US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was the second high-ranking American official to visit Riyadh in less than a week. He landed Tuesday, April 12, just six days after US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Saudi King Abdullah ended a stormy interview which failed to bridge the widening gap between Washington and Riyadh.
(See the opening item in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly #488 from April 8: The Saudi-US Breach Deepens.)
For the second interview, the monarch was attended by three top royal advisers, all hawks and live wires in security and external affairs: Director of General Intelligence Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, Secretary-General of the National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Jubeir.
The ambassador, who is important enough to the king to spend more time in the royal palace in Riyadh than at his post in Washington, was the only one of the three to be present at the meeting with Gates.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report that by calling in his most influential advisers, Abdullah was telling Washington:
1. That he attaches supreme importance to Saudi relations with the United States;
2. That he will not be moved from the independent foreign and security policies he has set in train – whether or not they meet with American approval. In pursuing them, Princes Muqrin and Bandar and Ambassador Jubeir enjoy his full backing.
According to our sources, the three advisers have been given their assignments: Muqrin is focusing on Iran, Yemen, Libya and Al Qaeda. Bandar deals with Saudi Arabia's foreign military relations – excepting the US – and is managing the comparison shopping for advanced weapons among multiple suppliers. Ambassador Jubeir's job is to advise the king and represent Saudi positions on matters of common interest to the US administration.
Saudis buy advanced Chinese nuclear-capable missiles
Bandar recently paid a secret visit to China and clinched terms for CSS-3 DF-3 ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to replace the hardware Saudi Arabia bought from China in the 1980s.
US intelligence discovered the first transaction in 1988 when those Chinese missiles were installed outside Riyadh and positioned to face Tehran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military sources reveal the transaction Bandar negotiated provides for the sale of two types of Chinese missiles: the DF-21 (NATO-designated CSS-5), which is a two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic (MRBM) system developed by China Changfeng Mechanics and Electronis Technology Academy.
The DF-21 is capable of delivering a 500kT nuclear warhead over a distance of 1,800 km. Its purchase underlines the Saudi royal family's determination to have its own nuclear arms and missiles ready for launch in the face of an approaching nuclear-armed Iran.
The second missile, the DongFeng 15 (Export name M-9; NATO-designation CSS-6) is a solid-fuel, short-range ballistic (SRBM) system developed by CASC China Academy of Rocket Motor Technology ARMT, the 4th Space Academy.
Our information is that the Saudis purchased the improved variants of DongFeng 15 B and DongFeng 15C, recently sighted in service with China's Popular Liberation Army (PLA). During the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, those variants, which were launched as a warning to Taiwan, won a reputation for accuracy and effectiveness.
Abdullah gives Prince Bandar key major strategic missions
Saudi Arabia, say our military sources, has acquired a very large quantity of both types of missile and plans to post them opposite Iran in Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE as well as on its own soil.
Their purchase and intended deployment on the northwestern shores of the Persian Gulf opposite the Iranian coast mean the Saudis want to have their fingers on the trigger ready to strike Iranian Persian Gulf bases – or even inland targets – if threatened.
Prince Bandar, who had a long and successful career as Saudi ambassador to Washington, will also be managing undercover Saudi operations in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and any other Middle East trouble spots.
(See a separate item in this issue about Syria and Bandar's alleged role in the uprising against Assad)
On the American side, NSA Donilon handed the Saudi King a personal letter from President Barack Obama – an action which coincided with a lecture US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave at the US-Islamic World Forum, a gathering sponsored by Qatar and Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution.
Some of her remarks were included in the Obama letter to Abdullah and therefore revealing:
"The president will be speaking in greater detail about America's policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks, Clinton said. America's core interests and values have not changed, including our commitment to promote human rights, resolve long-standing conflicts, counter Iran's threats and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies."
Washington addresses Arab grievances – without success
"This includes renewed pursuit of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace," she said apropos of nothing. "The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months," and she added: "The only way to meet both peoples' aspirations is through a two-state solution."
Clinton distinguished herself by becoming the first senior American, Western – or even Arab – diplomat to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up as a factor in the Arab Revolt, even though not a single Arab protester, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Syria, had raised it during the struggles for political reforms and democratic liberties.
Some observers explain Clinton's irrelevant remark as a misplaced attempt to appease Arab critics of the Obama administration's Middle East policies.
Thursday, April 14, US intelligence officials finally admitted openly that Iran was secretly helping Syrian President Bashar Assad put down pro-democracy demonstrations and aiding "some Shiite hardliners in Bahrain and Yemen… in destabilizing longstanding US allies there."
This belated "disclosure" was another attempt by Washington to address the grievances of Saudi and other Arab leaders that Washington has played down their warnings of Tehran's troublemaking against them.
Breakneck tempo of Middle East turmoil leaves Washington behind
This, too, is unlikely to appease Riyadh, given the content of the Obama letter to King Abdullah.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington, Obama in his letter promised to act on Gates' account of Saudi policy positions and, "in the coming weeks," conduct a reassessment of American policy with regard to the Arab uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Iran and its nuclear program, Al Qaeda and , again, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Obama asked the king to be patient because he was certain revised American policies would partly meet Abdullah's expectations and concerns. He expressed the hope that in the interim period [of indefinite lengh], up to the formulation of new US policies, Washington and Riyadh would continue to cooperate on matters of vital importance to the national security of both countries.
Although neither the US nor the Saudi rulers are keen on a breakdown of the special relationship governing their ties for decades, King Abdullah remains firmly resolved after reading Obama's missive to keep his hands firmly on the oil kingdom's security affairs and foreign relations in the Gulf and Mediterranean regions and conduct them independently of Washington.
After Tom Donilon left for home, Saudi and Gulf rulers admitted they had been amazed by the Obama letter – and especially by the length of time the White House needed for reaching decisions on the life-and-death events rushing forward at breakneck speed in the Middle East.
It is already four months since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, they said. Regimes have collapsed, rulers are on the brink of falling, two wars are current in Libya and Yemen, and the Obama administration feels it has the luxury of taking unnumbered weeks for the urgently-needed reassessment American policy.