US-Saudi differences over Iran widen emerging gulf between longtime allies

Saudi King Abdullah (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) in Riyadh on June 3, 2009. (File photo)

Saudi King Abdullah (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) in Riyadh on June 3, 2009. (File photo)
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, already frayed by US support for the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, are being further strained by differences over the degree to which Iran may be instigating the turmoil.

US officials and a report by Chatham House, a prestigious British think tank, warn that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to maintain the regional status quo, refusal to recognize that the protests are fundamentally sparked by widespread political and economic discontent and insistence that Iran is at the root of all evil could provoke sectarian tension across the Middle East and Asia.
The fears are further fuelled by Saudi efforts, disclosed by The Wall Street Journal, to rally Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran. Saudi officials have approached Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central Asian states to lend diplomatic support and possibly military assistance to help stifle a majority Shiite revolt in Sunni-led Bahrain.

The crackdown on the protests in Bahrain and the introduction of troops of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to help the kingdom secure its critical national infrastructure have made Bahrain the flashpoint of Saudi and Gulf allegations that Iran is stoking the pot.

Bahrain invited the GCC troops to help it defend itself against alleged Iranian interference. Iran has denied the charge, but has vocally defended the rights of protesters and demanded the withdrawal of the GCC troops from the Gulf island-nation.

Malaysia said earlier this month that it was willing to send troops to Bahrain. Bahrain welcomed the offer but said it needed diplomatic rather than military support.

A Bahrain-based Pakistani battalion has been on the island since before the protests. Pakistani and Bahraini officials say it did not participate in the crackdown. In addition, many Pakistani nationals serve in the Bahraini police force.

The United States unsuccessfully pressed Saudi Arabia not to intervene in Bahrain. President Barack Obama last week criticized the crackdown on protesters and called on the Bahraini king to release detained protesters, arguing that he could not negotiate reforms with people who were being held in prison.

US officials fear that Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Asian nations could complicate its efforts to ensure that Pakistan works with the United States in the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and militant Islamist groups within Pakistan itself. Some US officials suggest that Saudi Arabia’s focus on Iran as the region’s external enemy constitutes a bid to divert attention from the protests on the streets of Arab cities and towns.

To be sure, US officials as well as the Chatham House report. ‘The Middle East: The Persian Illusion,” acknowledge that Iran has been meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states. But they differ with Saudi Arabia, which has emerged as the key power promoting maintenance of the status quo, over how important the Iranian meddling is in fuelling the protests across the region.

The differences lay bare the widening gulf between the kingdom and the United States, whose past alliance involving secure oil supplies in exchange for US security guarantees constituted a cornerstone of US foreign policy.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are certain to maintain their basic understandings and arrangements but mounting policy differences between them mean that the kingdom is no longer willing to put all its eggs in the American basket.

Saudi Arabia is nonetheless looking to purchase $60 billion worth of arms from the United States in the largest such deal in US history. The US meanwhile shields Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states against Iran by air and by sea through a string of military bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally and protector stem from the 2003 toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that boosted Iranian and Shiite influence in the region, US inability to force Israel to moderate its conditions for peace with the Palestinians and US support for popular revolts against authoritarian regimes. These doubts have prompted the kingdom to embark on a more independent foreign policy that frequently is at odds with US goals.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, a former ambassador to the United States who heads the kingdom’s Nation Security Council, made as much clear in a recent solicitation of Pakistani support. Prince Bandar, according to the Journal, warned Pakistani military officials that the US could not be counted on to restore stability in the Middle East or protect Pakistan's interests in South Asia.

The prince’s remarks came at a time that US-Pakistani relations are strained over a US commando operation on Pakistani soil in which Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed. Saudi officials deny that the prince badmouthed the US.

US officials as well as the Chatham House report warn that the Bahraini crackdown and the Saudi effort to forge an alliance of Middle Eastern and Asian states against Iran could drive the Shiite majority on the island as well as Shiite communities elsewhere in the region into the hands of Iran.

“What is more likely to render aggrieved Shia groups receptive to Iranian meddling: peaceful dialogue and meaningful reform, or bitter sectarian accusations and crushing violence?” the Chatham House report asks.

Answering its own question, the report concludes that “the Saudi-led effort to vilify essentially moderate demonstrators will, in the long-term, radicalize these groups, harden confessional fault-lines, and thereby produce the very Iranian backlash on which these policies are conditioned.”

There is little public evidence of US and European efforts to manage the widening gulf with Saudi Arabia in perceptions of the roots of the turmoil racking the Middle East and North Africa and the way to ensure that it does not get out of hand. To be sure, Mr. Obama was careful not to mention Saudi Arabia in his recent broad-ranging Middle East policy speech in which he placed the United States squarely behind Arab protesters demanding reform.

That, however, may not be enough to prevent further divergence. Ensuring that the mounting differences with Saudi Arabia are carefully managed poses the greatest challenge to US policy in the region.

For the Obama administration, this means walking a tightrope. It has to balance its support for popular revolts with assurances that it remains committed to defending Saudi and Gulf security. In essence, Mr. Obama is trying to have cheesecake and eat it at the same time. If the Saudi efforts to enlist Asian support are any indication that is proving to be mission impossible.


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