Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 13-20 Sept 2013
On 12 September 2013, Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia addressed the Defence and Security Forum in London. Prince Turki is known for his cool-headed analysis, and though regarded as attached to a particular affiliation in Saudi Arabia, he is an experienced diplomat. What he said in gist is this: Saudi Arabia both is the dominant economic power in the Middle East, and is too the “eminent leader of the wider Muslim world”, whereas Iran, stands, he said, by contrast stands as the leader of all those Muslims that are against the US. Beyond this troublesome mode of Iranian leadership, Prince Turki said that Saudi Arabia has two further major gripes with Iran: firstly, its nuclear weapons program, which is continuing he said, and which sanctions will not halt; and which ultimately Prince Turki said, must be dealt by military means, if necessary; and (secondly), Iranian “meddling”: its meddling in Shi’i majority countries and in Shi’i minority states ‘must end’, Prince Turki warned, saying that Saudi Arabia would itself intervene in those states to oppose ‘any and all’ Iranian actions. Iranian influence and actions in Iraq were “unacceptable”, he said: Saudi Arabia has ‘deep-seated’ reservations about the government of Maliki, he warned, and will do everything in its power to halt actions (such as that recently undertaken by an Iranian general), or by Iran generally, to support Maliki: “We will work to ensure Iraq becomes an independent member of the Arab world”. In Lebanon, Prince Turki excoriated Hizbullah for risking the very existence of Lebanon, and for its “reckless” involvement in Syria. He called for the movement to be disarmed, and its leaders brought to justice for the assassination of Rafic Hariri. As for Syria, “the Iranian leadership’s support for Assad, from the beginning, is a criminal act and they should be tried in the International Criminal Court. The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perﬁdious, and designed not only to give Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people”.
Saudi Arabia seems, from this account by an experienced Saudi diplomat, to have completely lost its centre of gravity: it is no longer in itself, but beside itself, with frustration. It is not that Saudi Arabia objects to any understanding at all with Iran, but rather it insists that any Saudi ‘understanding’ must occur only after President Assad has been ousted, and ‘minorities’ removed from a hold on power in Syria (that is, only after Sunni Islam and Saudi influence is restored in Syria). The Saudi point is that Iran should be marginalized and humiliated politically in the Middle East before any US ‘understanding’ is launched with Tehran. Prince Turki’s outburst against Obama seems to point to an extreme, almost paranoiac, vulnerability felt by Saudi Arabia that Iran’s position – far from being weakened – is about to be strengthened. Indeed, in our last Weekly Comment, Conflicts Forum suggested that this precisely must be the outcome if the Carter-Bush doctrine for the Middle East has effectively passed its political ‘sell-by’ date in terms of its viability in US politics: If Syria (let alone on Iran) simply is too ‘difficult’ politically now (the public and parliaments having become disenchanted with it all), western Middle East foreign policy inevitably will have to be fundamentally re-thought. All this, however, remains highly tentative (see below).
But what Prince Turki is saying is staggering: just as the US seems wearily (after a succession of failed wars) to be about to lay down the burden of ensuring no hostile power (read Iran,) assumes significant influence by trying to manage and control the politics of the entire region, Prince Turki is saying that Saudi Arabia simply will take over the Carter Doctrine: opposing “any and all” Iranian/Hizbullah actions throughout the entire Middle East, from Bahrain to Egypt – effectively, Saudi Arabia is suggesting if the US is not prepared to ‘re-make’ the Middle East, it will take on the job.
Yes, Saudi has money, but it totally lacks the means to be operationally effective. It is like an army that has its chiefs-of-defence staff, the generals (the senior Royals, in other words), but lacks entirely the junior officers, the sergeants and other NCOs who actually follow-up and ensure ‘orders’ turn into something tangible. There is no Saudi system to manage the sectarian mobilization which they have fired-up, and to direct it towards some tangible political result, precisely because it is only the senior Royals that have any discretion or authority to make things happen; and their operational input lies mainly with that of signing cheques – not following up on the ‘details’. This is precisely why we have witnessed the al-Qae’da-orientated groups dominating in Syria — unlike the US, theSaudi Princes do not spend time nurturing movements toward effectiveness; they buy movements. And it is the Takfiri groups that have proved most effective on the battlefield, and therefore it is these who have found ample sources of funding.
The Saudi push to mobilise Sunni Islam into a major politically transforming (counter-revolutionary) force – mainly through cash handouts and resorting to sectarian language – lies in fragments. Look around the region — the main tensions are now Sunni on Sunni as the pressures this push has created (in places such as in Egypt, Libya and Syria) have contributed to a weakening of Sunni identity. Saudi Arabia – under the guidance of Prince Bandar – has been put in a position of overreaching itself, but if Prince Turki’s address accurately reflects ‘official’ thinking, ‘overreach’ might become seen to be an understatement.
All this speaks to us of volatile instability. Saudi Arabia, in effect, has been pursuing the opposite of what Prince Turki says are its aims — at least in Syria: far from dismantling al-Qae’da, as Prince Turki says is the Saudi objective, the out-going Israeli Ambassador to Washington in afrank comment gives it all away: “The initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted [President] Bashar Assad to go. We always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran, to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” he said. This was the case, he said, even if the other “bad guys” were affiliated to al-Qaida. “We understand that they are pretty bad guys,” he said, adding that this designation did not apply to everyone in the Syrian opposition. “Still, the greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. That is a position we had well before the outbreak of hostilities in Syria. With the outbreak of hostilities we continued to want Assad to go.” Prince Turki clearly shares these sentiments about the ‘arc’.Ambassador Oren then rams home the Israeli connection with Gulf policy: “in the last 64 years there has probably never been a greater confluence of interest between us and several Gulf States. With these Gulf States we have agreements on Syria, on Egypt, on the Palestinian issue. We certainly have agreements on Iran. This is one of those opportunities presented by the Arab Spring.”
Saudi Arabia may have moved closer to Israel over Syria and Egypt, but in so doing, it has severed itself from US and European policy. As the very recently retired ‘number two’ at CIA makes clear in a recent interview: “When you see the potential of an al-Qae’da presence as dominant in Syria, at the end of that conflict … have we spent all these lives and all these dollars to – rather than deny sanctuary – [simply] to change the ZIP code for the terrorist base?” Mike Morell (former No.2 at CIA): “There is no doubt that the ideology has spread to North Africa and to other parts of the Middle East. And that those areas could eventually become the kind of safe haven that could pose a significant threat to us. They don’t right now. They pose only a regional threat. But you know, the places that I’m worried about in terms of ultimately becoming a safe haven that could pose the kind of threat that al Qaeda posed to us pre 9/11 is Syria, No. 1, and No. 2, Afghanistan …”.
The over-wrought tone to Prince Turki’s polemic, however, is understandable. The situation of Gulf states is quite vulnerable: they have placed their bets on Iran being humbled in one way or another, and spared nothing to that end – and now the external support on which they had counted (and with whom they had invested so many billions in arms purchases) now looks existentially wobbly. They fear that there may be a price to pay. Furthermore the Gulf states have opened a new war with the Islamists – and inexorably the regional turmoil continues grinding away at everyone’s legitimacy and credibility.
But Saudi Arabia is not alone in presenting symptoms of psychic anxiety. A different hysteria seems to have gripped the West: Obama’s apparent ‘refusal’ at the Syria ‘fence’ led to an unprecedented outburst of ‘Putin-ophobia’. A former British Ambassador, in terminal depression, called Monday 9 September, 2013, “the worst day for US and wider Western diplomacy since records began”. When President Putin published his op-ed in the New York Times, commentators went into overdrive when Putin de-bunked American exceptionalism. A Democratic senior senator told CNN he “almost wanted to vomit” when he read Putin’s New York Times op-ed explaining his peace proposal on Syria. Republican John McCain was equally contemptuous of the article, dismissing it as “Orwellian” and Putin as having a “mammoth ego”. And a liberal magazine’s Russia expert assured viewers that Putin really doesn’t care what happens in Syria, only about his own self-aggrandizement, and, anyway, most of his supporters at home were “chubby women over fifty”.
All of this has an aroma of ‘Suez’. Then Britain and France, facing mounting evidence of their weakened economy and political influence, in the wake of World War II, and obsessing that – all visible evidence of weakness notwithstanding – they truly remained as strong as ever, decided to make a show of it (in some far-away place, of course). The debacle of Suez was the outcome. We again live in unstable times.
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