- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
During their unusual Middle East mission, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had dinner with King Abdullah and with the Saudi foreign minister. It looks as if the Saudis are saying they’re considering upgrading their diplomatic mission in Baghdad to an embassy, but it’s still unclear what the dynamics of the U.S-Saudi relationship are. How do you sort out Saudi Arabia’s current role right now vis-a-vis American foreign policy interests?
On Iraq, the Saudis have carried out a change of policy that probably began eight or nine months ago. Up until that time, they were pretty much paralyzed on Iraq. They didn’t know what to do. They were counting on us to settle things down; they didn’t want to play their normal game of backing local parties, which in this case would have been Sunni parties. First, they were worried about the al-Qaeda effect and the blowback into Saudi Arabia. Second, these Sunni groups were killing Americans and that would have put them in conflict with Washington.
But sometime around the turn of the year after the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, there was a decision in Riyadh that the Americans were going to get out of Iraq eventually and they were going to leave behind a government that’s an Iranian client regime. At that point the Saudis basically started to play a more active role in Iraqi politics through contacts with Iraqi politicians and with Iraqi groups. Obviously Sunni groups would be the place they would have the most influence. So they’re playing a little more actively in Iraq and in ways that Washington doesn’t like.
First and foremost, they don’t like the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They think it’s just an Iranian client regime. They’ve been pushing for alternatives. There have been reports the Saudis are funding former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s efforts to put together an alternative coalition. The fact that the major Sunni bloc in the government, the Accordance Front, is threatening to withdraw from the government might have something to do with increased Saudi opposition to the Maliki government. We know that when Maliki made his tour around the region on his way to the Sharm al-Sheikh conference in May, the Saudis refused to receive him. It is clear the Saudis are taking an independent position on Iraq that’s not the same as the American position.
There have been articles in the U.S. press, including one written by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, now to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, saying a number of Middle East countries are not being as cooperative as they could—meaning of course Saudi Arabia. In fact, Prince Saud today lashed out at that article saying that he didn’t know what Khalilzad was talking about. Isn’t there some irony that at the same time the United States is planning to sell Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States about $20 billion dollars of sophisticated hardware, the Saudis are being criticized in the United States? How does the lack of cooperation on Iraq and this big arms sale mesh?
I think that maybe the Khalilzad comments and the leaks from the administration that appeared in the New York Times last week might have been pretty blatant efforts at arm-twisting the Saudis. The theory being, “Look, you need these arms, we want to sell them to you, we have an overarching strategic interest at blocking Iranian influence, but you’re going to have to help us get these things through Congress. You know you’re not very popular in Congress, you know you’re not very popular in American public opinion, so you’re going to have to demonstrate that you’re willing to do more to help us in Iraq if we’re going to get these things through Congress.” There might have been that kind of tactical thinking going on.
But there’s also a recognition in Washington that even though there are these overarching shared interests about blocking Iranian influence in the region, tactically the Saudis and the Americans have some real differences on how to do that. In Riyadh they have this notion that supporting Maliki is inconsistent with curbing Iranian influence because they see the Maliki government as basically a creature and client of Iran. So the people in Saudi Arabia say, “How can we block Iran if we’re going to support a government that’s basically a client of Iran?” They see us as being somewhat inconsistent on this.
There is the other issue that revolves around criticism that the Saudis aren’t doing enough to help in Iraqi security. That is the role of Saudi suicide bombers and other jihadis in Iraq. We don’t know what percentage of the suicide bombers are Saudis or what percentage of the foreign fighters are Saudis but it is considerable. Can the Saudis do more? I don’t think there’s much encouragement officially inSaudi Arabiafor Saudis to go into Iraq and fight. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s just the opposite: The government is not encouraging this. But still, there are plenty of Saudis who are going to Iraq. And the question is, “Can the Saudi government do more to stop them?” That’s an open question.
In the midst of all this, the Saudis did come forth to revive Abdullah’s peace plan, which essentially promises Israel full diplomatic relations with Arab states if it pulls back to the 1949 borders and the usual things about the Arab capital in East Jerusalem and dealing with the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948. Lately, the Israelis are pushing the idea that they want to deal with the Saudis. Are the Israelis just posturing, assuming the Saudis would never sit down with them?
The revival of the Abdullah peace plan is behind the curve of where Israeli-Palestinian negotiations got to in 2000 and 2001 [the so-called Clinton plan] before things blew up. It has a lot to do with the Saudi view of how to contain Iranian influence. They see, and this is true in Jordan and Egypt too, Iran’s ability to exploit the Arab-Israeli issue as one of the major ways Iran can gain political support in the Arab world. Egypt, Jordan, and now Saudi Arabia are all saying “Look, we’ve got to make a final deal with the Israelis and get this thing settled,” and the Iranians are saying, “No, we’ve got to confront them.”
Iran is really the one major state in the region that is basically confrontational and of course supports Hamas, and supports Hezbollah. The Abdullah plan was put forward in light of this notion that we’ve got to do things to reduce Iranian leverage in the region. That was the impetus or at least the strategic impetus behind the Saudi effort in the Mecca Agreement earlier this year to get Hamas and Fatah together in a coalition government which later collapsed. This was something the United States didn’t like, but the Saudis see bringing Hamas back into the Arab fold as a way to reduce Iran’s influence with Hamas and the Palestinians. Washington would like to isolate Hamas if they can get a deal between Fatah and the Israelis and thus try to reduce Iranian influence that way. So Washington and Riyadh have the same overall goal, but the real difference is in tactics.
Do you think the Saudis will show up at Bush’s conference if Bush’s conference ever takes place in the fall, this so-called Middle East Conference?
I don’t know. It will depend enormously on the political circumstances at that time.
The Saudis said they would go if it dealt with the major issues regarding the Palestinians in Israel, refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, and the dismantlement of West Bank settlements. Each one of them is such a touchy issue. The American officials said they were encouraged by the Saudi remarks. What is the Saudi attitude toward Israel these days? At one point, they didn’t even put it on a map. Do they mention the word Israel?
At the elite level, there’s no barrier to talking about Israel and there’s even no barrier to talking to Israel. They’ve certainly been doing it unofficially. Prince Bandar, the former ambassador to Washington, has reportedly had meetings with leading Israeli officials including perhaps Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They have publicly endorsed, since this Abdullah peace plan, the notion that all the Arab states, including them, will recognize Israel if the right deal comes around. It’s not that there’s any kind of phobia at the elite level. That’s gone away, but in terms of public opinion, without a doubt, there’s no support in Saudi public opinion for dealing with Israel. It’s not like Palestinian public opinion where there is a core of support for a two-state deal because enough Palestinians realize that there are benefits to that.
But if the Israelis and Palestinians announced a deal, Saudi public opinion would think that’s wonderful, wouldn’t they?
I would think there would be more criticism of the fact that it doesn’t go far enough. There may be some Saudis who would be willing to say, “If it’s good enough for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah why should we oppose it?” But there would be a lot of Saudis, particularly on the religious side, who would say, “No, no dealings with these guys.”
Even though Abdullah himself has a peace plan out there for a two state solution?
The government would go along, but that doesn’t mean that the public opinion would go along. But of course, this is not a government which cares about its public opinion but which is not driven by public opinion.