THE BLOG

The Times, They Are a-Changin' -- in Arabia

For the longest time Saudi Arabia was the pillar of stability in a very unstable region. The desert kingdom did not believe in airing one's dirty laundry, nor its foreign policy outlines in public. Reassured by a sturdy alliance with the United States, the Saudis preferred to conduct their diplomacy in the shadows and away from the television cameras and microphones. If Saudi Arabia remained safe as other parts of the Middle East periodically went up in flames, then the oil wells were also safe and America could go on with life as usual.

Indeed, it was unheard of a Saudi official to give a public statement dealing with another country's affairs. The Saudi kings and their minions much preferred to keep silent in public and to act behind the scenes where they felt they could better control the situation, calling upon the magical power of their petrodollars and the country's standing as the unofficial leader of the Muslim world to help cajole, convince and threaten when needed.

That philosophy seemed to work rather well until Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein broke an unwritten rule among Arab states that saw to it that no borders were crossed. So long as all that was exchanged were words - even strong words - with threats, then everything would be alright

But Saddam wanted it all. He wanted the oil, he wanted the money and he wanted the power. And, his cardinal sin was underestimating the Americans. So he invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990 forcing Saudi Arabia to become openly active in its politics and invite US troops to protect the kingdom and reclaim Kuwait.

That set off Osama bin Laden who objected to having "the feet of infidels trample upon the soil of Saudi Arabia." At that point al-Qaida had become even more determined to remove the royal family and began a campaign of terrorist attacks in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia may have been unprepared and slow to react to a string of attacks, including attempts to assassinate the Interior minister, however, in the months that followed they made up for lost time. They created special antiterrorist groups and had them trained by the Americans, French, Germans and the Brits. Their success was impressive. They killed or arrested piles of terrorists or potential terrorists and in a relatively short time practically put the terror cells out of commission. Many were imprisoned, others were reformed and released and the immediate terror threat to the royal family and the kingdom appeared to have been addressed; at least the threat to the kingdom coming from the Sunni branch of Islam.

But no sooner had the Saudis distanced the Sunni threat that there arose a new menace, this time coming from the Shiite branch of Islam and directed at them by their long-time foe, Iran.

Overwhelmingly Shiite, Iran wields much influence over parts of the Arab world through the Shiite community. The two communities have been at odds since the early days of Islam that began withß disagreement over the succession to the prophet.

When the tiny island of Bahrain, situated at the northern Gulf and which is connected to Saudi Arabia via a causeway, joined the Arab Spring fray and the Shiite community took to the streets, the king was about to accept their demands and appoint a Shiite prime minister, Saudi Arabia and others from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries stepped in and sent in armed troops to clamp down on the rebellion.
Today the tacit and silent policies of post World War II no longer prevails. Saudi Arabia's policies have become anything but quiet and Washington's support has become somewhat questionable, with a president in the Oval Office who is undecided at best about Washington's policy in the Middle East.

The Saudi Arabians are so upset at Washington's nonperformance in the region that when they recently gave three billion dollars to Lebanon's army to purchase weapons they specified that none of this money was to be spent in the United States, rather, they told the Lebanese to shop in France.

Breaking with past traditions, once silent in its diplomacy Saudi Arabian now confronts openly the regime in Syria and worries about Iran's interference - and encroachment -- in the region.

Much of what is happening today comes about as a result of the current conflict in Syria. Initially the Saudis believed they could continue with their silent diplomacy and convince Syrian President Bashar Assad that he should step down. But all the petrodollars in the world and all the attempts at cajoling or threatening did not seem to work.

Bashar's announcement on Monday that he would present himself as a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections in Syria was almost a slap in the face to the Saudi royal family. It's a given that if he runs he will win and the outcome of the elections are already known. As in past elections he will claim to have won with an astounding 99.99 percent of the vote.

"This time," said one Middle East observer, "he might show some modesty and go with 'only' 92 percent."

The Saudis now fear that if the Syrian civil war is allowed to continue it will eventually reach its own territory. And given the manner in which the fundamentalist jihadis are spreading it is not an impossibility. All the reason more to stop this war sooner rather than later.

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Claude Salhani is a journalist and political analyst. He is a senior editor with Trend News Agency in Baku. Follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani.