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Where Next for Saudi Arabia?

Despite US attempts to cover for its ally, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy emerges the worst from the WikiLeaks cables

US handling of the continued WikiLeaks revelations are deploying effective techniques of crisis media management. While nominally refusing any comment on incidents reported in stolen files, US officials have been cherry picking from their own diplomatic papers to make argument appear as fact.

Nowhere is this truer than in the channeling of evidence to backup current US policy positions in the Middle East, particularly the presentation of reports of widespread fear amongst the Arab states over the actions and intentions of Iran.

However despite the enormity of information still hemorrhaging from the cables, it is Washington's most significant Arab ally that emerges worst from the documents. According to US diplomats, while members of the Saudi Royal family host cocaine and cocktails parties, the Saudi state remains the biggest single sponsor of Islamic militancy in the region. Riyadh has been revealed as a serial warmonger, pressuring for US military action against Iran and pushing for an international force to take on Hezbollah in Lebanon. In addition the Iraqi government sees the Saudis as their biggest threat, the border wars with Yemen grow more deadly each year and relations with 'duplicitous' Syria have never fully recovered from the killing of Rafik Hariri in 2005.

The hidden Saudi Arabia told in the words of its most important ally has emerged from the WikiLeaks cables. The timing couldn't be much worse, over the past months there have been serious concerns as to King Abdullah's health and as to the likely succession. This is a sensitive subject for the kingdom with the Saudi government arresting university professor Mohamed Abdul Karim in the last month after he published what some describe as "a an daring article on the political struggle within the ruling clan in light of the illness of King Abdullah."

According to Joshua Teitelbaum, of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, if King Abdullah dies the Saudi succession will go smoothly with Prince Nayif most likely becoming crown prince after current Crown Prince Sultan assumes the throne. However Nayif is seen as a conservative, which does not bode well for reform.

However, even if Nayif does inherit the kingdom, the traditional Saudi brand of secretive and highly personalized diplomacy may be forced to change with the times. Oil, the bedrock of the Saudi state, won't last forever. Indeed International Energy Agency recently shocked the business sectors with the news that peak crude oil already came and went unnoticed in 2006. Yet this didn't stop the Saudi's recently completing the biggest arms deal in history, purchasing over $60 billion's worth of weapons from America.

It is the symbiotic relationship with the Americans that provides Riyadh with its core stability. Many are frustrated by the American's willingness to stand by in the face of human rights abuses in particular. Maria McFarland, Deputy Washington Director, Human Rights Watch explained how "while the United States has for years designated Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern, it has failed to take meaningful steps to promote reform in Saudi Arabia. The United States has continually waived sanctions provided under the law, and aside from issuing the annual report, has remained mostly silent in public on the subject".

US silence towards Saudi's domestic abuses and international intrigues is likely to continue as long as the Iranian standoff continues. Yet it is Saudi Arabia's Janus role towards this core Middle Eastern conflict that confuses any consistency in their diplomacy, a contradiction highlighted by the WikiLeaks files. Whether the Saudis can manage the exposure of this contradiction or if a new approach is adopted at such a sensitive time domestically will determine which direction the kingdom's foreign policy agenda will head towards.

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