Washington Can Trust Saudi Mediation – But Only For the Short Term

The Saudi Arabians began hustling and bustling on the diplomatic scene with Iran and the Arab arena in August 2006, when the outcome of the Israel-Hizballah war in Lebanon came fully to light.

It was then that Riyadh advanced the first principles for a Saudi role on behalf of the Bush administration in easing the most sensitive Middle East issues of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

These principles evolved into a Saudi blueprint for diplomatic momentum on Washington’s behalf which was finally accepted by the Bush administration in the last week of February, 2007.

The plan which evolved was built around three goals:

1. Curbing the spread of Iranian influence in the region up to the point of bringing the Islamic Republic into isolation.

2. Neutralizing Syria’s veto power over key regional moves.

3. A fresh initiative for solving the issues threatening regional security and stability, such as the Palestinian question, Iraq and Lebanon.

(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 268 from Sept 1: Saudis on the Move: Isolate Iran, Spike Syria, Revive Pan-Arabism).

After these basic goals were found acceptable by the Bush administration, the Saudis took their master plan forward. Some of its consequences have surfaced in the past month – first in the talks US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice held with Saudi Princes Bandar bin Sultan and Muqrin Abdulaziz in Amman on Feb. 19. More elements are expected to see the light of day at the Baghdad conference of Iraq’s neighbors and the United States on March 10 and again at the Arab summit in Riyadh towards the end of March.


Riyadh‘s proud cachet as regional diplomatic broker


DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts note that Saudi rulers have spent thirty years polishing the cachet of diplomatic broker between the United States and the Arab world. Most Saudi initiatives have been shrouded in secrecy. Frequently, they were motivated by the Saudi aspiration to promote the cause of Sunni Islam.

But their urge to be lead players on the international stage has been offset by Saudi movers and shakers’ lack of stamina and resolve for long-haul missions. Their undeniable effectiveness was therefore often limited by the brevity of their spurts of activity.

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 rudely upstaged their role as go-between for the US and the Arab world.

Saudi rulers again retired from international mediation when they found their hands full of domestic crises prompted by plunging oil prices and the rise of a proactive Islamic opposition. From 1995 onward, their diplomatic hands were tied by the lingering illness of King Fahd.

Saudi Arabia’s record as diplomatic middleman tends to peak when oil revenues are high. Surging oil prices in 1974 led Riyadh to back Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s peace enterprise with Israel. However, at the 1978 Baghdad Arab summit, the radical rejectionist camp, led by Iraq and Syria, threw the peace venture out of court.

Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, combined with the parallel increase in oil production to nearly 10 million barrels a day and the record prices of 1980 again stirred Saudi rulers into a burst of diplomatic activity.

King Fahd launched his regional peace plan in 1981. In informal, unpublicized talks with American officials, he offered to bankroll peace accords between Israel and its neighbors.

That plan was also rejected brusquely at that year’s Arab summit, although it was adopted in amended form by the Fez summit of 1982.

Abdullah’s turn to launch a peace plan in his name had to wait for some years; straight after Fez, oil prices sagged and Fahd’s enthusiasm for championing peace – certainly for putting up funding – cooled.

The Abdullah peace plan finally debuted in 2001.

It was adopted with revisions by the 2002 Beirut Arab summit. For four years, the document gathered dust under the stack of papers churned out by one Arab summit after another; it might have stayed buried were it not for the death of King Fahd in August 2006 and Abdullah’s accession to the throne.


Who will sit on the throne after the octogenarians?


As oil prices soared and the royal coffers overflowed with oil revenues, Abdullah swung into action against the rising threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its contributions to the vicious violence in Iraq, Lebanese instability and Syrian intransigence.

Most disturbing to Riyadh was Tehran’s campaign to export Shiite Islam to Sunni Muslim nations.

The Saudi initiatives described at length in this and the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue may convey the impression of dramatic audacity. In practice, they boil down to handling the Iranian threat by the kingdom’s rulers’ classical methods of dialogue and engagement combined with the effort to close the gap between the Saudi-US partnership and the Arab world at large to produce a broad regional-based bloc for ranging against Iran.

As in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Riyadh’s scramble for a leading diplomatic role is fueled by its oceans of petrodollars. They arm Saudi rulers with the wherewithal for rewarding those who are in tune with its goals.

For example, more than a billion Saudi dollars have been allocated to Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal leaders fighting alongside the Americans against al Qaeda. A similar amount has been awarded the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Siniora to stiffen its back against Hizballah and Lebanon’s pro-Syrian factions.

Just like thirty years ago, now too, the Saudis are investing in a Palestinian-Israeli settlement that will induce the region’s Arab governments to sympathize more with the United States.

America is still the Saudi royal house’s security mainstay and the bulwark for its survival. Nonetheless, Washington must ask itself up to what point Riyadh can be relied on to follow through on its diplomatic initiatives. For now, the Saudi program for opening up the diplomatic track to Iran is proving useful. In the near future, their mediation effort is likely to stay afloat. But its long-term sustainability at the present tempo may be more problematic.

For one thing, there is no guarantee that oil prices will stay as high as they have been in the last two years; and Saudi diplomacy tends to fade away when oil prices sink.

Moreover, the live wires behind Riyadh’s latest international drive are an 84-year old monarch and the 83-year old crown prince Sultan, father of Prince Bandar.

Despite their great age, the succession issue is up in the air and the cause of deep internal contention, so there is no telling if the next Saudis on the throne will persevere in the diplomatic venture Riyadh has launched in conjunction with the Bush administration.

Even the disposition of the foreign minister’s portfolio is uncertain.

Prince Turki al Faisal retired abruptly as ambassador in Washington last year after only 15 months at the post amid rumors that he would take over the foreign ministry from his ailing brother Saud al-Faisal, who has held the job since 1975.

The latest information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Riyadh sources is that the portfolio’s transfer to Turki has been shelved because of disputes in the royal house over the succession to the throne.

All these uncertainties undoubtedly figure large in the Bush administration’s considerations regarding the Saudi initiatives in the region.

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