The sixty-year old US-Saudi alliance has had its ups and downs but the differences were never allowed to sink to the icy level which marks them today and is seriously hurting America's strategic standing in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf.
By the time Defense Secretary Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Riyadh Wednesday, April 6, things had gone too far for his rescue mission to have any chance of success, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report. His conversation with King Abdullah got exactly nowhere.
Gates hurried over to Riyadh after a secret Saudi message was received in Washington announcing a freeze on arms purchases from the United States, a first in Saudi-US military relations. The message explained that Riyadh needed spare funds to finance military operations against Iran in view of the deteriorating security situation. It hinted at the high cost of deploying Saudi troops in Bahrain and buttressing the oil kingdom's border with Yemen in view of escalating civil warfare and Yemen President Abdullah Ali Saleh's uphill battle against his opposition.
Underlying the words was a hint that Riyadh intended to go shopping for cheaper weapons systems outside the United States, which was unheard of until now. New ground was also broken by Riyadh's explanation that it needs to address the military and nuclear threat coming from Iran. For decades, America was accepted without question by all parts of the Gulf region as their as trusty security shield.
First Saudi arms shopping expedition ever outside the US
The blow to American pockets as well as its prestige is disastrous: Saudi Arabia is the top buyer of American military hardware. It committed last year to a package, including F-15 fighter jets and a range of helicopters, worth $60 billion, the largest America's military industry has ever landed.
Shortly before Gates landed in Riyadh, US officials briefing the press traveling on his plane assured them he would bring "good news" from Riyadh on the arms deal. But other officials admitted that the Saudi Arabian monarchy was "so unhappy with the Obama administration for the way it pushed out President Mubarak of Egypt" that it had sent senior officials to the People's Republic of China and Russia in search of expanded business and defense procurement opportunities.
The conversation between the Saudi King and US defense secretary ranged over four main subjects: Iran, Bahrain, Yemen and the Saudi-US arms transaction, whose content is revealed here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources.
On Iran, Riyadh and Washington were wider apart than ever before, their differences on the handling of Iran's expansionist thrust and nuclear program exacerbated by the latest Arab turmoil.
In a blistering denunciation, the king told Gates he found it hard to excuse the Obama administration's obdurate disregard of Saudi intelligence updates to the CIA on the complicity of Tehran and Hizballah in destabilizing Lebanon and Bahrain.
Bushehr – a ticking Fukushima on Saudi Arabia's doorstep
Even less excusable in the Saudi view was Washington's refusal to take seriously the testimony offered after Saudi troops entered Manama to defend the Bahraini throne that Iran was stepping up its preparations for military intervention after fomenting riots among the 2 million Shiites living in the eastern Saudi oil regions.
The Saudi ruler had concluded that no matter what evidence was put before President Barack Obama, he would never be deflected from his policy of engagement with Tehran.
Abdullah warned that American indulgence of Iran's nuclear aspirations was placing the very survival of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states in grave jeopardy.
The king had a particular bone to pick over the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, our sources disclose. Despite all of our warnings, Abdullah told Gates, you tried to persuade us (in August 2010) that Iran's first reactor would be harmless. And what do we see today if not a potential Fukushima on our doorstep? Even Tehran is scared to activate it after witnessing the Japanese nuclear calamity, realizing that if it explodes, millions of Iranians will die.
So how are we supposed to feel now about the Iranian reactor and US assurances?
(See a separate article on the role of chemical and nuclear weapons in the Arab revolt).
Abdullah was harshly critical of the US presidential advisers' counsel to the White House to withhold endorsement from Saudi military intervention in Bahrain.
As long as Washington hopes to topple the Bahraini and Saudi kingdoms by promoting pro-democracy revolutions on the Egyptian pattern, why would you expect the Persian Gulf rulers to support America and treat it as an ally? he asked the US defense secretary.
Abdullah tells Saleh to turn his back on Washington and hold tight
King Abdullah explained that once he had realized the Obama administration had no intention of acting in consideration of the security interests of the Saudi and Gulf nations, he resolved to take their affairs into his own hands. He said he now feels free to do what he thinks necessary to advance those interests without resorting to – or even consulting with – Washington.
Gates confirmed that the US did have "evidence" of Iranian meddling in the turmoil besetting Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries, refuting the Obama administration's public statements denying Iran was a primary factor. But this admission most probably came too late. Abdullah has set his course on a new policy that distances the kingdom from the United States. Even though Gates disagrees with Obama on the Middle East – and especially on military intervention in Libya – the Saudi monarch knows that his time is almost up at the Pentagon.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources, Riyadh has in the past 10 days struck out against the United States by launching an independent course in Yemen.
Last week, the Obama administration reversed its policy of support for President Abdullah Ali Saleh and told him it was time to negotiate terms for his departure with the opposition.
The Saudis stepped in thereupon and told Saleh to ignore Washington and hold tight because from now on, he could count on Saudi-led GCC backing taking the place of the United States.
This was Riyadh's first public demonstration of the new policy as exercised in the Arabian Peninsula. It was followed, according to our exclusive counter-terror sources, by intensive consultations between the Yemeni president and Saudi intelligence chiefs who visited the palace in Sanaa, and at least two top-level conversations between King Abdullah and the Yemeni president.
US special forces and CIA operations suspended in Yemen
The upshot was dramatic and never until now revealed.
Late last week, a communication from President Saleh reached Washington announcing the suspension of US special forces' operations at their secret base near the port city of Hodeida and the hold-up of covert CIA activity against Al Qaeda in Yemen.
In other words, American forces are banned from using Yemeni soil or its Red Sea waters as bases for striking Al Qaeda terrorists in Arabia.
This is the first time that fallout from Arab Revolt – called by some the Arab Spring – has impaired America's war on Al Qaeda. It has increased the danger that terrorists hiding in Yemen, the most notorious of whom is the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is connected to at least three terrorist attacks, including the Fort Hood shooting, will be free to resume their attacks in the United States.
That is just one of the side-effects of Saudi King Abdullah's new policy.