THE BLOG

The Iran Talks: Saudi-Arabia Is Getting Out of the Closet

The Iran nuclear talks are causing ripples in the Middle East and it is not in Israel where the level of concern and suspicion is at its height. Rather, it is in Saudi-Arabia, and it is being so disturbing that the usually secretive kingdom is going out of its way to display its intensifying displeasure with the Obama administration.

Saudi-Arabia has always been the model country for all these political science text books which praised the virtues of secret diplomacy. In fact, the Saudis perfected the art of double-edged language, one used for public consumption and one for behind the doors contacts. They made full use of their money and preferred to bribe their protagonists, and altogether adopted the lowest possible profile. Observers of the monarchy always debated whether the tone was the result of a sense of weakness, or simply a stylistic affair. This is my sense: that the former is the right explanation, so when they took a major departure from their tradition, is it a sign of new strength? Not really, rather in my mind it is a signal of despair -- of last resort.

The Saudis are nervous, they are worried, and above all they are frightened. Frightened to the core, frightened about Iran and what seems to be its growing regional reach, in Iraq, which has a border with the Kingdom, and in Lebanon, where the Shi'ite Hizballah terror group is so dominant after murdering the Saudi man there, former P.M. Rafiq Hariri. Last but not least, in Syria, a country which the Saudis used to bribe with many billions of petro dollars in an attempt to buy its support and cooperation and which is now totally under Iranian influence, as the civil war there has been finally recognized as a Sunni-Shi'ite Arab regional conflict.

With regard to Syria, the Saudis first deviated from their traditional diplomatic style and made their opposition to the Alawite regime known in words and actions. The Wahabbi kingdom did not fail to take note of the fact that Ibn Tayimiyya, the author of the famous anti-Alawite Fatwa, was also a chief source of ideological inspiration to Muhammad and Ibn Abd AL Wahab, but they had more pressing and updated considerations. Chief among them the fear from Iran and the possibility of the creation of a Sh'iite crescent in their immediate environment, an alarming prospect to the kingdom, which in its Eastern Hasa province has its own disgruntled minority of 2 million shi'ites. But above all it is the Iranian nuclear program. The leaked WikiLeaks documents from a few years ago showed how behind closed doors the Saudis expressed their growing fears about Iran and its nuclear program. Even during the first Gaza war in 2009, the Saudis were obsessed with Iran, much the same as they were during the Israel-Hizballah war of summer 2006. Saudi diplomats paid public lip service to the Palestinian problem, but made no bones, behind close doors, about the real danger: Iran.

It is in this context that we need to understand recent public Saudi manifestations of indignation with the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East. First, what they perceived as the betrayal of Hosni Mubarak, a long-standing ally in the search for regional stability, and as such an ally against Iran. The presumed Obama administration's support to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood added insult to injury, and then came the vacillation over Syria, and the decision not to strike Bashar Assad, something which the Saudis called for in public. Finally, the Iran nuclear talks. The Saudis are afraid, afraid that these talks may lead to two grossly undesirable results from their perspective. One, that Iran will come out victorious, i.e. that its program will NOT be dismantled, whereas its prestige and actual influence will increase.

This is definitely a nightmare for the Saudis, and on top of that another one, which is an American strategic decision to lower the profile of its involvement in the Middle East, now that the Iranian nuclear danger seems to be waning. This is where the Saudis expose their vulnerability. It is the American Fifth Fleet which is the real defender of the Kingdom, not its dollars, nor its prestige In the Islamic world. It is not so off mark to suggest that the Saudis really fear that finally their structural, fundamental weaknesses will be for all to see, when there is a president in Washington who they consider to be a wimp. Hence the sense of urgency and despair. The Saudi family came to the conclusion that SOMETHING has to shake Washington. Going public in formal angry statements and with the refusal to accept the seat in the Security Council may be exactly that signal of their predicament.

The New York Times, not Obama bashers, published an editorial about Israel, Turkey and Saudi-Arabia strongly disenchanted with the Obama administration. A new axis in the Middle East?!... not really, but publicly nervous Saudi-Arabia which shows its frustration with the U.S. is something new, and worth careful scrutiny. This is the Middle East where huge surprises do happen sometimes...

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