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America, new Saudi Arabia and Iran

May 25, 2015 at 10:33 am

The US-Gulf Camp David summit, held last week, did not bridge the gap between America and the Gulf states, or limit the “doubts” of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia towards President Obama’s administration. Rather, it emphasised such doubts and embedded them even further.

The announcement on the eve of the summit that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz would not attend was not only an angry message, as the Washington Post suggested, but also a smart advanced realisation that the summit would only have humble and unconvincing results. None of the assurances and guarantees provided by Obama would come anywhere near easing Arab discomfort and anxiety regarding his closeness to states in the region, especially to Iran.

Such conviction on the part of the Saudis is a turning point in Riyadh’s policies that goes beyond the “state of denial” expressed by Gulf leaders towards Obama’s close interest in the Middle East which aims to reach regional understandings with Iran. This means accepting it as a regional power and recognising its influence in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

This shift in US foreign policy did not come out of a vacuum. It is known that extensive discussions and dialogue took place in Washington after 9/11, and that there was an academic-political trend looking at US-Iran relations which believes that the Salafist movement in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a main source of the threats to western interests and a source of hostility towards the United States. At the same time it was being suggested within these circles that Al-Qaida is an extension of this movement.

Those discussions have not gone away, as some may think. They control Obama’s connection to the region, even if not stated publically, after the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Re-reading statements attributed to Obama by senior journalists such as Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg during their exclusive meetings with the president, there are no doubts that Washington has disengaged from Saudi Arabia; the upcoming deal with Iran is one of the main items of America’s serious revision of its position with regards to the region.

Karim Sagdabor, one of the leading experts in Iranian affairs at the Carnegie Endowment, says of these revisions within the administration and think tanks, “There is a new realisation that is growing in the White House and the United States which says that the US and Saudi Arabia are friends but they are not allies, while the US and Iran are allies but they are not friends.”

This does not necessarily mean that the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is now hostile, but simply that it has become more complex and more linked to each other’s interests and security and the balance of power in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have avoided any acknowledgement of this and do not work independently from American policies; at this time of US-Iran closeness there is a strategic vacuum in Arab capitals.

This new Saudi realisation, accompanied by the new leadership making the decisions in Riyadh, has led to a very important change, represented in the change in Saudi Arabia’s closeness to Iraq, Syria and Yemen; coordinating Operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope in Yemen; and transferring such coalition operations, in the face of Iranian influence, to Syria, through cooperation with Turkey and Qatar. The latter has led to very important results in Idlib and the northern areas of the country.

The Camp David summit not only confirmed changes with Washington, but also confirmed to the Saudis that there are major cracks in their relationships with their friends within the conservative Arab coalition. This seemed to be clear during Decisive Storm as well as at Camp David.

As a result, important changes are taking place which are creating a new regional coalition made up of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to counter Iranian influence. There is some irony in this, given that the conservatives used to regard the so-called Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood axis as the threat to Arab security, and thus took a decisive stand against the popular revolutions. However, the new Saudi Arabia’s shifts will lead necessarily to other results, including the re-evaluation of current policies towards political Islam, which has actually started in Yemen and Syria, and could possibly include Libya at a later stage.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations change continuously and take on different dimensions across the region. As it is getting closer to Turkey and Qatar, its position towards its traditional allies of Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt seems to swing between trying not to show the gap with Riyadh on one side and a lack of satisfaction about the latest changes in leadership on the other.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 18 May, 2015.

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