Thursday, January 29, 2009

If Saudi Arabia Has Had Enough...

Yesterday, I wondered if Prince Turki’s warning to the U.S. to clean up its act regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were serious.

In his analysis of Prince Turki’s interview in the Financial Times, John Burgess gave a valuable list of low-key, bilateral steps the Saudis could take to make good on Turki’s warning (I extracted the points and added the numbering below):

  1. The Saudis have already said that they will not use oil as a ‘weapon’, i.e., no repetition of the 1973 boycott. That does not mean that they will continue to offer preferential prices to the US for oil.
  2. Simply by refusing to grant the US military permission to overfly the country, the Kingdom can wreak havoc for US military planners with concerns east of Suez.
  3. It could stop being the piggy bank to which the US government goes to find funding for international aid programs for which there is nothing in the US budget.
  4. It could stop buying Boeing or Sikorsky or General Electric weapons and weapon systems and instead buy from Europe, Russia, or China.
  5. Rather than voting with the US in international fora, it could simply vote ‘present’.

The Saudis also have some multilateral cards that they could play:

  1. The Iranian Card. They could follow up on Turki’s positive depiction of Ahmadinejad’s letter with some substantive move, such as convening a meeting to discuss Palestine and inviting Tehran. This would delight Tehran, which has vigorously been seeking to participate in regional diplomacy as part of its rise in regional prominence.
  2. The Pakistani Card. Long actively involved in Pakistani politics, both as an economic supporter of the government and as one source of religious inspiration for various groups in Pakistani society, not to mention allegedly having close military ties, there are any number of ways in which Saudi influence could promote or undermine U.S. influence in Pakistan.
  3. The Qatar Card. Qatar has been displaying notable diplomatic flexibility in regional affairs over the last couple years, in the face of apparent Saudi displeasure, which the Saudis might take steps to mitigate. The intention of each country to provide aid to Gaza may provide an opening. Minimizing differences with Qatar would imply a Saudi openness to getting very far in front of where Washington has been and would make much more difficult diplomatic calculations by blurring the lines between Israel/Washington/Egypt on one side and Iran/Hezbollah/Syria/Hamas on the other.
  4. The Syrian Card. The Saudis might similarly take steps to improve cool ties with Syria, something that might not be too difficult now that the Lebanese political standoff has cooled off. Indeed, Israel’s attack on Gaza seems already to have launched this process.
  5. The Iraqi Card. Saudi Arabia has considerable room for maneuver with regard to Iraq, as well, in terms of legitimizing the U.S. presence, regulating the flow of salafi influence, and providing or denying state support to Iraqi Sunnis whose tenuous political status in Iraq continues to make that country a potential powerkeg.
  6. The Afghani Card. Saudi Arabia also has contacts in Afghanistan that it can choose to use to influence the willingness of various parties to compromise with the U.S. Simply postponing a decision to take action might impose significant cost on Western forces looking for options.

Israel’s war on Lebanon and now its war on Gaza have both served to shake up Mideast diplomacy. The possibility of Riyadh playing some of the above cards, should it perceive little substantive chance in policy from the Obama Administration, has been raised by these two wars. Washington would do well to keep in mind the large number of cards Riyadh actually holds.

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