All of Sudden – a Saudi Letdown

By the time the Arab League summit opened in Riyadh Wednesday, March 28, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice knew the event was destined to dash rather than fulfill the high hopes she and President George W. Bush had been encouraged to entertain by Saudi promises.


Honored guests at the festive opening included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and European Union foreign affairs executive Javier Solana. The chair assigned the US secretary of state was empty.


Two days earlier, before her second conversation with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, she said she would attend the Riyadh summit. But the plane ferrying her around the Middle East was ordered next morning to head west instead of east. By the end of the day, she was back home in Washington for a gloomy reckoning.


The intricate diplomatic strategy she and her Saudi partners had worked hard for three months putting together hung on a final word from Riyadh that the Saudi hosts would carry through a resolution establishing a low-level delegation to engage a comparable Israeli group in peace negotiations on the basis of the re-launched Saudi blueprint of 2002.


Condoleezza Rice, after obtaining Olmert’s go-ahead Monday evening, waited for confirmation from Riyadh. She was so certain of the reply that she scheduled a special statement to the media for later that night, to announce the success of her mission and a breakthrough in the long Arab-Israeli conflict.


When no word came from the Saudi capital, she rescheduled the announcement for Tuesday morning.


But before Rice went on the air, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal telephoned her in Jerusalem and informed her that their deal was off; the agreed formula would not be put before the Arab summit. Instead, Arab rulers would be asked to approve an inter-Arab commission for exploring ways to bring to fruition the Saudi peace blueprint without negotiations with Israel and over its head.


The Saudi letdown soon became an avalanche.


 


Iranian foreign minister welcomed, Assad embraced


 


Saudi King Abdullah opened the Riyadh conference with a blunt attack on US deployment in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation.”


And further snubs:


One of the honored guests was Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki whom the Saudis had explicitly promised the Americans not to invite.


The summit voted to convene next year in Damascus.


In an article titled “Riyadh’s Reliability Evaluated”, published March 2, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts pointed to the monarchy’s Achilles heel as a strategic partner: its unresolved succession struggle.


It was Jordan’s King Abdullah who convinced Bush on March 8 to join forces with the Saudis for engaging Iran on major Middle East crises. He talked him round when he and the queen attended a private White House dinner as guests of the US president and First Lady. The dinner lasted two and a half hours.


As we reported in subsequent DNW issues 290, 291 and 292, Condoleezza Rice was persuaded to go along with the Riyadh line when she saw Saudi national security adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan and director of Saudi general intelligence Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz bringing Tehran round on the thorny Iraq and Lebanese issues.


But she was not aware of the background action in Riyadh, the fierce struggle which the plan kindled among the rival Saudi royal factions, which would end up swamping the US-Saudi plan for engaging Iran.


DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources designate the three primary camps engaged in this titanic tug-of-war.


1. The sons of King Faisal, whose traditional preserve is the foreign ministry and the conduct of the kingdom’s foreign affairs.


The incumbent foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and his brother Prince Turki alFaisal took a dim view of the efforts initiated by Princes Bandar bin-Sultan and Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, scions of the rival Sudairi branch. They saw them as horning in on al-Faisal turf by spearheading a joint Middle East initiative with Washington and leaned hard on King Abdullah for the kingdom’s withdrawal from the partnership.


 


Foreign minister Saud al Faisal throws Bandar off his turf


 


2. The Wahhabist clerical establishment categorically opposes any contact with Israel and routinely complains that the Saudi throne is not doing enough to help Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arabs.


3. The powerful Sudairi branch of the royal house, headed by the defense minister, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz and his full brother, interior minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz.


According to our sources, this faction expressed its disapproval of the new royal initiative through leading clerics. They too pressed the king to withdraw his support from the Bandar-Muqrin gambit. That Bandar, son of the crown prince, is himself a Sudairi – albeit a minor member – did not deter the heads of his clan from putting up a fight against his strategy and against his rising influence over King Abdullah.


These powerful groups brought all their clout to bear to make the king call off the Saudi effort on behalf of Washington. The result: At the most embarrassing moment, Rice discovered that the bottom had dropped out of her Middle East mission, because the Saudi king had developed cold feet. He had dumped the effort on which the Bush administration had counted heavily to tow its Middle East wagon onto the high road.


Signs of the approaching chill might have been spotted at least twice in the last two weeks.


DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Gulf sources reveal that President Bush and Secretary Rice had been very insistent on King Abdullah paying a state visit to Washington on the eve of the Arab summit, as a token of his support for Washington’s Iraq and Iran policies.


The king refused the invitation.


There was another untoward signal at Rice’s meeting with the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and UAE foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs in Aswan, Egypt, on March 25. The Saudi foreign minister referred sarcastically to his half-brother Prince Bandar’s bumbling diplomatic efforts which achieved nothing. He then unveiled a Saudi policy which bore no resemblance to the one with which the US secretary was familiar from her work with Bandar. Saud was seconded by intelligence director Prince Muqrin, Bandar’s erstwhile partner.


Our sources disclose that Rice was given to understand already then, at the outset of her Middle East mission, that the Saudi posture had undergone drastic changes in the four aspects of most profound interest to Washington.


And indeed, the king did not pull his punches when he presented his new face to the Arab summit on March 28 and 29.


 


Abdullah slams US for “illegitimate foreign occupation” of Iraq


 



  • The Arab rulers assembled in Riyadh were not asked to establish an overt or covert anti-Iran front, as Washington had been led to expect. In fact, contrary to a Saudi promise given Condoleezza Rice at their Amman meeting in February – that Iran would not be invited to the Arab conference – the Iranian foreign minister was very much there as a VIP, five days after Revolutionary Guards seized 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf.
  • His whole demeanor was that of an important invitee, there to make sure the Arab rulers did not err by passing anti-Iran measures.
  • This does not mean that Saudi Arabia and Iran have suddenly become best friends, or that Riyadh is no longer leery of Tehran – only that Riyadh has backed out of its strategic cooperation with Washington for diplomacy with Iran.
  • Regarding Iraq, the Saudi turnaround was given public and demeaning expression when the king used his opening speech to attack the American presence in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation.”
  • He then went on to say: …and Beirut’s Hizballah-sponsored tent city… was changing streets into hotels.”
  • This juxtaposition drew a humiliating parallel between the US military presence in Baghdad and Hizballah’s outrageous conduct in Beirut.
  • Even though the summit’s formal resolutions on Iraq did not stray too far from the American position, the king’s damaging public words were a thunderbolt and could not be unsaid.
  • Up until the summit, the Saudis had vowed to isolate president Bashar Assad of Syria and line up with Washington on the Lebanese issue. The Bush administration had banked on the successful Riyadh-Tehran deal on Lebanon (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 291 of March 2: Riyadh Reports a Success in the Bag.) as an integral component of the US stance against Syria’s harmful meddling in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.
  • On this point too, King Abdullah broke faith. He used the summit as an occasion for burying the hatchet with the Syrian ruler and restoring him to the Arab fold. DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that he went so far as to organize an Arab consensus behind the determination that the international tribunal for prosecuting the perpetrators of the two-year old assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri would be bound by Lebanese law. This measure lets Assad, his family and top members of his regime off the hook.
  • The crowning affront for Washington was the Saudi motion, unanimously carried, to hold the next annual Arab League summit in Damascus.
  • No less wounding for Condoleezza Rice was the Saudi ruler’s contemptuous rejection of any negotiating track with Israel, in which she had invested a huge effort.

In conclusion, our sources do not go so far as to assess the disappointments inflicted on Washington as adding up to a major American-Saudi rift. However, Bush administration strategists will have to come to terms with the fact that Saudi king Abdullah has opted for assigning domestic power plays and inter-Arab interests a higher priority than US objectives in the Middle East.

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