By Rudolph Chimelli
Saudi Arabia openly endorses a Palestinian state, shows understanding for Iran and no longer only buys arms "made in USA": despite a weapons deal worth over 60 billion dollars, cracks are beginning to appear in what was once an unquestioned partnership with the USA. By Rudolph Chimelli
He calls himself a "private individual", listing on his business card as sole official post that of chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. As the 65-year-old Prince Turki al-Faisal is a nephew of King Abdullah, however, anyone keen to find out what's happening in the Middle East hang on his every word.
Before the most intellectual of the major Saudi princes became an ambassador in London and Washington, Prince Turki was Saudi intelligence chief for nearly a quarter of a century. The kingdom's support of the Afghan Mujahideen against the Russians was mainly his doing. Currently Prince Turki is regarded as the designated successor to his ailing brother, the longstanding Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
Realignment of Saudi policy
Last month the prince spoke before American and British officers stationed at Molesworth Royal Air Force Base in southern England on "A Saudi security doctrine for the next century". This doctrine is designed to respond to the changing situation in the region, to the inner conflicts in the neighbouring states of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, to Israel's unyielding stance with regard to the Palestinians, to the lack of American support for an old friend like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as to Iran's claims to hegemony.
The planned purchase of 200 Leopard tanks from Germany is likewise part of the realignment of Saudi policy. In an effort to diversify their arms sources, the Saudis have also been negotiating with the Russians since 2009 for the delivery of antimissile systems, tanks and aircraft, as Moscow's state agency for weapons exports, Rusoboronexport, recently confirmed.
But the main arms supplier to Saudi Arabia is still the USA. A contract worth 60 billion dollars was signed last autumn for the delivery of fighter jets and helicopters, small warships and an air defence system. This, however, does nothing to change the fact that the trust the House of Saud once placed in the USA to protect it against threats from outside, demonstrated for example in the war for Kuwait, has been shaken.
Following a visit with King Abdullah last weekend, Thomas Donilon, security adviser to the US president, cautiously indicated that although there had been some "periods of irritation" in the relationship between the partners in the past, American-Saudi relations were "in a fairly good condition" overall.
Despite reports that the monarch is supposedly "unhappy" about the American attitude toward the Arab Spring, the two countries nonetheless still have common interests when it comes to regional stability, fighting terror and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
Blunt Saudi critique
In an opinion Prince Faisal wrote on the topic in June, likewise for the Washington Post, the Saudi "private individual" was much more open about matters than the American diplomat. He predicted "disastrous consequences" for US-Saudi relations should the USA veto UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September.
King Abdullah as well has made his dissatisfaction with Washington's pro-Israel stance known more than once over the past years. Now, however, Prince Turki's censure has gone further than ever before.
Thought to be strategically impossible just a few years ago: Saudi Arabia places political demands on the USA, wanting to finally see the founding of a Palestinian state.
The prince had called US President Barack Obama's talk on the Middle East "controversial". He found it "depressing" that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been permitted to call into question the basic human rights of the Palestinians before an applauding Congress.
"The time has come for Palestinians to bypass the United States and Israel and to seek direct international endorsement of statehood at the United Nations", wrote Prince Turki. "The kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition." Saudi Arabia's efforts, says the prince, are supported by the other Arab nations and the great majority of the international community.
If the USA decides to hold fast to its present position, this would "mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America's reputation among Arab nations". Furthermore, "the ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen – and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish".
Prince Al-Turki predicted "disastrous consequences" for US-Saudi relations should the USA veto UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September. Pictured: A Palestinian man waits before crossing into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing
The prince criticised the tradition among leading American politicians of viewing Israel as an "indispensable ally" by pointing out that other forces in the region – "not least the Arab street" – are perhaps even more important. "History will prove wrong those who imagine that the future of Palestine will be determined by the United States and Israel", he predicted. The Arabs once said "no" to peace and in 1967 got their "comeuppance". Now it is the Israelis who are saying "no". The prince remarked that he would hate to see the Israelis now get their own comeuppance.
Reports of Turki's programmatic address at the airbase focused on only a single point: that the Saudis would be forced to build their own atomic bomb if Iran were to do so. King Abdullah had already warned of this consequence in 2008 by saying that: "Everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia." With technical assistance from Pakistan, the Saudis – who, it is estimated, already have at least 50 per cent of the required financing in place for their own nuclear weapons – would probably be capable of such a step relatively soon.
Cooperating more closely with like-minded nations
Prince Turki's warning was subtler, though. His basic demand, which was primarily directed at Israel, was the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. The sanctions against Iran are working, he emphasised, calling the country "a paper tiger with steel claws" that was meddling everywhere, trying to destabilise the region.
Iran's nuclear program is heightening fears in the region. And the Saudis would be forced to build their own atomic bomb if Iran were to do so, Al-Turki maintained
But even Iran is sensitive about other countries meddling in its affairs, he noted. Military strikes against Iranian facilities would be "counter-productive" however – as the leading minds in the US military also agree. Last year the prince already warned that a possible armed attack on Iran would be a "calamity", and called US strategy in Afghanistan "misguided". Confidential reports coming out of Saudi Arabia, along with most of the analyses by Western and Arab diplomats, largely agree with Turki's pessimistic assessment.
As far as developments in Syria are concerned, there have as yet been few official comments emerging from Riyadh. Prince Turki judged the leadership in Damascus to be "woefully inadequate" in dealing with the situation. "President Bashar al-Assad will cling to power till the last Syrian is killed", he prophesied.
The change in mood in Saudi Arabia is being seized upon on all sides as the basis for a realignment of foreign policy. New policies are geared toward relying to a greater extent on cooperation between like-minded forces in the Middle East. King Abdallah of Jordan has already been to Riyadh to discuss the present situation with the Saudi monarchs.
Rudolph Chimelli is an expert on the Middle East .Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Source: Qantara.de 2011