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Saudi Arabia left alone to confront Iranian ambitions

January 24, 2014 at 3:12 am

Saeed Al-Wahabi is a young Saudi writer. His pen is hard-hitting and quick. Last Sunday evening he summed up the public Saudi mood after Saudis had had enough analysis and discussion of Iran’s agreement with the super powers over its nuclear project. He tweeted on twitter saying: “Saudi Arabia must be feeling lonely tonight.”

Yet, indeed, it was a tough night. The official communiqué reservedly welcoming the agreement had not been released yet. That night, ghosts and illusions of danger and isolation danced all around. Analysis reiterated expressions that only added to people’s anxiety: “Iran is the region’s policeman”; “America, as usual, betrays and abandons its allies”; and “Iran gives up its nuclear project but gains hegemony”. The last expression was mine; I coined it in a statement I made to AFP (the French News Agency), so as to be part of the overshadowing anxiety.

Yet, such anxiety was not justified. Nor were those depressing feelings that hung over when one slipped into bed feeling lonely after a hard working day. The agreement is natural and a natural progress of history; it serves the interest of the entire region in that it chases away the threats of war that loomed in the sky for more than a decade.

When Prince Turki Al-Faysal was his country’s ambassador to the United States of America he used a concise phrase to describe the Saudi position vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear project. Whenever he spoke at a press conference or at a meeting with some Americans he would say: “We live our day torn between two nightmares: the first is the prospect of Iran’s acquisition of the nuclear bomb and the second the likelihood that Israel might bomb Iranian installations and draw the entire region into a war that no one know how or where it would end.”

This agreement will relieve us of these nightmares, at least for the next six months, the duration of the deal. We can be sure that for that period of time Iran will not enrich uranium sufficiently to attain the nuclear bomb and Israel will not resort to bombing its installations so as to prevent it from doing so. There is a strong possibility that the agreement may become permanent when negotiators return to Geneva and the region might just enjoy lasting peace.

What should be of concern to us in Saudi Arabia is the state of “anxiety and wariness” and “going to bed feeling lonely” as Al-Wahabi described it. That is, of course, assuming we are able to sleep. Dr. Abdullah Al-Askar, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Shura Council, stated: “Sleep will stay away from the eyes of the region’s inhabitants.” Such negative sentiment is what calls for concern because it expresses a profound state of lack of confidence in our ability to face up to imminent changes in the region. I would assert that the cause for such state of being is our “getting used” to relying on the United States of America considering it to be a strategic ally who would rush to our aid during times of crisis. This is further exacerbated by our realisation of the existence of turbulence and imbalance in the region since the fall of Saddam Hussein and with him Iraq. (I don’t mean this to be an expression of sorrow over the loss of the man or his regime, which had to exit history). Then came the rise of Turkey as a regional power, the departure of Egypt by virtue of its internal situations in the era of the “Arab Spring”, and the retreat of Pakistan to attend to its internal wounds incurred in the aftermath of September 11 and its miniature war with “the Taliban”.

It can, then, be said that in confronting Iran and its ambitions in the region, Saudi Arabia stands alone even if its interests cross with other countries in the region such as Turkey and Qatar, in the confrontation arena in Syria, and with the Emirates and Kuwait, in the confrontation arena in Bahrain. Yet, there is no united front or consensus over confronting Iran. All the countries I have named above, and those within the region I have not named, maintain open relations and have interests with Iran. The countries of the region, collectively, lack a united strategic stance on confrontation especially when it comes to the Syrian arena, which is dominated by a state of competition and lack of trust. This is what enabled the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally to score victories against the rebels.

The agreement has not given Iran a free hand in the region though its hand was not detained prior to the conclusion of the deal. Iran intervened in Syria supplying the regime there with fighters and weapons and it has found no one to prevent it. Consequently, it may interpret the agreement to mean that the West is unbothered with what it does there or in Yemen or in Bahrain so long as the inspectors are able to perform their mission and the enrichment level is maintained at the agreed limit. It would follow that Iran might embark on testing its new relationship with the West and Saudi Arabia would have to face this alone. Yet, it is under no obligation to remain alone.

There are still some shared interests with regional super powers. But it is necessary to restructure Saudi defence policy starting with the consideration that the state of dependence upon the United States is unwholesome. America’s turning its face away from us is not a mere passing “Obama” moment; it is a permanent U.S. policy that is the outcome of historic transformations taking place within the United States, which has changed its priorities. After that the Kingdom should move on to redraw the map of its alliances in the region. Turkey is important and its leaders seek special relations with the kingdom.

Egypt is not back yet; it is still in a state of internal blockage that paralyses it and prevents it from fulfilling its external obligations. The best the kingdom can expect from Egypt at present is the phrase “we support you in whatever you want to do” plus a smile, although they have not done so when it came to Syria. In order for Egypt to return, and that would require time, it needs friends to help it come out of the state of blockage it is currently living through and to abandon the policy of “fear, rage and revenge” in favour of a genuine national reconciliation.

Pakistan too is in need of a helping hand in order to achieve reconciliation with the “Taliban” movement. Only then will the strong Pakistani army be free to live up to its national responsibilities.

It would be necessary to open up communication channels with Iran even while confrontation with it continued. Every five minutes they say they want good relations with the Kingdom. Let us hear what they have to say and let us be patient the way the have been.

The region has many problems; they become worse when neglected. But they are possible to resolve. We have allies and we have friends. Therefore, it is unnecessary to continue feeling lonely after that gloomy Sunday.

The author is a Saudi writer. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Hayat newspaper on Satuday 30 November, 2013

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