Abdullah Flouts Washington without Burning His Bridges

The Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal’s consent to grace the US-promoted Middle East conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Nov. 27 should not be taken at face value.

The Saudi monarch Abdullah is gradually but steadily pulling the oil kingdom away from the pro-American orientation which ruled its foreign relations from the end of World War II and peaked in 1982 under Crown Prince, later King Fahd.

Since taking the helm two years ago, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts report, Abdullah has been busy chopping down American exclusivity as the single superpower dominating the Middle East and Gulf regions and replacing it with a multi-polar structure. He is acting on his conviction that a plurality of active external powers and their interplay promise the region’s Arab nations greater leeway for independent action and better serve their interests.

The Saudi monarch shrewdly preserves the desert kingdom’s special relations with Washington where Riyadh’s interests are concerned and partners the US in energy strategy and oil pricing. Above all, Abdullah is not willing to give up the insurance American protection offers the Saudi throne. But his expanded foreign relations have opened the door to other powers, such as Russia and China.

For more than twenty years, he has had several bones to pick with American moves in the region, especially on Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict and lately in Iraq. But only since assuming the throne, has he begun making bold moves for translating his objections into practice.


Abdullah dips a toe in Iranian waters


As Crown Prince, Abdullah objected to his half-brother King Fahd’s decision in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, to invite American forces to land on Saudi soil. Later, he claimed that his arguments were not against the decision, but only Fahd’s failure to consult with senior princes, himself included.

But the real turning-point occurred in 1997 when, taking over the reins from the incapacitated King Fahd, Abdullah braved Washington’s disapproval and went on a visit to Tehran, in defiance of sanctions. Again, he had his explanation pat: He did not oppose America’s Iran policy, but believed that diplomatic engagement was the best way to promote Washington’s case.

As it turned out, his talks with Iran’s rulers took some of the edge off the hostility governing relations with the Saudis from the days of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 – which is what Abdullah had really been after.

At the same time, the de facto monarch’s overture did not stop Iran mischief-making in the Gulf or forging ahead with its nuclear plans. Even more painfully for Riyadh, the clerical regime capitalized on Abdullah’s gesture to claim Saudi legitimacy for its drive to export its revolution, including a campaign to convert Sunni Moslems to the Shiite faith.

All the same, the Tehran visit augured the twisting track Abdullah was to steer for the next 25 years. Never collide with Washington or Tehran; stay clear of America’s undesirable Middle East designs. This track, the Saudi king justifies to the Bush administration as a bid to play the honest broker between Washington and Tehran. In fact, he has never cured himself of the conviction that his flexible conciliatory approach to Tehran will profit Riyadh and might event win Tehran away from its more outrageous ways.


Rumors of Saudi nuclear program


A recent case in point is the proposal Riyadh put to Iran to allow its uranium enrichment facilities to be relocated outside the country. By this means the Saudis figured the benefits would be shared out among the regional states and save them the trouble of establishing their own enrichment plants.

Tehran appears to be giving the plan serious consideration. It is clear to Riyadh that Iran is perfectly capable of accepting the plan without giving up its own unsupervised enrichment at home. Still, Riyadh would gain a source of ready-made enriched uranium or the means of “laundering” the product on Saudi soil.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources report persistent rumors going around the Gulf in recent weeks that the oil kingdom has started up a clandestine nuclear development program on a smaller scale than Iran’s, but still fairly advanced in some aspects, including uranium enrichment.

According to the rumor mill, US President George W. Bush knows what is going on but has chosen to turn a blind eye for two reasons: One, exposure would derail the US campaign against the Iranian nuclear program and, two, an independent Saudi nuclear program would enhance the oil kingdom’s strategic primacy among Arab nations.

The Bush administration has been equally forgiving of Riyadh’s tactics in Iraq.

Making no secret of their disapproval of the Shiite-dominated government which the Americans allowed to take office in Baghdad, the Saudis have stepped in to strengthen Iraqi Sunni Arab opposition to that government. For some years, Saudi nationals were allowed to take part in terrorist operations in Iraq and aid Sunni insurgents. It was only in the past year that Riyadh began to discourage young Saudis from “volunteering” for jihad in Iraq.


For Abdullah, US presence in Iraq is an “illegal foreign occupation”


In March 2007, the Saudi monarch publicly branded the US presence in Iraq an “illegal foreign occupation” in an address to the Arab League summit in Riyadh.

Yet, faithful to its two-step, or two-faced, tactics, Riyadh has asked the Americans not to quit Iraq before the situation there is stabilized.

The Saudis are especially put out by Washington’s perception of the Arab-Israel conflict. They maintain that the Americans are not doing enough to solve the protracted dispute – meaning not tough enough with Israel – which they claim is the main source of regional instability.

They threatened to boycott the conference at Annapolis unless it got down to the brass tacks of Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, but relented in response to US arm-twisting. Foreign minister Saud al-Faisal was dispatched at the last minute in obedience to an Arab League foreign ministers decision three days earlier.

Washington met the Saudi minister halfway by setting late 2008 as the deadline for permanent settlement negotiations to end. This concession is pretty meaningless. By then, the Bush presidency will be winding down and there will be no one in the White House to intervene in any developments on the Israeli-Palestinian scene.

Not content with making his grievances against Washington’s Middle East policies known, Abdullah is developing a bold proactive foreign policy which is distancing the oil kingdom from its old ally.

In 2003, he became the first senior Saudi figure to visit Moscow in 65 years.

In February, 2007, Russian president Vladimir Putin reciprocated with a state visit to Riyadh.

In comparison, Abdullah visited Washington officially only once in 2005. Last April, he declined President Bush’s invitation to attend a banquet in his honor. Both governments played this snub down. But it was striking enough to betray the Saudi intention of downgrading, at least in formal terms, its friendship with the US.


Moscow extends a hearty welcome and sells arms


On Nov. 21, defense minister Crown Prince Sultan was welcomed in style when he arrived for three days of talks in the Kremlin, especially when they turned on a series of accords and lavish arms purchases – not all of which have been made public.

The two governments decided to cooperate in their energy strategy on an unpublicized scale and concluded the first large-scale Saudi arms transactions with Moscow.

This is a radical departure from Riyadh’s longstanding habit of shopping for arms only in America and Britain.

It should net the Russian treasury an estimated revenue of $2.2 billion for 150 Mi-17 and Mi-35 assault helicopters – and more, if Riyadh also decides to buy 150 T-90 tanks.

These purchases will open the door wide to the long-term presence in the desert kingdom of a host of Russian military advisers, engineers and instructors. Moscow will no doubt be happy to meet a Saudi request for the teams accompanying the arms to be Russian Muslims.

In the joint communique which ended Prince Sultan’s Moscow talks on Nov. 24 the Kremlin leaned over backwards to please Riyadh on Middle East issues.

It expressed a joint call for diplomatic engagement to solve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities, while Tehran was enjoined to comply with UN resolutions.

The two powers stated the Middle East must be nuclear-free; Iraq’s independence must be respected and foreign intervention cease.

Lebanon’s presidential election must not be subject to foreign interference; Syria was not mentioned.

The hope was expressed for the forthcoming Middle East conference at Annapolis to address the core issues of the Israel-Arab dispute.


A most peripatetic king gives Washington a miss


Clearly, 83- year old Abdullah is going full steam ahead to act out his plan to diversify the kingdom’s foreign relations. In the last month his packed travel schedule has included London and the Vatican. Earlier this year, he visited Beijing.

While China does not aspire to superpower status in the Middle East, its economic weight, especially as an energy purchasing colossus, makes Beijing an important force. Russia, in contrast, having recovered from its decline from the breakup of the Soviet empire, is fired up to develop a strong foothold in the region. On this point, the interests of Riyadh and Moscow converge. The Saudis are taking advantage of the Kremlin’s aspirations to counter-balance American influence in the Middle East.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts stress that a note of caution permeates the king’s ventures into new foreign alliances. On certain interests, the oil kingdom has no substitute for its special understanding with the United States.

This was illustrated through an open mike at a closed session of the oil producing cartel OPEC in Riyadh earlier this month: Saud al Faisal was overheard chiding Iranian and Venezuelan ministers that the US dollar would collapse if OPEC considered switching pricing for crude to an alternative currency. This comment revealed how closely Riyadh and Washington remain attuned, despite their differences, when it comes to their joint global interests in oil.

On regional policy, however, Riyadh is increasingly breaking the bounds set by the special relationship over decades. Washington will have to adjust to the new, prickly Saudi rulers, who no longer feel obliged to respect its economic or diplomatic goals.

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