It has not been a good few months for Saudi Arabia. As the U.S. and Iranian negotiators were secretly meeting in Oman over the summer, the Kingdom had been arguing unsuccessfully for the Obama administration to intercede militarily in Syria to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.
It has long been argued that the United States hsould take military action in Iran against its nuclear program. The fact that the United States has chosen diplomacy instead of military confrontation with Tehran and Damascus has dealt a blow to Saudi Arabia’s regional agenda.
Oddly, while its U.N. mission was pushing for a seat at the Security Council, a seat which it had secured, Riyadh at the last minute rejected the seat (the first time ever a U.N. member state has rejected an appointment to the Security Council) adding insult to injury at a recent meeting of its GCC member states, countries that have always been deferential to Saudi’s role as the senior partner of the Gulf monarchies, Oman rejected the Kingdom’s initiative to form a closer federation.
Saudi Arabia's problems are not all of their own making. Riyadh could potentially be the biggest looser as Iran and the United States slowly inch closer to a framework to not only settle their differences on Iran’s nuclear program but also to eventually normalize their relationship.
Riyadh’s could always rest easy while Tehran and Washington weren’t sitting across the table talking to each other. The Kingdom’s interest in maintaining the status quo against Iran is grounded in its belief that if Iran were ever to be integrated politically and economically in the international community it would undermine its role as the partner of choice for the United States in the Persian Gulf.
Unlike Israel, Saudi Arabia has no domestic constituency in United States sympathetic to its interests. Thus, it has long held its oil production and deep pockets as leverage over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
While in the past this has proven to be effective, at this moment in time the Kingdom has lost its luster. The U.S. is moving quickly toward energy independence and while it will not abandon long held security commitments to the Gulf Arab monarchies it will also not view each regional threat the same way as they do.
The Kingdom wants the United States to go to war in Syria and remove Assad from power while at the same time isolating Iran. The Saudi position is untenable. There is no popular or political appetite in the United States to fight any more wars in the Middle East or to get involved in sectarian violence in other countries.
It is also inconceivable for the United States to not look for ways to directly talk to Iran and manage its differences bilaterally — the Kingdom’s protestation notwithstanding.
Saudi Arabia cannot project power beyond its borders and relies on supporting radical Sunni groups to fight for its interests in Syria and Iraq as it did in Afghanistan decades ago.
However, the Kingdom must be careful, eventually once those radical groups stop fighting in other countries they eventually turn their zeal against the house of Saud. This is what Al-Qaeda did after the Soviet Union had pulled out of Afghanistan.
The Saudis will dangle lucrative contracts to European countries like France who are desperate to exploit the budding American/Iranian rapprochement for economic gain.
However, at the end of the day there is no country on earth that is able to safeguard the Arab monarchies like the United States. The Saudis can make headlines about changing horses, but Washington’s protective umbrella will always be more appealing to it than that of Paris or London not to mention Moscow or Beijing.
Riyadh’s options are limited; it should seek to play the part of constructive ally to the United States and welcome a nuclear deal with Iran that alleviates its security concerns. If not for a final deal that limits Iran’s enrichment capabilities, Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure would only expand and Saudi Arabia would feel more insecure.
Saudi Arabia should also take advantage of the change in tone coming from the new government in Tehran which is seeking better relations with its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. The U.A.E. and Oman have welcomed Iranian overtures and not dismissed it as a “charm offensive.”
Saudi Arabia should look for ways to diffuse the sectarian violence that has gripped Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen, not exacerbate them. That can only happen if Riyadh and Tehran reach an understanding with each other about their respective roles in the region.
The tectonic plates are shifting in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a regional power with a unique position in both the Arab and Islamic world. It should not continue to “box itself in” to failed policy that only undermine its own interests.
Amir Handjani is an energy lawyer and Mideast expert living and working in the U.A.E. and New York. He is a senior adviser to Karv Communications, a strategic communications firm with a focus on corporate communications, crisis management, and public affairs. He may be followed at www.twitter.com/ahandjani
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