Russia is the likely winner as U.S. and Saudi Arabia relations chill

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was given a miraculous ‘second life’ through US policy (photo:dpa)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was given a miraculous ‘second life’ through US policy (photo:dpa)

United States moves to build bridges with Iran after a 35-year break could have huge ramifications for global stability and the Middle East. Long-standing allies such as Saudi Arabia are appalled and Russia’s standing economically, politically and strategically could improve as it emerges as an influential global player with more new friends in the Middle East.

A major alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US is on the verge of being disrupted due to opposite approaches relative to the events in Egypt, Syria and Iran.

Saudi Arabia has, for the first time, openly expressed its profound disagreement with US foreign policy on Middle Eastern issues. The Saudis even showed some anger during official meetings and rejected a UN seat at the Security Council. Russia is observing this discord with interest and seizing the opportunity to fully enter the Middle East region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are turning towards Russia for arms supply. The momentum is in favour of Russia which will use it politically, economically and strategically.

SAUDI Arabia has been a staunch ally to the United States for more than 50 years. There were only clouds, light rain or rare sleet between the two countries, but no major storms. Recent activities, however, are endangering this alliance and the consequences could be highly detrimental.

The relationship was ‘mono-directional’ for a long time, with the US defining world policy, and the Saudis adapting and following most of the time, so what happened recently runs a great risk of being passed over.

In comparison, even in early 1979, when the Shah of Iran - a strong US ally and a member of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) - was perceived by the Saudis as being ‘abandoned’ by the US in favour of the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Saudis did not react violently, although they wondered if the same could happen to them one day.

But this time three unacceptable events have taken place, triggering incomprehension as well as anger

But this time three unacceptable events have taken place, triggering incomprehension as well as anger.

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 and preparing his own son Gamal for his legacy, was nevertheless a loyal and useful ally to the US in the Middle East region.

Financial aid

The Saudis saw this as a repetition of letting down the Shah of Iran some 35 years earlier. Unfortunately, the story did not end there. 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 General al-Sissi and stood against the Muslim Brotherhood in their attempt to return President Morsi to power.

The second event is a result of America’s unclear policy relative to the Syrian regime. Most European countries took a clear position against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the civil war in March 2011, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a weak stand against him.

The Saudis also interpreted Turkey’s U-turn from strong opposition to the Syrian regime and its president to moderate opposition was the result of US pressure.

Major decision

The climax occurred when the US backed away from launching a military attack on Syria and supported instead a Russian proposal for dismantling the 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 being defeated. In private, the Saudis talk about President Assad gaining a ‘licence to kill’.

The Saudi response was to withdraw their collaboration with the US in the training of Syrian resistance fighters in Jordan and to reject the proposed seat at the United Nations Security Council - an unprecedented move which has no equivalent in UN history.

The third event, and probably the most serious and incomprehensible, is America’s new ‘love affair’ with Iran. The Saudis are highly irritated, as well as concerned, by the secret talks with Iran and about which they had no exact information.

Russian weapons

To the Saudis, the greatest danger in their own country comes from the eastern part where most of the oil wells are located. Thirty per cent of the region’s population comprises Muslim Shiites whose loyalty is first and foremost to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s long-standing enemy.

If Iran perceives a green light from its new US friend, it could ignite a spark in that region which could lead to a cataclysm.

The Saudis are highly irritated, as well as concerned, by the secret talks with Iran and about which they have no exact information

During his visit to Cairo in October 2013, Russian Deputy chief of staff and head of GRU military intelligence, Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Kondrashov, was approached with a request to supply Egypt with SS-25 ballistic missiles. It is, apparently, the Saudis who encouraged Egypt’s General al-Sissi to bid for Russian armaments and move away from its traditional US ally.

The powerful Prince Bandar bin Sultan had already visited Moscow in July to discuss the supply of arms with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Building such a new relationship would be a blow to US policy, similar to that of 1956 when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970) turned to the Soviet Union for the construction of the Aswan dam.

From a strategic point of view, the SS-25 missiles have a range of 3,2,00 km (2,000 miles) and are capable of reaching Iran.

Regional stability

US Secretary of State John Kerry went to Cairo at the same time. He was received by Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s foreign minister, who had said US-Egyptian relations were in ‘turmoil’ only a couple of days earlier. He warned that the strain could affect the entire Middle East.

Mr Kerry underlined, in his meeting with General al-Sissi, interim president Adly Mahmud Mansour and minister Fahmy, the need for a democratic transition in Egypt before the US would consider restoring its suspended financial aid. He added that the US considers Egypt as an important friend and bulwark of regional stability, especially due to its peace treaty with Israel.

The next day, Mr Kerry travelled to Saudi Arabia where the anger of the Saudis was visible, which is quite unusual.

Mr Kerry showed substantial differences from the Saudis on all three issues - Egypt, Syria and Iran.

Mr Kerry said on Iran,’The Obama administration, would not succumb to fear tactics and forces’ which criticise Washington’s approach - a clear message that the US intended to pursue its opening policy with Iran.

Unclear policy

President Putin, in an unusual move, called the King of Saudi Arabia on November 10. 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.

New allies

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. The immediate consequence would be a possible rapprochement between the US and Iran.

Some signs are already appearing in speeches where the language and tone have changed significantly with the US no longer labelled by Iran and Hezbollah as the ‘Great Satan’ but only as ‘America’.

Could America’s long-time enemy become its new ally and who benefits? If the aim is to bring more security to the region, then Iran will claim its role of regional power which extends to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Charm offensive

No one can see Iran - at least in the mid-term - dropping its desire to become a regional power. Iran is intervening in Syria with its Revolutionary Guards and with some 12,000 men from Hezbollah. It would be unthinkable for Iran to withdraw from Syria or to drop support for Hezbollah.

This clearly means that the political and diplomatic charm offensive conducted by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will bear fruit.

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

On the other hand, Russia has excellent relations with Iran and has built and provided most of the centrifuges for its nuclear activities. Arab observers say that in this particular instance it was the White House which aligned itself with the Kremlin and, consequently, Russia can add this example as another triumph in world affairs.

Russia seems to be winning across the whole region from Egypt to Iran and is likely to move fast to seize this momentum.

Its involvement will no doubt come with economic and political gains, but possibly with strategic muscle through a surprising turnaround by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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