Alex Rowell

As Iran talks falter, is Saudi relieved?

Experts suggest Saudi may still seek partial break with US, particularly on Syria

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal speaks next to US Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference in Riyadh earlier this month

When Saudi Arabia declared last month that it would implement a “major shift” in its relations with the United States, in protest at what it perceived as the latter’s unsatisfactory policies in the region, one of the key reasons cited was Washington’s diplomatic overtures to Riyadh’s greatest rival, Iran. Now that a prospective American-Iranian agreement to ease sanctions in exchange for a freeze of uranium enrichment has faltered, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying it could take “weeks” to materialize, it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia’s displeasure will abate somewhat.


Some experts familiar with Riyadh’s thinking told NOW that it likely would not, because enrichment per se was never the monarchy’s chief concern.


“Saudi knows the enrichment issue is being handled adequately by the US and Israel,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “What worries Saudi is that the issues it really cares about, like Iranian intervention in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, will be left hanging. America is interested in the nuclear issue, but is dragging its feet on Syria.”


Similar concerns were voiced by Riyadh’s allies in Lebanon. “For the Saudis, the big issue is Syria. The reluctance of American policymakers to support the Syrian revolution left the Saudis completely disappointed,” said Mustafa Alloush, a former MP with the Saudi-supported Future Movement.


Should a US-Iran deal emerge, however, some believe Saudi may be able to negotiate some compensation. A leading French diplomat at the Quai d’Orsay [foreign ministry] has suggested the Saudis would be offered a “consolation gift” in Lebanon in the event of an agreement, according to Karim Emile Bitar, senior research fellow at the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS). This, in practice, would likely entail concessions in March 14’s favor on the cabinet, and perhaps the coming presidential nomination, Bitar told NOW.


Certainly, during his trip to Riyadh last week, Secretary Kerry said the US sought a cabinet in Lebanon free from “Hezbollah intimidation,” and upon returning from his own trip to the Saudi capital Monday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman took an implicit jab at Hezbollah by stressing the importance of the “Baabda Declaration,” which calls for Lebanon to stay out of the Syrian conflict.


However, Khashoggi dismissed the notion of such a “gift.” “Syria and Lebanon cannot be separated. I don’t see how the Iranians can ‘win’ Syria and the Saudis can ‘win’ Lebanon. It doesn’t work that way,” he told NOW.


Alloush also said the Saudis see gains in Syria as the only meaningful route to gains in Lebanon. “The Saudis know that cutting the rope to Hezbollah through Syria would mean a Hezbollah that is willing to make concessions in Lebanon. Now, Hezbollah is acting like a tyrant in Lebanon, because it feels it got a boost after they realized an attack by the US on the Syrian regime isn’t happening. So the Saudis feel that only more use of force against Syria can weaken Hezbollah.”


To that end, Khashoggi told NOW the most tangible consequences of Saudi’s so-called “major shift” will be felt on the ground in Syria, where Riyadh may team up with European allies to provide more support for rebel forces than Washington has hitherto accepted.


“The biggest shift is to bypass the Americans in Syria, by sending certain weapons to [rebels in] Syria. We’re beginning to get the French more onto our side. The French are helping out, they are becoming friendlier, if that’s the right word, with Saudi Arabia.”


Ultimately, however, some analysts believe the extent of any potential US-Saudi rift is being greatly exaggerated.


“I don’t see this as as major as it’s been made out to be,” said Andrew Hammond, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia. “Remember during the Intifada, [King] Abdullah was allegedly very angry, and went to America and showed them these pictures of Palestinians suffering. It’s kind of a familiar thing in this relationship that is essentially on pretty good terms. These disputes between them are always in the context of two very close allies.”


“The investment that the Americans have put in, on so many levels, which has even got to the extent of them sharing military technology […] it’s a lot. The idea that that kind of relationship could be overturned in a short space of time is basically ridiculous.”


All the same, others suggest a genuine, fundamental realignment of relationships is conceivable.


“It could be – and here I’m speculating – a calculation of US foreign policy that the Saudis are too weak to make really significant changes in Syria, or Iraq, or Lebanon; that Iran is the dominant and effective player; and that US interests are better served by seeking conciliation and collaboration with the Iranians to maintain influence in the region,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University.


“Things may be changing, and they may be changing rapidly.”

Last month, Saudi declared a “major shift” in its relations with the US was underway. (AFP/Jason Reed)

"'It could be – and here I’m speculating – a calculation of US foreign policy that the Saudis are too weak to make really significant changes in Syria, or Iraq, or Lebanon; that Iran is the dominant and effective player.'"

  • Beiruti

    If the Saudis would stop funding the Nusra front in Syria, the US might be willing to do more to help out the FSA. But as it is now, the FSA is pretty much out of business because it has no funds and no weapons. The money and weapons are to the Nusra and so there is a movement in that direct. The US and KSA who are supposed to be allies, for some reason, are at cross purposes with each other. More than likely this is due to the duality that both States practice in their public policy. The Saudi Royals present the world with this aura of moderation, but at the same time must tow the line with their Wahabi clerics. The US, on the other hand, presents the world with the aura of altruistically supporting democratic movements, but at the same time practices real politik in committing resources only where there is the chance to advance or defend strategic United States self interests. So, the Royal family is placating its Wahabi supporters by sending aid to the Nusra front, and the US is not getting involved since we have no urgent US self interest to be served by intervention in the Syrian war.

    November 13, 2013