Breaking News: Just hours before US President Barack Obama landed in Riyadh on Friday, March 28, Saudi King Abdullah caught him off-balance with the unexpected appointment of former intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, as second in the line to the throne, directly after the incumbent Crown Prince Salman. By this step, the king pointedly blocked the claim of the Obama administration’s favorite, Interior Minister Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef, to this position. Also pertinent to this decision is the king's and crown prince's poor state of health.
Saudi Arabia is the only Middle East country to be offered the sophisticated US Predator drones. US President Barack Obama planned to flourish this offer, denied to every other Middle East bidder, when he landed in Riyadh on March 28, in the hope of banishing some of the prickles in his administration’s relations with the Saudi royal family.
For an idea of the reception awaiting him, cynics in Saudi and Gulf capitals downplayed even that gesture as self-serving. It was said that the US president basically intended to enhance the position of Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the administration’s favorite contender for the crown.
Prince Nayef leads the kingdom’s war on al Qaeda in Yemen, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has its headquarters. In recent months, the Syrian counterterrorism dossier was also deposited in his lap after it was taken from General Intelligence Director Prince Bandar Bin Sultan on the pretext of his ill health. And, according to unconfirmed reports, he has also been relegated the lead in Saudi’s effort against al Qaeda in Iraq, where Islamist terrorists are making serious inroads in the western and central regions.
So the arming of three counter-terror campaigns with advanced US Predator UAVs will not only add luster to Prince Nayef’s personal kudos, but also add Obama administration endorsement to the controversial Saudi role in the Syrian civil war.
Obama fought this role when Bandar was in charge and spurned his requests for the powerful drones. He also turned down the applications for Predators submitted by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Egyptian strongman and prospective president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Drone campaign’s center shifts from SW Asia to Mid East
The extent of Saudi autonomy in the use of the Predators is a closely-held secret. Did King Abdullah Bin Adbulaziz and Prince Nayef agree to confine their use to within the kingdom’s boundaries? Or were they licensed to wield them against terrorist targets in other parts of the Middle East?
The answer to this question is yet to be revealed.
The Central Intelligence Agency facility, from which US Predators are sent into action across the region, operates independently. It is located near Hamis-Mushayt, where the Southern Saudi Command headquarters is situated at the King Khaled Air Force base.
The CIA facility is likely to carry on as before. The Americans may set up a separate base further north for the big Predator drones they hand over to the Saudis, choosing a spot near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders for launching operations over Syria.
First, Saudi crews must be trained to operate the Predators. This will take time – unless American civilians with experience from the US counter-terror campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan are hired to get the UAV’s up and running without delay.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources note that the deployment of the Predators in the oil kingdom, finally shifts the center of gravity of the drone offensive against al Qaeda and associated Islamist terrorists out of southwest Asia and over to the Middle East.
Some 10,000 Saudis have joined al Qaeda’s forces
This campaign is prospectively three-pronged: The United States will keep up its strikes in Yemen and East Africa; Israel may be roped in to launch its own powerful drones against the jihadists in Syria, Lebanon and Sinai (see a separate article on Israel’s drone option); while the Saudis seek out related targets in Syria and Iraq.
Some delicate coordination will be required for a smooth operation. Israel’s UAV operation in Syria will need to be adjusted to the Saudi effort – mostly likely through the US, and in Sinai, some arrangement made for the Cairo government to tacitly accept Israeli drone strikes for flushing out al Qaeda targets..
As for the multinational makeup of the Islamist legions in their sights, a total of 1,500 American, Canadian and European nationals are estimated by Western agencies to have joined al Qaeda’s wars in Syria and Iraq.
A less familiar figure is the astonishing 10,000 Saudi Islamists believed fighting with al Qaeda in those two arenas in the last three years.
Riyadh recently published a set of decrees requiring fighters on foreign soil to return home. At the same time, al Qaeda’s Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a statement proclaiming the “next stage” as being “an invasion of the Arabian peninsula.”
Both statements may refer to the same group of jihadis.
Saudis warn Obama not to expect much from his visit
The way the Saudis have arranged the stage for the Obama visit should inform him that they will not be satisfied with Predators as the panacea for healing their grievances against his policies.
At the Arab League summit which took place in Kuwait March 25-26, Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz led the calls to raise the bar of Palestinian resistance to the efforts invested by the US president and Secretary of State John Kerry in the Palestinian-Israeli peace track.
The summit voted unanimously to reject the US-backed demand for the recognition of Israel as the Jewish national homeland and state, which effectively knocked Kerry’s initiative on the head.
Even before Air Force 1 landed in the oil kingdom, Obama was warned not to get his hopes up about the outcome of his Riyadh visit by the following comment in the official local press: “US-Saudi relations are important and strategic. But the US must understand that friendship does not mean subordination and that Obama has no right to tell the Saudis how to manage their affairs.”
This comment was accompanied by the provocative disclosure that Prince Bandar, the foremost Saudi opponent of the Obama administration position on Syria, was on his way back to Riyadh to reclaim his seat as director Saudi intelligence.