A number of Arab leaders, hitherto dead set against the US military campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein, have quietly experienced a late-in-the-day change of heart, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and political Middle Eastern sources. What changed their minds – in the nick of time for Washington – is the onset of America’s military ground operations in Iraq, although this policy transformation is being kept as closely under wraps as its cause.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the most notable converts.
Saudi Arabia relents
The most remarkable about-face is that of Saudi crown prince Abdullah. In recent weeks the rift between the de facto Saudi monarch and the White House yawned ever more widely, as Abdullah drew closer to fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslim elements and conservative tribal chiefs at home. He went so far as to ask US forces, traditional bulwark of the Saudi throne, to leave the kingdom and forbade them the use of the big Prince Sultan air base northeast of Riyadh.
Suddenly, a few days ago – according to circles close to the crown prince – he sent word to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that he would be prepared to turn a blind eye to American military use of Saudi military installations, including the Prince Sultan air base, for its military assault on Iraq – an unexpected windfall for the US campaign command.
The true extent of Abdullah’s change of heart is not yet clear, nor is his rationale.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts and sources offer some logical hypotheses:
1. Abdullah is afraid Iran or Iraq may hit Saudi or Gulf oil fields during their counter-offensive to the US-led military assault, and is scared of being caught without protection. He knows the Bush administration is rapidly topping up its emergency strategic oil reserve to around 700 million barrels – a sure sign the United States is guarding against a total oil cutoff from the Persian Gulf. Even if the oil fields were spared attack, military or political circumstances could lead to a production halt. In either case, the House of Saud would have need of its historic military cooperation with the United States.
2. A degree of military cooperation over Iraq still lingers between Riyadh and Washington, albeit on an ad hoc basis. Abdullah, despite his slide towards Islamist extremists and acceptance of al Qaeda partisans, present and past, which so angers Washington, is a realist when it comes to Saddam Hussein. While cultivating a friendship with the Iraqi ruler, the Saudi crown prince never forgets that the Iraqi ruler is capable at any time of imperiling the royal family and his chances of acceding to the throne. Saddam’s brutal regime, his territorial aspirations in the Gulf and the arsenal he has built up of weapons of mass destruction hang menacingly over Saudi Arabia, no less than the United States and Israel.
3. Abdullah appears to have seen the light the moment he learned from his intelligence chiefs that American troops are already engaged in Iraq. He appears to reckon that when the smoke of battle clears, Saddam will most likely be gone and the Americans will be left in control of an Iraq carved into federally linked autonomous entities. According to the post-Saddam map of the region drafted in Washington, federal Iraq promises to become a welcome buffer between the oil kingdom and Shi’ite Iran.
4. One of Washington’s military plans – to advance from the south and seize control of the Shiite regions of southern Iraq – may appeal particularly to Abdullah. A US-sponsored autonomous Shi’ite province in Iraq could serve as model for the Shi’ite regions of eastern Saudi Arabia and their administration links with Riyadh. An alliance between the two Shi’ite entities would serve Abdullah’s goals to offset Iranian influence among Saudi Shi’ites.
5. The feud tearing into the House of Saud has reached the point that Abdullah needs Washington’s support to hang on to power. Outside the kingdom’s borders – and in the pages of DEBKA-Net-Weekly and DEBKAfile – the schism has been attributed primarily to differences among the princes over Abdullah’s initiative in setting up a Riyadh-Teheran-Baghdad-Damascus bloc and its support for such terrorist groups as Hizballah, al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
But our Saudi experts report a new bone of contention is dominating Riyadh: the escalating war over who succeeds to the throne after the next two kings: When Abdullah succeeds, his half-brother Sultan, the defense minister, takes over as crown prince. But after that comes a blank. The order of succession set by the late King Faisal half a century ago stops with Sultan. The fierce rivalries besetting the estimated 6,000 princes of the House of Saud have become fixed more intensely on the line of succession than on the degree to which the kingdom is involved in global terrorism.
Abdullah may have decided to play along with Washington in order to buy a helping hand for ensuring that the succession after Sultan passes to his branch of the royal family, before it is extended to another branch.
Whatever the reasons for Abdullah’s about-face, they have led to his acceptance of the American air force’s reinstatement in valuable Saudi bases and the freedom to use its skies in the war against Iraq.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak came round to very discreetly endorsing the US offensive against Iraq after he heard about the Saudi crown prince Abdullah’s about face. He too informed President Bush that he would be acting on the quiet and would continue to speak out against the American campaign. But, at the same time, he would place the Suez Canal and the giant Cairo West air base at the disposal of the US navy and air force, a tremendous boost for the American war effort. US aircraft carriers and other warships in the Mediterranean will be able to take advantage of the short cut through Suez to the Red Sea and Jordan’s Aqaba, the main supply port for Jordan-based US forces, before sailing on to the Persian Gulf.
However, a new fly in the ointment is fast developing in the improved Washington-Cairo relationship as a result of the recently-signed Sudanese peace agreement. On Thursday, August 1, Egyptian foreign minister Ali Maher declared his government adamantly opposed to this accord, calling it a red line.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly explains Egypt’s resistance to the Sudanese deal on the grounds that it provides for Sudan to be partitioned between the Muslim North and the Christian-animist south, along the lines of the Bush administration’s plan to redraw Middle East and Africa borders. Egypt is deeply concerned lest control of the Blue Nile pass into the hands of the Christian rebels.