Saudi refusal of the rotating Security Council seat has been seen for what it partly is: a tantrum. But it is also a clue to a coming political reality: West Asian politics may well be reverting to normality.
The frenetic pace at which events moved in the Bush years after 9/11 when the United States could ride two horses, Israel and Saudi Arabia at the same time, on the gallop, is only possible on an extensive “straight”. This was the delusionary part of the neo-cons thinking. They thought the US would be on the “straight” forever, having defeated the Soviet Union. But now there is a bend in the race track.
As we know, other powers have arisen. The threesome, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US, must perforce pause and take stock. What have been the gains? Is the triangular alliance coming apart?
Marxists have a fine system of analysis. As long as Israel and Saudi Arabia serve Imperialism’s basic interests in the region, their influence in Washington cannot be discounted. But if this “basic” interest, that of being economically and strategically indispensible to Imperialism is not being served, special relationships or powerful lobbies in the US will not be able to keep these together. Riyadh and Tel Aviv must ponder. Are they useful or a drag on US’s “core interests”?
The trio was focused on one vision of West Asia. But the opening to Iran now being followed up by the British re-opening their embassy in Teheran next week has rendered unfeasible that vision. Israel and Saudi Arabia had set their heart on “getting” Iran. That game stands suspended. Why should an enemy’s enemy now be a friend?
The alliance had gummed up a fundamental regional contradiction. How can, the Saudis in their original incarnation as leaders of the Arab world, be in an alliance with Israel which has occupied Palestinian Arab lands and will not budge.
One implication of the apparent Saudi estrangement with the US is that Riyadh will now pull out its peace plan of 2002 and resume its role as an Arab player. This brings into focus such of the Kingdom’s Foreign policy thinkers as Prince Turki Al Faisal, former Intelligence Chief and Ambassador to the US. Note the tone of the article he wrote in the New York Times over a year ago. “The special relationship between the two countries would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.” So, focus shifts to Palestine.
The Saudis dissipated their energies promoting Shia-Sunni strife on an unspeakable scale simply to keep an external focus, away from internal threats. The US too was dragged into this mess. But the Saudis could not keep their eye off tussles within. They began to see Muslim Brotherhood ogres in all the GCC countries and when Mohammad Morsi began to consolidate the Brotherhood in Egypt, they rushed and supported the Army coup, embarrassing Obama whose photographs were posted in Egypt as a supporter of Morsi. Indeed, photographs of the US ambassador Anne Patterson also came up as a Brotherhood “stooge”. That she was replaced is a sign of which side the US backed.
In any case Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s head was constantly popping up as the Egyptian army’s supporter. The Saudis came barging in with their billions and billions to keep the armed forces buoyant. Such a mess.
Then Prince Bandar bin Sultan flew into Moscow. His conversation with Vladimir Putin is a study in how diplomacy should not be conducted. Give us Syria, said Bandar, and take the world. It was like the Biblical yarn about the Devil tempting Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. “Get thee behind me, Satan”, said Christ, refusing the blandishments. When Bandar offered all the guarantees for a “terror free” Sochi Winter Olympic games next year, Putin said “we know you control terrorists”.
This amazing conversation was supposed to be under wraps but one of two sides leaked it to the Russian press.
Bandar’s other startling undertaking was that whatever he offered the Russians had American backing.
This was the trump card, Bandar handed Putin at the global Casino’s high table.
US, Saudis and Israelis together overpowering everything else in the region is no longer the name of the game. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, the Levant will have to seek their salvation together slowly, step by step with other countries of the region. Saudis may not have wanted to be on the UN high perch because in the new emerging regional system, they have to manage changes secretly which has been their classical style. The new style that Bandar tried to introduce may suit him but it cannot be the style of a cumbersome monarchy, weakened by age, where competing factions must be given voice, until the order changes. King Abdullah will be 90 in a few months.
The Saudi system, indeed, the Umma was convulsed by the siege of Mecca in 1979 led by Juhayman bin Sief al Uteybi, a few months after the Iranian revolution. The elders of the monarchy focused on the external Shia threat to manage the internal upheaval. And now, the external target is receding. Refocusing is required. Who knows, the US and the Saudi may pore over a compromise formula that had been worked out in Bahrain, much the most emotive issue in Najaf and Qom. Meanwhile, no one is throwing in the towel, not yet. Israel and Saudi Arabia will beat their breast and stamp their feet to test if Obama has really been able to shuffle out of the establishment strait jacket, custom made for George W. Bush and with which the President has been grappling like a trapped man in a Marcel Marceau skit.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)