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Herbert London: Seeing Saudi Arabia Through A Looking Glass

From 2009 to the present, the Obama administration has been committed to the withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East, replaced by the management of regional state players. But this position is entirely ahistoric. From the Romans to the Crusades, from the Mamelukes, to the Ottomans, British and French, the Middle East never ruled itself or managed stability through nation states.

Hence the emergence of Saudi-Iranian hostility and the inability of these nations to reach an accord over Syria is a surprise to Secretary of State Kerry and the president, but to regional states this is merely the continuation of history.

Saudi Arabia at its core, and despite recent claims to the contrary, is a Wahhabist state that abhors Shiism as a perversion of the true Islamic creed. When the JCPOA accord was signed, Saudi leaders believed they were sold out by the U.S. and Europeans, representatives that did not take into account Iranian imperial goals and the problem it causes for Saudi Arabia. As King Salman sees it, the United States cannot protect Saudi interests and cannot even secure its own interest.

As evidence the Saudis cite the violation of the accord through Iran’s advanced missile tests and an Iranian rocket fired close to the USS Harry Truman sailing in the Gulf of Hormuz. In none of these instances did the U.S. issue more than token protest. In fact, Iran was invited to the Vienna peace talks on Syria’s future, despite the incidents.

Saudi leaders now openly contest an American security umbrella, believing that the U.S. has tilted its allegiance to Iran and feeling it is unmoored from any alliance.

Complicating the Saudi position is the Shia minority that has demonstrated forcefully against the House of Saud. The execution of Nimral-Nimr was an effort to challenge the fire breathing rhetoric of Shia leaders and, as important, to demonstrate the hold Wahhabism maintains in the country.

It is not unnoticed that Saudi oil fields are mainly located in the eastern part of the nation, an area populated by minority Shia members. When Iranian leaders talk about ethnic unification, it sets off alarm bells in Riyadh. This sentiment is aggravated by President Obama’s assertion that strategic balance is needed between Sunnis and Shiites. Saudi leaders read this as a pro-Shia statement.

Moreover, Saudi foreign minister Adilal-Jubayr, who is now heading the nation’s diplomatic effort, was the target of an Iranian assassination attempt when he was the ambassador to Washington in 2011. Despite mild protests, this matter was ignored in the run up to the so-called Iran deal. That, too, hasn’t been forgotten by the Saudi leaders.

For leaders on both sides of the Islamic divide, it is clear that the withdrawal of the U.S. from regional influence has consequences unanticipated by American analysts. This is not a free for all, but the Saudis have adopted the mantle of authority for Sunni interests and Iran is the putative authority of Shiites. Although the U.S. has clearly played its once dominant hand maladroitly creating tension where it might have been avoided, it is also clear that there are pathologies in the Middle East that all the diplomacy in the world cannot resolve.

The muscular pro-active Saudi foreign policy is coming into focus based on: the belief the U.S. cannot be counted on; oil interests must be protected at all costs, internal dissention cannot be tolerated and Iran is an eternal enemy whose imperial goals must be stemmed. 

If a U.S. president understands these concerns, a modus vivendi with the Saudis might be achieved. If not, the Saudis will act in a manner that challenges U.S. goals, particularly in Syria. The Saudi voice in Washington at the moment is largely mute, but since events in this tumultuous Middle East region are so dynamic, one cannot be sure about tomorrow’s scenario.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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