iOS app Android app

Steve Clemons

Steve Clemons

Posted: November 29, 2006 10:25 AM

Saudis Will Fill Vacuum Left by US in Iraq and Challenge Iran's Pretensions


OilTrans_nawaf.jpg

Read Nawaf Obaid today in the Washington Post. Read it carefully.

The preamble:

In February 2003, a month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, warned President Bush that he would be "solving one problem and creating five more" if he removed Saddam Hussein by force. Had Bush heeded his advice, Iraq would not now be on the brink of full-blown civil war and disintegration.

One hopes he won't make the same mistake again by ignoring the counsel of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited." If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.

Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region.

Because King Abdullah has been working to minimize sectarian tensions in Iraq and reconcile Sunni and Shiite communities, because he gave President Bush his word that he wouldn't meddle in Iraq (and because it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn't attack U.S. troops), these requests have all been refused. They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq. As the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam and the de facto leader of the world's Sunni community (which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims), Saudi Arabia has both the means and the religious responsibility to intervene.

Obaid is a personal national security advisor to Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki al-Faisal and what he is writing is no doubt the public version of what King Abdullah told Cheney when the VP was summoned to Riyadh.

What Obaid has articulated here is not offered as a threat if the US leaves Iraq, which the US must do in my view. This is the first robust declaration that the Saudis are willing to fill the vacuum left by the United State in the region and knock back some of the unchecked expansion of Iranian influence in the region.

It's not good to have rising powers with pretensions of future greatness clashing like this -- but there is NO CHOICE.

And frankly, it's much better to have the Saudis engaged that not engaged in Iraq. Iran must be balanced -- and while this may seem like an escalation, it actually is an important potential cap on a worsening of this increasingly ulcerous mess in Iraq.

But what the Saudis are doing and what they need to do is not new -- it has been predicted for quite a while. And this is the consequence of the Bush administration's failure to think strategically. We have now drawn Saudi Arabia into a potential collision that could destabilize that nation and seriously harm our access to vital oil and natural gas supplies.

So don't blame the Saudis for seeing the world and their region as it is -- not as George W. Bush fantasizes.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note