The US Secretary of State John Kerry, in his recent visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, praised the Kingdom as ‘senior player’ in the Middle Eastern Affairs. The visit was aimed at performing cosmetic surgery with a diplomatic knife to mend the bruised relationship between the United States and the Kingdom. Kerry’s trip to Riyadh was the first by a top administration official since Saudi Arabia abruptly renounced a seat on the U.N. Security Council last month, in what it said was a protest against international inaction on the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
Middle East is a land of misty politics. The complex interplay of competing interests of regional powers for geopolitical influence, ideological domination, preservation of regimes, and of international powers for energy, influence, and hegemony welcome one to a land of miasma and what Karl Ernest Meyer has rightly termed as the ‘Tournament of Shadows’. While apparently mutual understanding does exist between regional and extra-regional players, interests often collide and result in disharmony, mistrust, and suspicious behavior. The best example which can be quoted here with content is that of United States and Saudi Arabia.
Last month, in a rare move, Saudi Arabia rejected UNSC seat by showing its discontent over the double standards of international system and its inability to manage the regional and global instabilities. The move was praised and well-received in the Muslim World, where Saudi Arabia enjoys clear spiritual, ideological, and political supremacy. However, in the Western World, the gesture caused much displeasure and distress. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman said to the best of his knowledge, no country had ever been elected onto the Security Council and then not taken up the seat. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in its statement expressed deep dissatisfaction over the decision, saying that “with its decision, Saudi Arabia has removed itself from the collective work of the U.N. Security Council to support international peace and security”. France, another permanent member of UNSC, showed some distress but also asserted that “we think that Saudi Arabia would have brought a very positive contribution to the Security Council, but we also understand the frustration of Saudi Arabia”. The US however, did not comment on the Saudi move but praised the ‘vital work’ of the Council.
Though Saudi Arabia directed its displeasure on UNSC, however, many in the west and east are of the view that the gesture was meant to caution America over its inaction in managing Middle Eastern affairs. American dubious and ambiguous foreign policy in the Middle East, especially under the Obama Administration has resulted in the calcification of concerns within the ranks of American allies in the region. The interim and shortsighted policies of the US in managing the recent political instability in the Arab world have especially made apprehensive her long-term allies in the region.
Historically, from the end of WWII to 9/11, both the Kingdom and USA have been enjoyed friendly and close relations, due to common interests in Arab world. After 9/11, relations between both states have gradually become strained due to increasing mistrust and suspicions on both sides. Despite having a successful counter-terrorism program in the Kingdom and immense collaboration with the US in combating global terrorism, the US Congress and media’s allegations over the Saudi hand in harboring and financing terrorist organizations brought down the level of trust which both sides had enjoyed for over six decades. On the other side, US policies in the Middle East, which directly or indirectly impinge upon the Saudi interests, have caused much displeasure and increased distrust in the Kingdom.
The story of this downward spiral starts from the Kingdom’s displeasure on the US rationale for invading Iraq. US policy was especially seen as hypocritical in its emphasis on enforcement of UN resolutions vis-à-vis Iraq, but not those relevant to Israel. Moreover, US policy towards the leadership change in Egypt, political instability in Yemen and Bahrain, collapse of Al-Hariri’s government in Lebanon and mass civilian causalities in the Syrian crisis and a nuclear Iran are not in line with Kingdom’s position, hence causing mistrust and suspicions.
Many international commentators attributed the Saudi move to show dissatisfaction over the US decision not to support the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011; Washington’s backtrack from its position, which it took earlier to attack government targets in Syria, and recent rapprochement between US and Iran over the nuclear issue. KSA wants the US to place sanctions on Iran and compel it to refrain from developing nuclear weapon capability. The USA however, is paying no heed to Saudi Arabia’s concerns. The temperatures rose on the Saudi side came to boiling point and made the Saudi government review their relations with the USA.
The political uprising in the Middle East, which started in December 2010 from Tunisia and swelled out into Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, has affected almost all the countries in the region directly or indirectly. The turmoil and violence that followed the political unrest has swallowed hundreds and thousands of lives. There are two narratives to define and understand this situation. The western narrative, which termed this uprising as the ‘Arab Spring’; and the non-western narrative, which labeled it as ‘political instability’; both narratives stand contradictory to each other. This is where difference lies.
United States has been responding to the unfolding instabilities in the Middle East through the lens of her geopolitical interests, which is why its approach varies from state to state. The Saudi position in this regard has been consistent from day one when it all started out; bringing back the stability and avoiding mass civilian causalities. In a recent interview,
Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud, former Chief of Intelligence and brother of the Foreign Minister, said that “Syria is an issue, where American policy has been wrong.” Today the real concern in the Kingdom is to not only stop the mass civilian atrocities in Syria, but also preventing this conflict from expanding into the Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
If this happens, the whole Middle East will sink into instability and huge human catastrophe. There is a realization in US power corridors that Saudi Arabia, being the ‘great player’ in Middle East, can play a vital role in the bringing back peace and stability in the region. Both Saudi Arabia as a great regional player and the US as great extra-regional player should work together for a better outcome.