
Syria is a very critical issue for Saudi Arabia and other regional countries like Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and Israel in the geopolitical game. United States allies expected at the least the same level of support and commitment from Washington that Assad is getting from Moscow and Tehran, something which hasn’t happened.
The kingdom has expressed its dissatisfaction and frustration with the United States policy in many ways. One of them was in February 2012 when the Saudi foreign minister walked out of a Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia upon the U.S. refusal to arm the Syrian opposition.
This frustration and distrust reached its peak when the Obama administration’s decision to leave its allies in the cold and strike a deal with Russia on Assad’s chemical weapons was followed by warming relations between Washington and Tehran.
For the kingdom, this comes at the end of a long list of criticism of U.S. policies since 2003. In October of 2013, Saudi Arabia stunned the world when it declined a UN non-permanent Security Council seat after a year of preparation and campaigning. The decision came a few weeks after it had declined – for the first time – its turn to deliver its annual speech before the UN General Assembly.
A few days later many sources circulated a statement from Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Bandar Bin Sultan telling European diplomats that he plans to scale back cooperation with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.
There is no doubt that these actions are very important messages to express the kingdom’s anger and the deep frustration at what is going on regionally, and towards the U.S. disregard for the interests and concerns of its allies. But how far can Saudi Arabia take this? And to what extent such steps can move important pieces on the chessboard?
Notably, these actions have thus far been passive. In other words, declining the Security Council seat will not change the balances on ground or the game itself. Saudi Arabia can respond by ignoring U.S. regional concerns and interests on certain issues. In that sense the kingdom has the ability to be a disruptive player, creating problems for U.S. in the region. The kingdom cannot persist, however, in this behavior unless it is willing to turn into another Iran.
The response from Saudi Arabia should be in the form of a strategic move with a clear vision, and based on long-term interests with regional players. The kingdom should also work for a more unified GCC and cooperate closely with regional powers who have interests in the prosperity and stability of the region, like Turkey.
However, Saudi Arabia has to first realize that it made a strategic mistake by supporting the coup in Egypt, and because of that support, Egypt, one of most important regional players and a Saudi ally for decades, is dysfunctional.
The struggle in Syria hasn’t yet ended and is not expected to end soon, with the chaos on the ground giving no hints as to whether there will be a negotiated solution or a battle drawn out to the end. Saudi Arabia can play an important role by militarily supporting opposition no less than Iran supports Assad – however this should be done in a very well-planned and well-executed way and in collaboration other regional powers under a common agenda.
Perhaps the only good outcome of the U.S. latest solo chemical deal is that it is a good lesson for its regional allies to start depending less on the U.S. and more on their national power. If they wait for the United States to take actions or decisions to secure their own interests rather than securing them themselves they will end up waiting for a long time.
This article was first published in Analist Monthly Journal, in December, 2013.