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Has Riyadh been let down by the US or its own foreign policy?

January 24, 2014 at 9:43 am

In a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal spoke about the US position in Iraq with frankness unusual in Saudi diplomacy; that was eight years ago, on September 27, 2005. At the time, al-Faisal said that American policy in Iraq was practically leading to the division of the country and handing it over to Iran. He directed his words to the Americans and said, “If you will allow a civil war to occur, Iraq will end forever, and this will push the region into a disaster, and we Arabs will be dragged into conflict; the Iranians will intervene in the South, the Turks in the North, and then into the rest of the Arab countries in the region.” He also added, somewhat surprised, “We fought a war together to keep Iran out of Iraq after driving Iraq out of Kuwait, and now we are handing over the whole country without any justification.” To emphasise this, the Foreign Minister pointed out, “The Iranians are going to areas secured by US forces and are paying money, making allies, establishing police forces and arming militias in these areas.” He added that the Iranians are “using the US and British forces as shields while doing all this.”

Has anything changed since then? The US is letting down the Saudi Foreign Minister more than he expected. Eight years down the line, with a Democrat administration in Washington that cares little about the destruction and killing in Syria, Obama is busy with the Al-Nusra Front, not with the number of victims, which doubles by the day. It is as if he is not concerned with the Iranian intervention and the Russian support of the Syrian regime, and does not want this intervention and support to become an issue. It is worth noting that he is not really concerned with the repercussions this has on the interests of America’s friends in the region. Moreover, Israel’s silence on the Obama administration’s position on the Syrian war, which is on its borders, confirms that Israel’s interest and its security is located at the heart of America’s decision in this matter.

The US position involves many things, including the fact that Saudi influence on American policy for the region, especially in matters directly affecting Saudi interests, is limited. This does not seem to match the size of the political, security and economic interests on which the relationship between the two allies is founded. The matter looks even worse when considering the US position on Washington’s policy and the interests of its allies. For example, the presence of the American and Iranian influence in Iraq since the Bush administration, and continuing through the Obama administration, means that Washington has given itself a lot of room for flexibility and does not allow its relationships with its allies to restrict this freedom, even when it conflicts with the interests of these allies.

Al-Faisal’s comments confirm that Washington did not take Riyadh’s interests into account, neither when it drew up its policies in Iraq during the occupation, nor when it schemed to share influence with Iran. The same thing is happening now in Obama’s hesitant position on supporting the revolutionaries in Syria. Washington and Riyadh share the same goal of ousting Bashar Al-Assad, but it seems that they have different opinions on how to achieve this goal, how long it should take and what Syria should look like post-Assad. It also seems that they do not agree fully on Iran’s position in all these arrangements.

Why has the relationship taken this turn? Is it right for Saudi Arabia to sacrifice its credit and political interests and get less than it provides in return? Why doesn’t Washington take the interests of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the Arabs into account while determining its position on the war in Syria?

This is a clear-cut conflict in which all parties and their positions are well-known. It has become clear that the fall of the Syrian regime is not only a Syrian interest but an Arab interest as well. Iran is the only party that believes that the fall of Bashar Al-Assad undermines its regional project. Israel and Iran prefer Assad to remain in power, after they have gained over 40 years of experience in dealing with him, but since this now seems impossible, Israel favours the continuation of the war in Syria, based on the saying “let them kill themselves”, according to Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth last week. It does not matter that the Obama administration now shares Israel’s position and the vision behind this position, but that it is backing Israel in a position that is destructive to everyone. It is truly amazing that Obama, who is African-American and entered the White House trumpeting the values of justice, freedom and equality in American society, has abandoned the Syrian people in favour of a regime that goes against all these values and uses the language of fire and blood. It destroys cities and commits massacres in order to stay in power.

Obama’s position is based on three factors: first, the hesitation which is the hallmark of his foreign policy, as well as his inability to break free from the impact of the Bush administration’s wars and, therefore, the failure to distinguish between the Iraqi and Syrian scenarios, as well as the demands and costs of each. The second factor is the Israeli interest, as mentioned previously; and the third factor is that Washington ultimately wants to realise a political solution to the Syrian crisis in coordination with Russia, which is obvious and publicised. However, Obama also wants an understanding with Iran, and Hassan Rohani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election last week encourages this within and beyond the administration. The question is simple: what is the nature of the desired understanding with Iran? What are its limits? What are its objectives? How it will affect the fate of the political situation in Syria after Assad? The US policy in Iraq since 2003 confirms that Washington recognises the sectarian divide in the region, and that after September 11 it prefers to break the dominance of Sunni power in the region, and hence gave Iraq to Iran’s Shiite allies. Is the Obama administration’s position towards Syria an extension of the same policy and the same goal, but in another place with different methods and justifications?

If the interest of Saudi Arabia in the Syrian conflict lies in two inseparable matters, the fall of the Syrian regime and driving Iran out of Syria, and then out of Iraq, as a basis for coming to an understanding with it, then the US position puts Saudi Arabia into a difficult position, with results and challenges that are no longer wise or beneficial to avoid or underestimate. The first of these show that the Saudi policy in Iraq has failed, and led to the disaster of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, then the American occupation of Iraq, ending in the division of influence there between Iran and America. The same can be said about the failure of Saudi policy towards Syria and Lebanon; this resulted in a closed sectarian alliance between the Syrian regime and Iran and in the assassination of Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, which destroyed the Saudi-Syrian understanding, as well as the emergence of Hezbollah as a military force under the command of Iran, not only in Lebanon, but on a regional level. Finally, the failure of this policy is reflected in the fact that after relations lasting over 40 years with the Syrian regime, it has become clear that this regime had actually posed a serious threat not only to Syria, but also to the region and the balances within it, including those in Saudi Arabia. We can also add-on the Arab, which includes Saudi Arabia, failure in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What is the reason for this failure? The foreign policy relied more on the mechanism of pleasing and aligning with others to earn their strategic friendship, rather than pressuring others. This is natural, because this policy is not backed by military forces suited to the size of their role and interests and it opens up more than one option for action and movement. All of this indicates that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is in dire need of a new vision and revised roles and objectives.

Thanks to America and Iran, Iraq is out of the regional equation, and the Syrian regime put Syria in the midst of a devastating civil war, opening the door to Iranian power, which has been waiting for just such an opportunity. Egypt’s revolution revealed that it lacks a professional and mature political establishment, and the country is now in the grip of a severe political, economic and cultural crisis that has increased the vulnerability of its regional role; its paralysis is confusing to everyone. The only major Arab power left is Saudi Arabia, and these variables indicate that the map of balances, the political map, and perhaps even the geographical map of the Arab world will differ from what it was before the Arab Spring revolutions.

In addition to this, US focus in the region is reducing as its attention moves from the Middle East to South-East Asia. Presumably, this will force Saudi Arabia to review its own foreign policies and the strategies it employs to protect its national security, as well as the way in which it builds regional and international relationships and alliances. Based on the fact that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, the responsibility of revision also applies domestically. It is true that America disappointed Saudi Arabia in Iraq, and now in Syria, but it is also true that Saudi foreign policy failed itself in Iraq. Will it succeed in Syria?

A foreign policy that is not based on military power matching the size, interests and roles of a country such as Saudi Arabia does not help much. On the other hand, the weakness of a foreign policy is a reflection of political, administrative and strategic weakness in the state. As such, that weakness is related directly to the state’s concept of its national security and the nature of its relationship with its own citizens, as well as the nature of relations between its state authorities and institutions. Furthermore, all of this is a reflection of the constitutional formula by which the state is guided in its domestic and foreign policies, which determines the priorities in responding to the challenges of the current phase.

The author is a Saudi academic and writer. This article is a translation of the Arabic text published in Al Hayat Newspaper on 23 June, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.