During the past fortnight, Saudi Arabia raised the bar by several notches in its rhetoric to express fury over US regional policies in the Middle East, especially over Syria and Iran. The rhetoric reached a high pitch last week with two key figures in the Saudi regime alternatively lampooning and threatening the Obama administration.
Is this strategic defiance of the US by the Saudi regime sustainable or will turn out to be mere bravado or even a defensive strategy to cover up dark fears? There is every reason to anticipate that it is the expression of an anger with many faces. There is a hint of an American warning appearing on the horizon to the House of Saud that discretion is the better part of valor and the latter is in no position to threaten the White House. The Saudi regime couldn’t have missed this subtle message but how it assimilates it will bear watch.
The Saudi rhetoric against the Obama administration during the past fortnight was indeed startling for its unprecedented tone of defiance and saber rattling.
Not only was such a thing impossible during the George W. Bush presidency (because the president’s family for three generations had kept close ties with the House of Saud), but such rhetoric has never been the Saudi style. Riyadh always preferred to operate in the subsoil away from prying eyes when it came to the all-important relations with Washington.
On the face of it, the two things that have infuriated the Saudi regime have been President Obama’s apparent resolve to push forward US engagement with Iran, and, secondly, Washington’s unmistakable disengagement from the ‘regime change’ project in Syria. Obama is now openly speaking about the prospect of a final US-Iranian deal over the nuclear issue and authoritative American opinion-makers and officials are increasingly voicing the opinion, including at the recent meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ at London, that it could be in the interests of Syria’s stability and the struggle against al-Qaeda – as well as of regional security on the whole – that President Bashar Al-Assad continues to play a leadership role and be a participant in the presidential election that is scheduled to be held next year.
Most certainly, gone are the days when Washington spoke of “all options” being on the table on Iran or of the bottom line in Syria being Bashar’s exit from power. This has sunk in well in Riyadh as well as the realization that the Saudi lobby’s robust campaigning in Washington and even the implicit threat that Saudi Arabia would cozy up to other big powers as counterweight to the US have failed to impress the Obama administration. Put differently, Saudis are coming up against an altogether new experience, namely, that they no longer wield a veto power over the conduct of the US’ Middle Eastern policies that are henceforth to be riveted on the pursuit of American geo-strategic interests as part of Washington’s global strategies. For a regime that placed full faith on the power of money to command and dictate and to navigate the way through the corridors of power in Washington, this is a paradigm shift. And it is not going down well in Riyadh.
This was evident from the highly vitriolic attack on the Obama administration by a leading Saudi prince, Turki-al-Faisal (who is the brother of the incumbent foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and himself a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington) at a recent security conference in Monaco, which was attended by senior European and Arab politicians and business leaders, as well as in his interview with the Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the conference.
Turki virtually accused the Obama administration of perfidy by working behind Riyadh’s back aimed at bringing about the rapprochement with Tehran and alleging that Washington is responsible for “criminal negligence” of the violence in Syria which has claimed 130000 lives. Turki said, “What was surprising was that the talks that were going forward [between Washington and Tehran] were kept from us [Riyadh]. How can you build trust when you keep secrets from what are supposed to be your closest allies?”
Obviously, the Saudis are livid that the Obama administration not only did not notify Riyadh about the secret talks with Iran until this fall (“when things became substantive”), but it also rubbed salt into the wounded Saudi vanity by initiating these contacts last March in Oman right under the Saudi nose. To be sure, the interim accord with Iran on the nuclear issue that was worked out in Geneva last month has rattled the Saudis and Turki voiced concern that it did not go far enough to ensure Tehran won’t develop nuclear bombs. At the back of it all, of course, is the existential angst that the US-Iranian détente would incrementally erode the status of Saudi Arabia as the preeminent ally of Washington in the Middle East.
Equally, the stark differences over Syria have isolated Saudi Arabia internationally and in the region. Two days after Turki spoke, the assault against the Obama administration was carried forward by the Saudi ambassador to the UK and a member of the House of Saud, Mohammed bin Nawaf Abdulaziz al Saud, who in an article in the New York Times last Tuesday virtually threatened that the US policies in both Iran and Syria are a “dangerous gamble” and Saudi Arabia “cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by.” He alleged that the US policies risk the stability of the Middle East and the security of the Arab world. “This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs… Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region… We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners. Nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab world.”
Most important, the article was fairly explicit that the Saudi support for the extremist Islamist Front in Syria will not only continue but will also be strengthened. “Saudi Arabia will continue on this track for as long as proves necessary,” Mohammed bin Nawaf wrote.
However, the big question is how far will the Saudi regime be willing take the hazardous journey on “this track” of strategic defiance of the US?
For an answer to such a question, we may have to go well beyond Syria and Iran questions and travel in a time machine all the way back to September 2001. Inexplicably, the Obama administration has permitted for the first time two Congressmen – Walter B. Jones (Republican) and Stephen Lynch (Democrat) – to access the 28 redacted pages of the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry [JICI] report on the 9/11 attack, which were long believed by the victims’ loved ones, injured survivors, and the public at large to hold some answers about the Saudi connection to the attack. After all, fifteen out of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attack were Saudi nationals and there have been sporadic reports that some of them were linked to the Saudi royals and might even have received financial support from the Saudi government as well as from several mysterious moneyed men from Saudi Arabia living in San Diego at that time.
This was how Congressman Jones reacted after reading the highly classified 28 pages of the JICI report: “I was absolutely shocked by what I read. What was so surprising was that those men whom we thought we could trust really disappointed me. I cannot go into it any more than that. I had to sign an oath that what I read had to remain confidential. But the information I read disappointed me greatly.”
To cut a long story short, in early December Jones and Lynch introduced a resolution that urges President Barack Obama to declassify the 28 pages (which his predecessor had ordered to be classified on the grounds that releasing the pages would “violate national security.”
A cat-and-mouse game seems to have begun involving the White House, Capitol Hill and the domestic public opinion – and the US judiciary – and the House of Saud.
For long, there has been speculation that the 28 pages of the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry [JICI] report of 2002 portray that the Saudi government had at the very least an indirect role in supporting the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack.
In fact, former Senator Bob Graham, who chaired the JICI is himself on record that he is convinced that “the Saudi government without question was supporting the hijackers who lived in San Diego.” Now, all this is no longer a matter of intellectual curiosity or the stuff of idle gossip on the part of the US Congressmen and the American public and the media – and, perhaps, even the judiciary…
By a strange coincidence, last week the US Appeals Court upheld the right of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to pursue their suit filed in 2003 to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on grounds that it provided significant support to the al-Qaeda in advance of the terrorist attack. Essentially, the ruling is to the effect that placing Saudi Arabia as a defendant in the suit is necessary.
Indeed, lawyers in the 9/11 lawsuit have often cited the JICI report to claim Saudi Arabia was the primary source of the al-Qaeda funding, but the counter-argument by the lawyers representing the House of Saud has been that the available JICI report showed no evidence of either the Saudi government or Saudi officials individually having funded al-Qaeda.
This is exactly where the move in the US Congress to declassify the entire JICI report assumes special significance. Is it a matter of strategic timing on the part of the Congress (and the Administration) or is it a mere case of coincidence that the White House made available the 28 pages of the JICI report for the perusal of two Congressmen on a strictly confidential basis at this point when the Appeals Court was all set to pass judgment on the possible culpability of the Saudi government in the 9/11 attacks?
Conversely, what happens indeed if in the light of these developments, the plaintiffs who want to sue the Saudi government insist on invoking the full JICI report as evidence? We are entering a dark labyrinth.
In the final analysis, however, the ball, as Americans would say, lies in Obama’s court. It is entirely up to the Obama administration to respond to the congressional resolution urging the JICI’s declassification if it is passed in the House and the Senate.
Herein lies the rub. It is a well-known fact that unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office – George Herbert Walker Bush, William Jefferson Clinton and George Walker Bush – Barack Hussein Obama is not a “hands-on” president when it comes to US-Saudi relations. Here is a president, who, as New York Times wrote a couple of months ago in the context of Syria, “rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings… (whose) body language was telling; he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his Blackberry or slouching and chewing gum.”
Indeed, that may be an uncharitable partisan criticism by the Times’ opinionated columnist, because Obama certainly does comprehend the gravity of the crisis but then, he also factors in the limits to the US’ capacity to influence the emergent Middle Eastern hotspots. Besides, as the former US ambassador to NATO and the Director of Middle East Affairs in the US National Security Council during the Jimmy Carter administration Robert Hunter wrote recently, the US has some specific interests to pursue in the current Middle Eastern situation, and, therefore, “US strategy regarding partners and allies in the Persian Gulf needs to move beyond the fixation with military instruments and focus more on redeveloping US engagement and commitment in non-military terms.”
Meanwhile, coming back to the JICI report, public pressure is building from the 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, an activist group comprising the attack victims, and neither the White House nor the Congressmen can be impervious to an emotive issue such as this, which has left an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche. The media reports show how ecstatic the families of the victims of the 9/11 attack already feel about the Appeals Court verdict. The father of a 25-year old young man who was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center told the ABC News, “Christmas has come early to the 9/11 families. We’re going to have our day in court.”
To be sure, the lawsuit, if it succeeds, could mean the Saudi government and members of the royal family serving on charities that financed al-Qaeda operations paying compensation to the tune of tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. Once the legal juggernaut starts moving, which is shortly, it is anybody’s guess where it could end up.
What makes the whole matter highly explosive is that the Saudi ambassador to the US at the time of the 9/11 attack was none other than Bandar bin Sultan, presently Riyadh’s spy chief. Furthermore, Bandar is also alleged to have personally prevailed upon Bush Jr. to grant special permission by the White House (at a time when all air traffic was grounded all over the US) to whisk out of the US post-haste in a chartered plane from Kentucky a group of 144 persons, including several members of the bin Laden family, so that they wouldn’t be prescreened, interviewed or in any manner debriefed on the 9/11 attack. After the flight, FBI officials have been cited as ruing that these people who were whisked out of the US by Bandar (thanks to Bush’s personal intervention) were “people of interest.”
Indeed, the curious part is that Bandar today also happens to be the key person charioting the Saudi project to overthrow the legitimate government of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Put differently, Bandar, who may be called to witness in the US trial court in the 9/11 lawsuit, is the very same Bandar who on the operational side threatens to torpedo the best laid plans of the Obama administration to find a political settlement to the Syrian question at the Geneva 2 conference.
Interestingly, to digress for a moment, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings (which Obama handpicked recently as the forum from where to make some major policy remarks on the US’ engagement with Iran) just brought out an exhaustive study authored by a Middle East expert Elizabeth Dickinson titled “PLAYING WITH FIRE: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home.” The analysis paper focuses on how Kuwait has “emerged as a financing and organizational hub for charities and individuals supporting Syria’s myriad rebel groups.” It assesses that “Gulf donors have contributed to the ideological and strategic alignment of today’s rebel groups [in Syria], in which extremists have the military upper-hand.”
What emerges – and, perhaps, what Bandar needs to take note seriously – is that Washington is closely monitoring the support for extremist jihadi groups operating in Syria by the Gulf Arab petrodollar states and their so-called “charities.” The paper says, “The US Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing.”
At this point, into the simmering cauldron, we may add yet another potent ingredient – namely, the internal power struggle within the Saudi regime, with Bandar becoming the target of rare criticism in the Saudi press.
The well-connected Saudi writer and journalist Jamal Kashoggi wrote in the establishment daily Al Hayat recently in a thinly veiled attack on Bandar, “It would be a mistake to defy the power of history with the illusion that the powerful can forge deals and plan the future away from the peoples whose divisions and lack of experience with democracy enabled local, regional and international forces to abuse them. Yet, these peoples continue to be in a state of liquidity and rage. They know what they want but they are confused about how to achieve it. What is certain is that they will not wait for a knight mounted on a white horse to lead them toward a new shining dawn. The one-man era is over.”
Kashoggi couldn’t have written like this except with the reasonable certainty that what he wrote needed to be written.
Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.