By S P Seth
April 16, 2014
Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf monarchs (and Israel) would be happy to see a strong hand in Egypt, whether an outright general or in civilian garb as president, to keep things under control
It is an open secret that relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s important strategic allies in the Middle East, have been frayed for some years. Indeed, Riyadh has been quite unhappy about aspects of the US’s policy and lets it be known without mincing words. The recent visit to Saudi Arabia of US President Barack Obama was an attempt to address this and to reassure the kingdom that it still remained one of Washington’s main regional allies, and that its political and security interests featured prominently in the US’s calculus.
The question then is: what are the issues that have put considerable strain on a relationship forged over many decades? It all started with the Arab Spring, especially the popular uprising in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Saudi Arabia wanted Washington to save Mubarak and his political order. Not that the US was too keen on replacing Mubarak with an unknown and unknowable alternative. However, by then the popular movement had developed its own momentum and there was not really much the US could have done to stop it. Even the Egyptian army seemed to recognise that Mubarak’s time had come and that he should go.
Riyadh favours strategic stability in the Middle East with trusted authoritarian rulers and monarchs making decisions without popular input, lest it opens up the Pandora’s Box of unresolved issues. Things can get out of control, and they did in Egypt. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, with Mohammad Morsi as president, Riyadh did not find it a hopeful augury. At some level, Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood should be natural allies as committed Islamists. However, the latter combine political activism with their religious ideology to shape an Islamic society. And that is not good for Arab monarchs and dictators who believe in a compact between religious orthodoxy and political power, with each underpinning the other. The events in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, seemed to seriously undermine this compact, being potentially dangerous for Saudi Arabia and its fellow monarchs in the region.
Saudi Arabia is supportive of the new military/political order in Egypt after the military coup that brought down Morsi, elevating General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (now Field Marshal) as the country’s new strongman. He is likely soon to become the country’s new president, having decided to contest the elections. The Muslim Brotherhood will remain banned as a terrorist organisation but this has the potential to deeply polarise the country with hundreds of Brotherhood supporters thrown into jail, and its leadership languishing there as well. In this situation, even though the US is not a supporter of the Brotherhood, Washington is critical of the ham-fisted approach of Sisi and the people around him.
Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf monarchs (and Israel) would be happy to see a strong hand in Egypt, whether an outright general or in civilian garb as president, to keep things under control. And they are prepared to write a cheque of billions of dollars to stabilise the country’s economy (if that were possible), as well as the purchase of weapons for the military from Russia. During his recent visit to Russia, Putin wished Sisi luck in his resolve to “assume responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people”, referring to his presidential ambitions. Saudi Arabia is no friend or admirer of Russia but seems likely to go along with Egypt in exercising its other options. In other words, the US-Saudi rift over Egypt is quite serious, even more so when read with other developments in the region.
This brings us to Riyadh’s serious concern over the direction of the US’s opening with Iran over the nuclear question. Saudi Arabia never thought that the US and its European partners would reach a deal with Iran, albeit an interim one, to virtually freeze Iran’s nuclear programme. They had hoped that the US would keep Iran on edge by further expanding sanctions and/or by threatening to attack its nuclear facilities, thus forcing it to abandon its nuclear ambitions. However, Obama chose the different path of exploring a diplomatic solution for a possible permanent freeze on Iran’s nuclear programme, with negotiations already underway. This is making the Saudi ruling dynasty extremely unhappy.
Iran’s perceived nuclear ambitions are not the only problem, though they constitute a major hurdle. Iran’s links with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah (in Lebanon) are seen as a projection of its larger regional ambition to carve out a determining role in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, increasingly sees itself as the guardian of the region’s Arab interests, and the custodian of the Islamic holy sites. Iran represents, both in sectarian and political/strategic terms, a rival centre. While Iran is supporting and actively providing assistance to both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in their collaborative effort to beat back the insurgents in Syria, Saudi Arabia is doing the same for the insurgents/rebels. Riyadh was terribly disappointed and angry when Obama did not go ahead with the planned surgical attack on Syria that might have toppled the Assad regime, instead opting for the Russian proposal for the elimination of its chemical weapons. This has not only given the regime breathing space but has also enabled it to mount fairly effective operations, with Hezbollah, to push back the rebels in key areas.
With Russia and Iran actively supporting the Assad regime, the Saudi exasperation with the US has, at times, been quite high. The Saudis would like the US to give sophisticated arms to the rebels in what they regard as an uneven and unequal battlefield between the two sides. It is not that the US does not want to get rid of Assad but it is worried about its arms falling into the wrong hands of al Qaeda linked/inspired groups that now outnumber and outgun the moderate and secular rebels fighting Assad. In other words, while Saudi and US strategic interests still converge broadly, whether it is the nuclear issue or the geopolitical picture, Riyadh is not sympathetic to the need for the US to tread carefully and avoid further overreach in its already overstretched commitments in the Middle East. While Obama’s recent visit might have softened the hard edges, Riyadh is still not convinced that Washington is on the right path. It would rather want the US to pursue a more assertive policy in the region on par with its own urgent concerns.
An important, though coincidental, factor in the Middle East is the remarkable degree of strategic convergence between Saudi Arabia and Israel, be it on the need for a harder US policy towards Iran, support for the new military order in Egypt or a tougher stance with Assad’s Syria.