Saudi Arabia as the Incredible Hulk: King Salman snubs Obama’s Gulf Summit

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

Watching Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia nowadays, is like Kremlin-watching in the old days of the Cold War. It is not as if most Western journalists have a really good idea of the maneuverings inside the Saudi palace or know why exactly things happen.

Since King Salman succeeded the late Abdullah this winter, Saudi Arabia has become a different country with regard to foreign policy. Abdullah was known for being cautious and diplomatic. He appears to have attempted to head off the Iraq War at the Arab League meeting in 2002 by kissing Izzat Duri Saddam Hussain on both cheeks as a sign to Washington that he wasn’t on board with an invasion. Even in the darkest days of tension with Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he invited the quirky Iranian president to Riyadh. He wanted Bashar al-Assad of Syria gone after the latter started massacring that country’s Sunni rebel strongholds, including civilians in rebel zones, but he was uncomfortable with the rise of al-Qaeda-linked groups and Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) in Syria and threw support instead to a southern front of moderates in cooperation with Jordan and to Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam (a component of the Islamic Front).

Since Salman came to power, it is as though Bruce Banner got angry and turned into the Incredible Hulk. Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has been palpably uncomfortable with the campaign against Daesh in Iraq, which has seen Iran-linked Shiite militias take the lead in conquering Sunni Arab centers like Tikrit. Saudi Arabia is afraid of Daesh too, but not nearly as afraid of it as it is of Iran and Iran’s Shiite allies in the region. Riyadh appears to have suddenly been willing to aid the new coalition of rebels in north Syria, the Army of Conquest, even though one of its major members is al-Qaeda in Syria (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra). And then without telling the US it was going to do so until the last minute, the Saudi Air Force began a massive bombing campaign on Yemen in a bid to destroy the rebel Houthi movement of Zaidi Shiites that was taking over that country, Saudi Arabia believes, as a proxy of Iran.

I think we may conclude that something has changed. The hawks have taken over Saudi Arabia and it is newly militarily assertive and the long-standing paranoia about Iran has spun out of control.

Enter President Barack Obama, who wants to do a deal with Iran to allow it to enrich uranium for electricity generation but to forever forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon (which Iran in any case says it does not want and considers a tool of the devil). A nuclear settlement is not a threat in itself, as common sense should make clear, but it would entail an end to the severe sanctions that have somewhat constrained Iran’s economic growth and technological development.

Iran, if it came in from the cold and could freely do commerce and technological exchange with the West, could become the giant of the eastern reaches of the Middle East. Its population is nearly that of Germany, whereas Saudi Arabia’s citizen population is closer to that of Romania. And the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are tiny principalities. The citizen population of Qatar is less than 300,000 and even the United Arab Emirates has a citizen population of only a couple of million – we are talking about Iceland and Slovenia here. Population is important in geopolitics because it determines the size of the army that can be fielded and it also usually has implications for size of gross domestic product. Here, however, Iran has about the same nominal GDP as the United Arab Emirates, because the former’s oil sales and financial transactions have been throttled, whereas the UAE freely sells its petroleum and also rivals Switzerland as a banking and investment center.

That is, Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies believe that we are in a moment like that of the 1860s, when the German principalities were coming together as modern Germany. The first big sign of the new kid on the block was the defeat of Napoleon III’s France at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Since then, Germany has usually been dominant, either as a powerful enemy or as a senior partner in Europe after WW II. Saudi Arabia distinctly does not want to play France to a Bismarckian Iran.

One thing you could do as Lilliputians to constrain the Iranian Gulliver is tie it down with lots of small constraints and alliances. Hence, Obama’s summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman). They want, AP reports, a security deal with the US similar to the special relationship with Israel. Perhaps something less than a formal NATO treaty alliance, but much more than a vague commitment to be supportive and friendly. They want lots of American weapons and trainers and they want an iron clad security shield from Iran.

In the absence of many public statements, I can only speculate. But I think Obama’s priority will be to convince the GCC that:

a) The Iran deal makes them safer, not more exposed, with regard to Iran

b) This Yemen scorched earth aerial bombing campaign cannot solve the Yemen crisis and needs to be replaced with a diplomatic and political negotiation process

c) The new Saudi (and Turkish) willingness to support coalitions in Syria that include al-Qaeda is unacceptable

d) Daesh has to be rolled back and defeated, even if that strengthens the Shiite, Iran-backed government in Baghdad of Haydar al-Abadi of the Islamic Call Party (Da’wa), which is generally fiercely anti-Wahhabi (Wahhabism is the Saudi state church, and it has a history of being fiercely anti-Shiite).

This list appears to have angered King Salman, so that he has canceled his trip to Washington and will send his new crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, instead. Likewise, Bahrain’s king will not attend (his Sunni court has been repressing a political movement of the Shiite majority that he believes is stirred up by Shiite Iran). Other absences, the top leaders of the UAE and Oman, are probably health-related and not, as with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, intended to send a signal of displeasure with Obama’s complaisance toward Iran. In fact, Oman has been a mediator with Iran and its foreign office approves of Obama’s outreach to that country. Dubai in the UAE is also reportedly happy about the Iran rapprochement.

The NYT quotes a UAE professor who maintains that the GCC countries were upset when Obama said that they faced more internal problems than they did from Iran. The GCC states are mostly absolute monarchies, with the exception of Kuwait, and many do face popular discontent, as with Bahrain. Many also have enormous guest worker populations that dwarf the citizen population and who are trapped in sweat shops without rights. Obama is right that they need substantial reforms if they are to avoid potential severe unrest, but maybe it wasn’t the right time to say it.

In short, Obama’s GCC summit will not be the high-powered equivalent of a G7 meeting, where the top leaders hobnob and make personal understandings. It will largely be a summit of crown princes, the people typically sent to the state funeral of lesser world leaders. And that should tell us something about Gulf-US relations right now.


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12 Responses

  1. “In short, Obama’s GCC summit will not be the high-powered equivalent of a G7 meeting, where the top leaders hobnob and make personal understandings. It will largely be a summit of crown princes, the people typically sent to the state funeral of lesser world leaders.”

    I think people are underplaying how important the younger generation have been to recent policy shifts in the Gulf states and recent events in the region like the Yemen crisis. From reading some available accounts, it would seem that the Yemen war is just as much about a power struggle between Abdullah’s son and Salman’s as it is about countering Houthi overreach and Iranian adventurism in the peninsula. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, for Obama to be meeting with the princes who have seemingly taken a larger role in the affairs of the sheikhdoms recently than with their aging rulers. I’m not totally convinced that this is the snub that some media outlets and the usual cast of panicky idiots in the UAE are making out.

  2. Recently read economist Marvin Zonis concerning King Salman and as he says, the situation is fraught with peril:

    1. King Salman is may be suffering from dementia or Altzheimers.
    2. Prince Muhammad bin Salman, his son, is running the Defense Ministry, among other things, without credentials for the position. Moreover he fully controls access to the king and “interprets” the king’s wishes …”It is not clear who is in charge and whose wishes are being communicated.”

    link to

  3. Minor correction: Abdullah kissed Izzat Al-Dori at that summit, not Saddam.

    I agree with PP. MbN is NOT someone whose function is to go to state funerals. Salman has essentially put MbN in charge of the country together with MbS, so it does indeed make sense that that would be who Obama should be talking to.

  4. Oh, that region is a tinderkeg. Absolute monarchies are usually problems; disenfranchised populations are serious problems; the insane gerontocracy of Saudi Arabia is a disaster.

    Attempting to “constrain” the power of Iran with a bunch of underpopulated principalities could only be done with a genuinely superior military, which these autocracies obviously do not have and will never have. They are trying to tie themselves to the US, which loses every war it gets into (so, pretty much the definition of an *inferior* military) — this shows stupidity on top of everything else.

    Dubai and Oman seem to be run by smart merchant princes, as usual; they have managed to come out on top of the economic and political shifts for several hundred years running. The rest of the UAE as well.

    I don’t hold out much hope for the losers running Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be replaced with anyone with the sort of *flexibility* which the Emirates have shown over the centuries.

    As for that tinderkeg, the match is going to be a sustained drop in oil prices. Coming up in the next decade or two.

    • Abu Dhabi is just as paranoid as Riyadh is about Iran. On the whole Gulf military expenditures have been substantial that they’re emboldened enough to start ventures such as Libyan air bombings or the attack on Yemen. Still its peanuts to what the States can offer.

  5. Thinking about it, Saudi Arabia isn’t playing France to a Bismarckian Iran; they’re playing *Austria*. Doomed strategy, utterly doomed, they’re being outfoxed at every level.

  6. I was thinking if you might write on the bill that’s about to be passed in Canada criminalizing criticism of the Israeli government as hate speech

  7. Saudi insiders say that the king didn’t go because those close to him decided against it – because his Alzheimer’s would just become too obvious in such a forum. Funny how it’s been turned into this huge snub…

  8. Ever since Saudi Arabia made the puzzling decision in 1971 to swing its OPEC votes behind making the US $ the official currency of OPEC oil purchases worldwide (replacing the Bretton Woods fixed-currency system that collapsed that year), we have been getting deeper into debt with the Saudis, who have poured their wealth into slowing, but not stopping, the dollar’s decline at their expense.

    This clearly could not go on forever. At some point either they stopped bailing us out and embraced the consequences, or they upped their demands for continuing the bailout.

    I’d say they’re getting pretty demanding now. And we must recall that Richard Clarke claimed in his book “Your Country Failed You” that his department caught the Saudis building a copy of a Chinese nuclear missile base in 1986, presumably with the missiles soon to be in transit from China. They were going to pull a Cuba and spring it on the world as a fait accompli, for whatever purpose.

    This is what multipolarity, and the fall of American hegemony, is going to look like, folks. Saudi investment in the US and the dollar must amount to trillions by now. They could find other things to do with those assets. They could try to behave as Britain did in the old days, using their money to paste together conservative coalitions to attack any rival to their power. But at least Britain had the virtue of being truly cynical, with no permanent alliances. If this becomes an ideological grudge-match of the Saud family against Iran, Shias, democracy, the young, the secular, really all Arabs who aren’t billionaires, then it’s going to be hell.

    And finally, what is Saudi Arabia’s end game with Israel, and vice versa? Are they now embracing the role of co-suzerains of the Middle East as Washington has always desired, or are they waiting for America to leave so they can finally fight each other for the Armageddon championship?

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