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Allan Topol Headshot

Flexing Saudi Muscles

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A major new player has emerged on the Middle East political stage. In the past, Saudi Arabia has been a passive bystander on Middle East political issues with the exception of the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. For the most part, the Saudi monarchy, discrete and secretive, was willing to let their longtime ally, the United States, take the lead in pursuing a Middle East agenda with which the Saudis generally concurred.

All of that has changed within the last year. Now the Saudis are publicly and aggressively pursuing their own Middle East policy, fueled by petro dollars.

In Egypt, as soon as the military deposed Morsi's Islamic government, the Saudis jumped right in with support to aid General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in tightening his grip on control. While the United States was dithering about whether to cut some or all of its $1.3 billion in aid, the Saudis promised Egypt's rulers $12 billion.

In Syria, the Saudis have been supplying cash, weapons, and training to the rebels battling Assad. They have been vocal in urging the United States and Western European nations to increase military supplies to the rebels. They leaned hard on the United States to bomb Syria once Assad crossed Obama's red line and used chemical weapons on his own people.

In the U.N. the Saudis achieved what their Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi called a "defining moment" in the Kingdom's history, election to a coveted two year stint as a temporary member of the Security Council. Yet as soon as Saudi Arabia was elected, the rulers in Riyadh declared that they were renouncing the seat. The Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, 89 and ailing, wanted to make a powerful statement to the whole world about the uselessness and futility of the world organization which hasn't been able to stop the carnage in Syria and the displacement of over two million refugees. Indeed the U.N. hasn't even taken any meaningful steps in that direction.

Diplomats around the world are shaking their heads in surprise and dismay about the paradigm shift in Saudi foreign policy. There are three basic reasons which account for it.

The first is that the Saudis have lost confidence that the United States will pursue the objectives which the Saudis believe are essential. The United States is not even willing to consult with them in a timely manner, the Saudis have complained.

In 1945 Franklin Roosevelt on his way home from the Yalta summit with Churchill and Stalin met with King Abdulaziz "Ibn Saud" on a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal. There they made a grand bargain: The U.S. would ensure the security of the new Saudi Kingdom; and the Saudis would guarantee the flow of oil to the U.S. at reasonable prices.

Well, we had a great run. Never mind that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. For the most part, the grand bargain endured for 68 years. But now it is becoming unglued.

The Saudis were furious that the U.S. refused to support the Egyptian military when it ousted Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as a dangerous rival in Riyadh. They were outraged that Obama didn't carry out his commitment to bomb Syria when his red line had been crossed. In the words of Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki, former Chief of Intelligence and brother of the Foreign Minister, "American policy has been wrong."

This rift prompted Secretary of State Kerry to make an emergency trip to Riyadh on November 4 where he met with the King and Foreign Minister. None of the two nations policy differences was resolved.

Second, Saudi Arabia views itself as the leader of the Sunni sect. In the great conflict in the Muslim world which has endured since the death of Mohammad in 632 AD and recently intensified, the Saudis are locked in an intractable struggle with Shiites and their leader, Iran. This conflict is playing out all over the Middle East, including Bahrain, Lebanon, and most notably Syria. The recent moves by Obama to soften the U.S. position with Tehran in response to Rouhani's charm offensive have alarmed the Saudis, who concluded that they must fend for themselves against the powerful Iranians.

Finally, as I illuminated in my novel, Spy Dance, despite all their arms and money, the Saudi royal family's grip on power is fragile. They are beset by internal enemies, including impoverished Shiites who happen to live in the oil rich part of the country, fundamentalists allied with the Muslim Brotherhood who pursue a competing theology; a small educated minority seeking liberalization and complaining about corruption; and a large army which could turn on the king at any time.

Across the Persian Gulf, the Iranians have missiles pointed westward that could devastate Saudi Arabia and cripple its oil industry. When it appeared as if the U.S. would bomb Syria, fears of an Iranian attack prompted the Saudis to request that Washington send Navy ships to guard the Saudi oil center. To the surprise of leaders in Riyadh, the U.S. declined.

In their precarious state, the Saudi rulers have decided that they must act aggressively to ensure their survival. They will not be able to do so for very long in the crisis-inflamed Middle East. It is not a question of whether the Saudi royal family will be deposed, but when.