The situation in the Middle East just became even less predictable now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are changing how they perceive their relationships with the U.S.
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 29, 2010. Photo: Reuters
The Middle East continues to strengthen its reputation as the most unpredictable region of the world. The rapid rise and the equally stunning fall of the "Muslim Brotherhood,” followed by the last - if it is indeed the last - change of power in Egypt, have led to changes in the regional geopolitical equilibrium.
Turkey and Iran, located at the opposite sides of the barricades in Syria, have united in condemning the Egyptian military forces. Saudi Arabia, which is considered to be the sponsor of all Islamist movements, was the first country that supported the new Egyptian government and promised its generous assistance. The Egyptian Salafi, represented by the "al-Nur" party, began to cooperate with this government. Qatar, sympathetic towards the "Brothers," directed its course towards a cautious "change of milestones," having curbed its activism on all fronts and, according to some analysts, even having started a revision of its Syrian policy.
Riyadh, on the contrary, has intensified its comprehensive aid to the Syrian rebels. The scandal that erupted around the use of asphyxiating gas, in which the Saudis were quick to blame Damascus, combined with news that Washington was starting to prepare air strikes on Syria, was enthusiastically received in Riyadh. Once again, there appeared the faint glimmer of hope that proxy forces could destroy the hated regime in Syria, and that rebel forces propped up by the kingdom would comprise the Syrian government.
The Russian-American agreement on the destruction of the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons (and later, the successful carrying out of this agreement), combined with the U.S. decision to avert a military strike, were seen in Riyadh as a serious blow to their plans. In fact, there was now a legitimization of a regime that a number of states in the West and the Middle East had the intention to outlaw.
The logic is clear. Members of the international community, including the countries of the West, have agreed with the Assad government on a "breakthrough" that has far-reaching consequences for regional security and non-proliferation. So today, this Assad government (and at least until the summer of next year) acts as a partner to those who agree with it. Saudi Arabia has not only lost its initiative, but also has again lost hope in the realization of its plans.
It was primarily the United States that delivered the knockout blow to those plans, by changing for the better Syria’s relations with the West in their preparation for the "Geneva-2" conference. Again, a "pacification" of the Syrian regime!
Let us not forget that the perception of Obama's policies in Saudi Arabia is influenced by widespread speculation about Washington’s sharply declining interest in forming an alliance with Riyadh, especially in light of approaching U.S. energy independence. What is also irritating is the intensified criticism of the West towards the kingdom’s human rights violations that these governments previously chose to ignore. All this is happening against the background of a difficult internal situation in Saudi Arabia due to struggles over the future change of government.
Finally, a looming policy change in the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, the kingdom’s main enemy, added fuel to the fire. It is too early to say how stable and successful this change will be, although negotiations between Iran and the group P5 +1 (United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France) inspire cautious optimism. Let me remind you that Obama is urged by people in the U.S not to give up his hardliner approach against Tehran. For example, Dennis Ross, Eric Edelman and Michael Makovsky are still advocating for the intensification of sanctions and keeping all options on the table.
Riyadh’s immense irritation resulted in several anti-American escapades. To be more convincing, the Saudis started to combine Syria with Palestine in their criticism of Washington. As Emir Turki Al -Faisal stated, the kingdom is experiencing “disappointment in the U.S. government's dealings, not just with Palestine, but equally with Syria."
Accusations of “treason” leveled against the Obama Administration and subsequent calls to distance the kingdom from America, both proclaimed by Riyadh, are only rhetoric. These two states are too dependent on each other. The Saudis have invested about USD 690 billion in the United States, including the amount invested in U.S. treasury debt, according to news reports. This is an incredible amount!
Talks about the kingdom’s alleged possible reversal of direction towards France is obviously only an element of psychological pressure on Washington. Without the American “security umbrella,” the kingdom’s existence will be under threat. America needs a stable kingdom to maintain stability in the energy markets and protect the interests of U.S. allies. However the stability of prices and procurement is even more needed in Saudi Arabia.
However, it’s not the case that the "quarrel" with Riyadh can be considered almost as a political defeat for Obama or the loss of a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East. In fact, Riyadh’s overreaction to Obama's initiative may contribute to Obama’s positioning as a strong leader capable of acting exclusively in the national interests of the United States. As for Saudi Arabia, of course, it will not be able to reorient its foreign American-centric policy, except that some diversification can quite possibly be imagined.
Is Saudi Arabia now going to deliver more advanced weapons to radical Islamists in Syria? Alternatively, is it still going to get involved in the search for a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis? Crafting a possible solution is now in the hands of the Saudis. The kingdom is much less likely to influence the situation around Iran. The criticism of the Americans is no less fierce. I refer to the same Amir Turki: "You can't deal with us and then go and support someone who wants overturn us."
While it is still too early talk about a rapprochement of the U.S with Iran, the trend towards normalization meets Russia’s interests. Why? Because, firstly, if realized successfully, it opens greater opportunities for cooperation with the U.S. on a wide range of security issues in the Middle East and, secondly, it lifts the constraints to a mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.