Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States

Tareq Y Ismael
22 April 2007

Against the backdrop of America's ongoing "surge" in Iraq, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia convened the nineteenth Arab League summit in Riyadh. The summit, on 28-30 March 2007, coincided with the fourth anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Among the non-Arab attendees present at the Arab League conference were the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and the European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana.

The Arab League summit usually proceeds with little western notice. If this year's was different, the principal reason was the alarm and worry set off among the Washington foreign-policy establishment by the speech of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. It is the intent of this short article to consider the content of this controversial speech, and moreover, the regional policy of the Saudi regime. Do Abdullah's words and his recent diplomatic manoeuvring portend a meaningful shift in Saudi foreign policy?

King Abdullah established the tone of the summit by listing the crises that now engulf the region (for the full text of the speech, see here). Three of his points are of particular interest:

  • the Palestinian plight, which makes it necessary "to put an end to the unjust siege imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so as to enable the peace process to proceed in an atmosphere free from compulsion and repression and in a manner that enables success in realising the desired goal of an independent Palestinian state"
  • the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure by the Israeli military invasion of July-August 2006, and the subsequent political fractures that have developed in the country
  • the Iraqi quagmire, where "blood is spilled between brothers under an illegitimate foreign occupation and [a] despicable sectarianism that threatens civil war".

Tareq Y Ismael is professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and editor of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies. Among his many books are Middle East Politics Today: Government and Civil Society (University Press of Florida, 2001); (co-edited with William W Haddad) Iraq: The Human Cost of History (Pluto Press, 2003); and (with Jacqueline S Ismael), The Iraqi Predicament: People in the Quagmire of Power Politics (Pluto Press, 2004)

Also by Tareq Y Ismael in openDemocracy:

"The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment" (8 December 2006)

"The ghost of Saddam Hussein"
(30 January 2007)

Tareq Y Ismael wishes to acknowledge the invaluable contribution to this article of his postgraduate research assistant Christopher Langille

The Saudis' active diplomacy

The king's comments provoked a stir in diplomatic circles, especially puzzling his Americans patrons. The US under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns, admitted that the administration was "a little surprised to see those remarks and would seek clarification from the Saudis." The state-department spokesman, Sean McCormack, stated: "We want to understand what the thinking is behind it (see Steve Holland, "US rejects Saudi view of Iraq as occupied", Yahoo News, 29 March, 2007). Moreover, Agence France-Press (AFP) reported that Condoleezza Rice had sought an explanation from the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir (see "Saudi King's outburst reflects US Mideast policy failures", AFP, 1 April 2007).

But it was the king's labelling of the American occupation as "illegitimate" that provoked the most protest in Washington. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested at a 29 March press briefing that the "US troops are there at Iraq's invitation, under a UN mandate, and it is not accurate to say that the United States is occupying Iraq." It is curious, if frustrating, that Perino can point to a UN mandate as a validation of US policy, given that the US (in the face of certain diplomatic defeat) had eschewed UN authorisation for the invasion itself. In any case, the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, retorted at a press conference on 2 April: "Any military action conducted against a country's will should be characterised as an occupation".

The Arab summit was followed by a wave of instant commentary from think-tanks, academicians and diplomats, much of which failed to analyse the king's message within the context both of the speech as a whole and of recent Saudi foreign-policy efforts. Indeed, much punditry continues instead to promote other narratives - such as the Arab-Iranian conflict and its associated (Sunni vs Shi'a) sectarian tensions. In this it is missing an important shift.

This can be illustrated by noting those present in Riyadh in the context of the king's current diplomacy in the region, from Syria and Lebanon to Palestine. They included Ban Ki-moon and Javier Solana, as well as a visiting Israeli reporter. The presence of the UN secretary-general had the effect, intended or otherwise, of underlining the message that the Arab League would play a significant, even pre-eminent, role in resolving regional disputes, with Saudi Arabia at its helm. Ban Ki-moon suggested as much in saying: "When I was in Israel I urged my Israeli friends to take a new look at the [Saudi] initiative. Here in Riyadh, I also urge you, my Arab friends, to benefit from this initiative and reiterate your commitment to it because the situation is dangerous. This initiative sends a signal that the Arabs are serious about achieving peace (see Avi Issacharoff, "Arab states unanimously approve Saudi peace initiative", Ha'aretz, 29 March 2007).

The EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana's attendance echoed this point; while the unusual invitation to an Israeli reporter is worth noting as an indication of Saudi Arabia's dedication to conveying the message that the regime was serious about renewing the King Abdullah-led peace plan of 2002.

The Saudi involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been evident in February 2007 in the "Mecca agreement" which led to the formation of a Palestinian unity government between the two main political forces: Hamas (democratically elected in January 2006) and Fatah (supported by the US, Europe and even Israel). The roots of the pact were planted earlier, in careful diplomacy towards Syria and an effort to bring the Syrians out from under the American political shade.

In relation to Lebanon too, the Saudis convened a mini-summit at the fringes of the Arab League gathering, bringing into contact Emile Lahoud (the Christian, and Hizbollah-supporting, president) and Fouad Siniora (the anti-Hizbollah, pro-"14 March camp" prime minister). At the same time, it is not entirely clear whether the Saudis are working towards reconciliation between the competing blocs or are promoting the "14 March" forces and, at the margin, chauvinistic Sunni movements.

A shifting axis

These involvements indicate that, notwithstanding the sectarian games the Saudi regime has been wont to play throughout its history, the sheer magnitude of the chaos in Iraq has given the regime some pause as to the consequences of crass sectarianism. Nowhere is this more evident that in its manoeuvrings via-a-vis Iran. Far from following the US-backed script of a common Sunni Arab front against the Iranian interloper, recent Saudi policy under Abdullah appears to be more pragmatic. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, undertook a number of shuttle trips between Tehran and Moscow, which culminated in a visit by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Saudi Arabia on 3-4 March 2007. The presence of the Iranian foreign minister at the Arab summit was to signal some measure of Saudi-Iranian understanding, in contrast to the alternative script of a Sunni Arab bloc mobilising against Iran.

In assessing the Iraqi imbroglio, so frequently reduced in popular currency to a proxy war between revolutionary Shi'ism and the forces of Sunni traditionalism, Abdullah has condemned the "despicable sectarianism that threatens civil war", and later commented that "the stirring up of sectarian conflicts ... and the superiority of one part of the society over another contradicts Islam (see "King Abdullah Warns of Sectarian Strife", Asharq Alawsat, 15 April 2007). If this appears startling from a regime whose state ideology has long been marked by anti-Shi'ism, it does perhaps mark further evidence that the catastrophic potential of the regional trend has forced a fresh hand.

In relation to Iraq itself, Abdullah's rhetoric and policy combine a slight overture to the Shi'a community (domestic as well as international) with a veiled critique of the Nouri al-Maliki government. Al-Maliki may have distanced himself from the US's wall-building "divide and rule" policy in Baghdad, but this has been the result of popular pressure from below, and his government continues to act with US support as a sectarian battering-ram.

Thus, in each case - Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq - the Saudi regime has developed a policy that deviates to varying degrees from the United States lead. The drive of Abdullah's speech in Riyadh, against the background of these foreign-policy efforts suggests a definite realisation by the regime that the changing regional environment requires a move towards greater independence from the Americans.

"Moderate" (that is, pro-American) Arab regimes have been increasingly discredited by their association with abusive and bankrupt US force. Iran has been a prime beneficiary of this trend. In its regional competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia is attempting to establish itself as a leader of the Arab and Islamic world. Abdullah's bid for regional leadership has dim prospects, since the kingdom lacks the ideological attributes or regional credibility that such a role requires. Yet though Abdullah may not establish himself as a conservative Gamal Abdel Nasser, he may yet achieve the status of the late King Faisal Ibn Saud. If so, he will have played his part in shifting the axis of the relationship between the Arab world and the United States - even if others will be the beneficiary.

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