Russia is the likely winner as US and Saudi Arabia relations chill
SAUDI Arabia has been a staunch ally to the United States for more than 50 years but that relationship is threatened by three unacceptable events which have triggered incomprehension as well as anger in Saudi Arabia.
The first happened almost three years ago with the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations in Egypt in January 2011.
The Saudis could not understand - nor accept - the fact that the US broke away from Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak who, despite being an autocratic ruler, was a loyal and useful ally to the US in the Middle East region.
The Saudis saw this as a repetition of the US letting down the Shah of Iran some 35 years earlier.
When Egypt’s army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi seized power and arrested President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the US stood firm with President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The US then froze its US$1.2 billion in financial aid to Egypt.
Days later, the Saudis sent US$12 billion to General al-Sissi - ten times what the US had withheld. They gave their full support to the general and stood against the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to return President Morsi to power.
The second event is a result of America’s unclear policy towards the Syrian regime. Most European countries took a clear stand against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the civil war in March 2011. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a weak position against him.
The Saudis also interpreted Turkey’s U-turn from strong opposition to the Syrian regime to moderate line as the result of US pressure.
The climax occurred when the America backed away from launching a military attack on Syria and instead supported a Russian proposal for dismantling chemical weapons through United Nations observers.
The Saudis described this as a major decision which gave President Assad a miraculous ‘second life’ as he was on the brink of defeat. In private, the Saudis talk about President Assad gaining a ‘licence to kill’.
The Saudis responded by withdrawing collaboration with the US in training Syrian resistance fighters in Jordan and rejecting the proposed seat at the UN Security Council - an unprecedented move.
The third and probably the most serious and incomprehensible event is America’s new ‘love affair’ with Iran. The Saudis are highly irritated, as well as concerned, by the secret talks with Iran over nuclear weapons.
The Saudis greatest danger in their own country is in the east where most of its oil wells are located. Thirty per cent of the region’s population are Muslim Shiites whose loyalty is to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s long-standing enemy.
If Iran perceives a green light from its new US friend, it could ignite a spark which could lead to a cataclysm.
The Russians were approached by the Egyptians in October 2013 to supply SS-25 ballistic missiles a range of 3,2,00 km (2,000 miles) and capable of reaching Iran.
It is, apparently, the Saudis who encouraged Egypt to bid for Russian armaments rather than from its traditional arms supplier the US.
The powerful Prince Bandar bin Sultan had previously discussed arms supplies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Building such a new relationship would be a blow to US policy.
The Saudis in particular, and the Arabs in general, have three views when talking about Russia.
First, despite the fact that the Russians are seen protecting the Syrian regime with total support through thick and thin, this is paradoxically seen as a loyalty value which is rarely reflected in US policy.
Second, the Russians do not mind supporting authoritarian regimes which suits the Arabs.
Third, the Russian culture is seen as closer to that of the Middle East, and is consequently more understanding. Although the Arabs are close to the US, they have often whispered critically about US policy being unclear, unintelligible and failing most of the time in the Middle Eastern region.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow on November 20 to lobby against the Iran deal. Israel has the same views as the Saudis on Egypt, Syria and Iran.
Russia would like a return to the Middle East. Today it only has one window - Syria - but it could easily open several doors.
Mr Putin is aiming to create an anti-American front to recover Russia’s international stature. We may witness several deals and agreements in the very near future between Russia and Egypt, sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
Moscow is likely to seize the opportunity to demonstrate it is the new strong player in the region.