People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 49

December 08, 2013





Saudi Arabia: Frustration, Petulance and Anger


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did something unprecedented in the annals of post-war diplomatic history. It refused to take up its seat in the prestigious UN Security Council after strenuously lobbying for it and winning the support of 176 states. The Saudi foreign ministry had initially declared that the winning of a seat in the Security Council was a historic achievement and a vindication of its stance on issues relating to Syria, Iran and the region. The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdullah al Moullami went to the extent of describing it as a “defining moment” in the country’s history. But shortly afterwards, the government in Riyadh, cut short the celebrations, shocking the diplomatic world and its close ally, the United States, by declaring its refusal to take its seat in the highest organ of the UN system.




A statement from the Saudi foreign ministry castigated the UN Security Council for its “inability to perform its duties” in Syria and accused the body of having “double standards.” The statement from Riyadh said that the UN stood aside and did nothing as the Syrian government was killing its people and “burning them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment.” Riyadh was thus parroting the unproven allegation that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on civilians on August 21. In fact, the Syrian authorities blame Saudi intelligence agencies of having a hand in that atrocity so as to provide an excuse for US military action against their country.


The Saudis had staked their diplomatic and political capital on regime change in Syria. The monarchy had liberally opened its purse strings in order to make this a reality. They had even offered a 15 billion dollars arms deal to the Russian government and offered not to oppose Russia’s gas pipeline deals, in a futile attempt to make Moscow ditch its long time ally — Syria. Three weeks before the last chemical attack, the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had met with President Vladimir Putin. He told the Russian president that the situation was about to deteriorate further in Syria and that foreign military intervention in that country was inevitable.


Since late last year, the Saudi government had sidelined the Qatari government in relation to Syria and had taken the lead role in the efforts to topple the legitimate government in Damascus. Initially, the Qataris were providing the bulk of the funding for the rebels but they had tilted too much in favour of the jihadist forces to the detriment of the so called moderate groups fighting against the Syrian army. With the Syrian government forces gaining the upper hand and the dismal failure of the opposition to unite, the Saudi authorities reckoned that the only shortcut to regime change was through American military intervention. It was only astute eleventh hour diplomacy by the Russians that helped avert yet another American triggered war in the region. That development, along with the decision of the Syrian government to give up its chemical arsenal, has left the prospect of an American led military intervention on the backburner, much to the chagrin of the authorities in Riyadh. The former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki al Faisal, speaking at a conference in Washington, said that US-Russian deal to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons was a “charade” designed to help President Obama to backtrack on his pledge to bomb Syria.




The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, told the UN special envoy to Syria, Lachtar Brahimi, on October 29 that no political solution to end the violence is possible as long as foreign powers kept on backing the rebel forces. “The success of any political solution is tied to stopping support for the terrorist groups and pressuring their patron states,” the Syrian president told the veteran Algerian diplomat. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief who is another important figure in the unfolding drama in the region, speaking in the last week of October, said that the Gulf kingdom was “furious because the situation in Syria had not worked out in its favour.” Nasrallah alleged that while the international community is backing a political dialogue to find a solution to the conflict in Syria, Saudi Arabia has continued to send in foreign fighters, weapons and money to the Syrian rebels.


The Saudis are also opposing an Iranian presence in the Geneva talks. Brahimi as well as the Russians want Iran to be present in Geneva. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, without naming Saudi Arabia, said that those who sought a regime change in Syria and “helped voluntarily or involuntarily to create an extremists state there are unable to hide their emotions.” Senior Saudi officials have said that they would no longer coordinate with the US in the efforts to overthrow the government in Damascus. Instead, they said, Saudi Arabia would enhance its cooperation with countries like France and Jordan in aiding the rebel forces in Syria. According to Michael Weiss, an expert on the region, based in Beirut, Saudi Arabia is independently backing around 50 “brigades” under the leadership of the Salafist Liwa al-Islam. Sheikh Nasrallah said that the Saudis were trying their best to sabotage the Geneva 11 peace talks that were scheduled to be held in late November but added that they would not succeed. “The region cannot be torn apart by war because a state is furious and is trying to hinder political dialogue and push back Geneva 11,” he said in his speech. 


The Saudi authorities were also clearly taken aback by the decision of the Obama administration to restart negotiation with Iran on the nuclear issue. The American president was even willing to shake hands with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, during his visit to New York to attend the annual UN General Assembly meeting. Though a diplomatic breakthrough between the old adversaries is not imminent, it is not improbable either. Such an outcome will constitute the worst case scenario for the Saudi monarchy. Wikileaks cables had revealed the Saudi King Abdullah urging the Bush administration to use the pretext of the Iran’s nuclear programme to launch a military attack and “cut off the head of the snake.”


A leading Saudi official, Abdullah al Askar, the head of the kingdom’s foreign affairs committee, openly said that a rapprochement between Washington and Teheran would be “at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.” Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Saudi Arabia has been backing every attempt to destabilise Iran. It initially backed the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 along with the US. The Iraq-Iran war lasted for eight years and caused immense havoc in both countries. More than a million Iraqis and Iranians lost their lives in that terrible conflict instigated by the West and its proxies in the region.




The Saudi authorities have other serious grouses against Washington. They are unhappy with the Obama administration’s position on Egypt since the onset of the “Arab Spring” and the mild criticism of the brutal suppression of pro-democracy activists in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It was basically Saudi military intervention that helped the Sunni monarchy in Shia majority Bahrain to survive. The Saudi royal family also blames the Obama administration for allowing the ouster of their loyal ally, Hosni Mubarak, and at the same time encouraging the Muslim Brothers and multi-party democracy in populous Arab countries like Egypt. The Saudi authorities, along with some of the Gulf emirates, have no love lost for the Brotherhood and its affiliates in the region. The Saudis have always been openly hostile to the Brothers and their activities. Only the tiny but extremely rich emirate of Qatar was an open supporter of the Brotherhood. Qatar and Turkey were the main benefactors of the cash strapped Egyptian government that was led by the Muhammad Morsi. As soon as he was toppled by the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia along with Kuwait and the UAE rushed in with 12 billion dollars in aid. The Obama administration, on the other hand, while not categorising the ouster of the civilian government as a military coup, has sharply cut down its financial and military support to Egypt.


Now the Saudi monarchy is threatening to look for new partners to replace its friend and benefactor through the ages — the USA.  The Saudis, according to experts on the region, do not have too many cards to play. Russia has made it clear that it will not dump its traditional ally, Syria, at this critical juncture. China and India are the other countries the Saudis may like to partner with. Relations with India have been strengthened considerably in the last decade. Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of oil to India and the two countries have been increasingly cooperating in terrorism related security issues. But both Beijing and Delhi know their limitations. Both India and China have had good relations with Iran. Besides, there are still lingering suspicions about the continuing export of fundamentalist Takfiri and Wahhabi ideology and funds from the kingdom, in both these countries that have suffered as a consequence of these activities.


The fit of diplomatic pique exhibited by the Saudi monarchy in all likelihood is only a fleeting one. As an American commentator, Scott McConell, recently wrote in the Foreign Policy journal, Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, are the two pillars of American alliance system in the region. “It’s a pretty pure protection racket: we provide protection to the Saudi monarchy, and they use their oil wealth to aid the US in other objectives, most importantly to keep the price of oil stable,” wrote McConell. After Israel, Saudi Arabia is the second largest recipient of American armaments. The relationship, noted McConell, made sense during the Cold War as the primary aim was to keep the USSR from the oil fields of West Asia. But he said the situation is now different and “the inherent problems of a close relationship dealing with a medieval theocracy with piles of money are now becoming more obvious.”


The neo-conservatives and the influential pro-Israel lobby in the US are visibly upset with the Obama administration for allegedly short-selling two of America’s closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, by firstly not bombing Syria and then adding insult to injury by showing a willingness to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, is visiting Saudi Arabia in early November to massage the bruised egos in Riyadh. Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister and currently the country’s chief negotiator in the ongoing talks with the Palestinians, recently said that Saudi Arabia is on the same page with Tel Aviv on the issue of Iran. The Israel prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Israeli parliament that a rare commonality of interests has emerged between Israel and the Arab states. On November 1, according to the Saudi Arabian television network Al Arabiya, Israeli planes attacked Syrian military bases in Latakia targeting Russian supplied surface to air missiles. Two other Israeli attacks on Syrian targets were reported this year alone.