Tuesday,19 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Tuesday,19 December, 2017
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Salman — heads stateside

The visit of Saudi King Salman to Washington this week was an opportunity to gauge the state of a bilateral strategic relationship decades long and a lynchpin of regional geopolitics, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

United States President Barack Obama has secured enough congressional support for his Iran deal, much to the consternation of Saudi Arabia. The deal topped the agenda during talks between Obama and the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines, King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz in Washington this week. Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab nations the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have long been suspicious of the implications of a nuclear deal between the US and Iran. 

Over the course of his official trip to the US, King Salman personified the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia. He has to prove to the world that his kingdom can keep an open mind. This paradox is at the heart of contemporary Saudi Arabia, and his trip to Washington attempted to resolve the question of whether his kingdom the richest in the region is progressive or regressive. These, after all, are domestic issues that did not crop up during conversations between King Salman and President Obama.

Rearward the kingdom is not; indeed, it is forward-looking. King Salman proceeds from the premise that what his kingdom is about is its own specifics of culture, and his hosts in Washington appear to have understood his message.

The defining feature of this calculated approach to cultivating American sympathy for his cause seems to have been an effort to convey to his American hosts an understanding of Saudi political priorities. It is refreshing to read a Saudi narrative that is independent of Washington’s dictates. 

Punishingly profitable for both nations, the relation between the kingdom and the US has lasted for several decades and the Saudis now feel betrayed in spite of American assurances that the US will provide Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies with more military assistance, and help GCC states create a missile defence system. 

The Saudis understand that they are in the midst of something extraordinary a narrative that is also ominous. Oil prices are plummeting. The world around them is fast changing. Saudi women are demanding more vociferously than ever their rights, and Saudi troops are needed as never before in countries as far afield as Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Iraq. In short, a change of gear has become a prerequisite in the beleaguered kingdom.

More or less synonymous with conspicuous consumption, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab member of the G20 an international forum for the governments and central banks of the major economies. Saudi Arabia voiced concern over Russian and Iranian military moves in Syria. And the Americans share Saudi aversion towards Iran’s growing prowess in the kingdom’s immediate neighbourhood. Iran now virtually controls four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and now Sanaa. US officials claim that they do not yet know what Iran’s intentions are, but the fear in both Washington and Riyadh is that growing Iranian influence and political clout will inevitably sideline Saudi Arabia. Evidence on the ground in Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Yemen suggests a growing Iranian presence that augurs ill for Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has never lost the knack for making things happen in the Middle East. This would be to misunderstand the nature of the tasks assigned to the kingdom that houses the holiest places of worship in Islam. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by venerated King Abdul-Aziz Bin Saud. He united four regions Hijaz, where the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina are located; Najd, his ancestral homeland; Asir in the southwest; and the Shia Muslim oil-producing restive eastern region of Al-Ahsaa into a single state. Asir borders chaotic Yemen. The Shia Muslims of Al-Ahsaa, bordering recalcitrant Bahrain, also with a Shia Muslim majority, and facing Shia Muslim Iran on the opposite side of the Arabian (or Persian, to the Iranians) Gulf.

Perennial and pertinent questions are asked in the only country on earth named after the ruling Royal family. Saudi Arabia has the fourth highest military expenditure in the world, spending more than 10 per cent of its GDP in the kingdom’s military. And the US is one of Saudi Arabia’s chief suppliers of weapons, even though the kingdom is now attempting to diversify its arms sources. In 2013, Saudi military spending soared to $67 billion, overtaking that of Britain, France and Japan. Inside the kingdom and overseas there are many who question the motives behind such a huge military and defence budget. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2010-2014.

Indeed, the kingdom has metamorphosed into the region’s policeman. In 2011, the Bahraini “Arab Spring” threatened to topple the Bahraini Al-Khalifa monarchy, an unacceptable scenario as far as the Saudis are concerned. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are run by Sunni Muslim monarchies and both countries have a significant Shia population, even though in Saudi Arabia the Shia is a minority while in Bahrain the Shia is the majority of the population. Saudi forces quelled the uprising. Today, the Saudis are embroiled militarily in Yemen, again in a bid to protect the status quo, and in particular to thwart the Shia Muslim Houthi militias.

Meanwhile, US and international human rights organisations condemn the Saudi criminal justice system and its severe punishments, supposedly based on the strict Hanbali School of Sunni Islam, among other criticisms of Saudi domestic policies. Wahhabism is the state ideology, and the kingdom’s foreign policy is based on “exporting” Wahhabism, considered by many Muslims as a draconian interpretation of Islam. 

Still, the Saudis are adept at playing the game of using the kingdom’s influence to further Saudi interests. Between the mid-1970s and 2002, Saudi Arabia expended over $70 billion in “overseas development aid”. Much of the aid is used to further the cause of Wahhabism. As expected, this particular issue did not feature in King Salman’s deliberations with Obama.

Saudi Arabia, the only serious and credible challenger to Iran’s hegemony in the Middle East, acts and sounds like a political force still exhausted after the fall in oil prices. King Salman’s visit to Washington highlights its susceptibility to the current political and military crisis in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia still needs the US as an ally. Yet, the kingdom cannot be seen as a lackey of Washington.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani recently voiced his readiness to talk with both Saudi Arabia and the US about the fate of Syria and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. “Iran will sit at any table with regional countries (Saudi Arabia in particular) and world powers (the US) if the outcome will be a safer, stable and democratic future for Syria.”

Rouhani stressed that Iran would adhere to “international, Islamic and humane” norms, even though Saudi Arabia’s views on what constitutes “Islamic” norms is diametrically opposed to that of Iran. 

Politically contentious, the differences in political perspective between the US and Saudi Arabia are more susceptible to definition that their political similarities.

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