Notes From the Margins…

Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones

  • January 05, 2014
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It was always one of the most glaring contradictions of the ‘war on terror’, that the United States declared its ‘war’ on states belonging to an ‘axis of evil’ that had nothing to do with the 9/11attacks, while continuing and even intensifying its strategic relationship with the two states that had most to do with them.

I’m referring of course to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.   In the first case, we are talking about a country whose former intelligence chief sent a $100,000 cheque to Muhammed Atta only weeks before the attacks; whose intelligence services helped spirit away   hundreds of al Qaeda operatives before the American assault on the Tora Bora mountains; and which mysteriously failed to notice that Osama bin Laden was living for years in a house less than a mile away from the main training center for Pakistani officers.

Saudi Arabia supplied the majority of the ‘muscle hijackers’, who were able to enter the United States despite irregularities in their visa applications under the rubric of an old visa waiver program left over from the Afghan war.   Leading members of the Saudi royal family allegedly sent money to two of the 9/11 pilots during their stay in San Diego.     Other leading members of the Saudi establishment were alleged to have sent money to al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked charities.

These connections were considered to be so explosive that the Bush administration refused to publish twenty-eight pages from the joint Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks.   Even when the United States invaded Iraq, many of the foreign jihadists who entered the country to fight US troops came from Saudi Arabia.

Throughout these years, the special relationship between the two countries never wavered – at least in public.   Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations ever expressed any criticism of one of the most reactionary and repressive regimes in the Middle East, even as they extolled the virtues of democracy for any country that happened to be the enemy du jour.

But then the Arab Spring changed everything.   On the surface the special relationship that FDR once cemented on board the USS Quincy in 1945 continued to follow the well-worn trajectory established during the Afghan war against the Soviets and in other areas.

In 2010 the Obama administration revealed that it was planning to sell $60 billion dollars worth of fighter jets and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia in the biggest single arms deal in US history.     US officials insisted that these weapons were intended to ‘bolster Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism capabilities,’ but the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC was probably closer to the truth when it praised the deal as an attempt to ‘ bolster the Saudis at a time when the Iranians are trying to be a hegemonic power for the entire region.’

In December 2011 the first $30 billion of the deal was concluded, in the midst of general turmoil throughout the Middle East.   At that time the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia were all preparing for the prospect of a war with Iran, which was already being bled dry by sanctions, and unable to bring its vast reserves of oil onto the world market – a situation that the Saudis had a particular vested interest in perpetuating into the indefinite future.

Then the Syrian rebellion erupted, and   Saudi Arabia, and its allies in the Gulf and the West immediately leaped at the opportunity to give a key ally of Iran a good kicking, regardless of the consequences for Syria itself.     A peculiar situation unfolded, in which the Saudis threw their weight behind the Syrian rebels who the West portrayed as secular democrats, supplying its   most extremist elements with money, weapons and diplomatic support, as they prodded the United States into taking military action against Assad.

At the same time Saudi Arabia became the leading regional instrument of counter-revolution, sending troops to help suppress pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, supporting Mubarak and then the Egyptian military during last year’s coup that brought down the Muslim Brotherhood.

But as someone once said, in geopolitics there are not permanent allies, only permanent interests.   And as the Arab rebellions unfolded, it became clear that Saudi and American interests were diverging on crucial points.   First the US abandoned Mubarak, and then last year it cut aid to the Egyptian military.     Then the Obama administration suddenly proved itself unwilling to follow through with its ‘red line’ on Syrian chemical weapons and rediscovered diplomacy, if only because its military options were so unpromising and unpredictable.

To top it all, the US finally began a process of negotiation with Iran that may yet collapse, but may also bring about a new strategic partnership in which the Iranians prove to be more useful to American interests than the Saudis.

Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, like Israel was alarmed and outraged by these developments.   After years in which both countries had tried their best to get the world’s only superpower to fight both Syria and Iran on their behalf, suddenly Obama was backing off on both counts, and pursuing the diplomatic path which Moscow had been advocating ever since the Syrian revolt began.

In November last year the Saudis showed their displeasure by refusing to take up their seat on the UN Security Council.     This was followed by signs of closer cooperation – including the possibility of a new commercial military relationship – between Saudi Arabia and France, which is jostling to take the place of the United States.

Saudi displeasure at its marginalization may also have found other outlets.   Last August Prince Bandar bin Sultan met Putin and offered him various incentives in an attempt to persuade Russia to   change its position on Syria.   According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Monitor,.Prince Bandar talked about the need for Russia and Saudi Arabia to act together to prevent ‘terrorism’, and he allegedly issued an implicit threat to Putin, declaring:

‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory”s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us.’

If these reports were accurate, then they raise questions about the Volgograd suicide bombings – questions for which there are unlikely to be definitive answers.   For all its rhetoric about ‘terrorism’,   there is no reason to believe that the House of Saud is any less averse to doing whatever it   feels necessary to undermine the American-Iranian rapprochement, and preserve its existence and its regional power and influence.

If that means the complete destruction of Syria, then the Saudis’ choice of allies and their aversion to any form of negotiation make it clear that they are prepared to accept this possibility.   It it means fomenting a sectarian Sunni-Shia war across the region, then the Saudis’ alliances make it clear that that is no problem either.

The leaked state department documents published by Wikileaks include a secret cable from former US ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill in 2009, which claimed that Saudi Arabia was a greater destabilising influence in Iraq than Iran.   Contrary to the official narrative of the Bush administration, Hill claimed that

 ‘Iraq views relations with Saudi Arabia as among its most challenging given Riyadh’s     money, deeply ingrained anti-Shia attitudes and [Saudi] suspicions that a Shia-led Iraq will inevitably further Iranian regional influence… Iraqi contacts assess that the Saudi goal (and that of most other Sunni Arab states, to varying degrees) is to enhance Sunni influence, dilute Shia dominance and promote the formation of a weak and fractured Iraqi government.’

The unfolding mayhem of the last two years, and the increasing overlap between some Syrian jihadist groups and the al-Qaeda resurgence in Iraq suggests that this agenda remains the same, and not only in Iraq.

In the dying days of 2013, Saudi Arabia announced that it was giving a grant of $3 billion to the Lebanese army.   Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman announced that this ‘generous and appreciated aid’ from the ‘king of the brotherly kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ would be used to buy weapons from France that would be used to ‘fight terrorism.’

This generosity undoubtedly has another purpose.   In an op ed for the Times of Israel Glen Segell, a research fellow at the Institute of Security Studies in Tel Aviv, praised the deal as a ‘commendable signal from the kingdom’ and a potential ‘ blow to Hezbollah”s weapon dominance and status in both Lebanon and Syria’ that would also benefit Israel, since

‘ If Lebanon uses the weapons prudently the security matrix on Israel”s northern border will change. Hezbollah will be weakened or expelled, rocket attacks on Israel”s north from Lebanon will cease, and Southern Syria will potentially be subjugated to Lebanese influence.’

Saudi largesse follows a series of car bomb attacks and assassinations, including last November’s deadly attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut,   which threaten to push Lebanon into a new round of civil war, at a time when the Middle East is tottering on the verge of a war of all against all, that may leave few countries in the region intact and may yet suck in the big powers.

There are many reasons why this is happening, and many different actors who are responsible for it. But the worse things get, the clear it is becoming that Saudi Arabia has absolutely no interest in bringing any of this mayhem to an end, and that like the House of Lannister, its rulers are playing a dark and lethal game of power and survival in which there are increasingly no scruples and no limits in its attempts to eliminate all its rivals.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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