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Saudi Arabia: U.S. Ties At Odds With Expanding Regional Role?

(RFE/RL) August 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Senior U.S. officials have recently criticized Saudi Arabia's role in Iraq, which they see as supporting the Sunni insurgency.

While Washington wants the Saudis to support Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fledgling Iraqi government, Riyadh views that Shi'ite-led administration as a conduit for the expansion of Iranian influence in the region.

Despite the U.S.-Saudi disagreements over Iraq, Riyadh is still likely to receive state-of-the-art U.S. weaponry to bolster its role as a lynchpin in U.S. efforts to contain Iran in the Persian Gulf region.

Lukewarm Support

For years, Saudi Arabia has refused to establish a diplomatic presence in neighboring Iraq. But on August 1, during a high-profile visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Saudis announced they will send a mission to Baghdad to look into the prospects of opening an embassy there.

This symbolic step didn't meet the expectations of many critics who have urged the kingdom to do more to restore stability to Iraq.

In a July 29 interview, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad criticized Saudi Arabia for not helping enough in Iraq. American officials estimate that Saudis constitute about half of all foreign fighters in Iraq and that a majority of the suicide bombers in Iraq are also from Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi authorities have publicly aired their intentions to support Iraq's Sunnis in the case of a U.S. troop withdrawal, private Saudi funding constitutes a major financial source for the insurgency in Iraq.

U.S. Dependence On Saudi Stability

With Iran stepping up its efforts to acquire nuclear technology -- including some processes and materiel that can be used in making nuclear weapons -- and rapidly expanding its regional influence on a belligerent course with the West, Washington sees Saudi Arabia as the key regional power to confront growing Iranian influence in the region.

For decades, oil has been the cornerstone of U.S.-Saudi relations. As the world's largest crude oil producer, Saudi Arabia is the second-largest oil supplier to the United States. This makes Saudi stability a key U.S. energy-security concern.

Hady Amr, the director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar and an expert on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, says that regional politics in the oil-rich Gulf region are as complicated as a chess game.

He maintains that the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001, attacks -- particularly the Iraq war -- were not well thought out and resulted in unintended consequences, such as Iran becoming a regional power after the end of hostile regimes in Iran and Afghanistan. In this context, the Saudi-U.S. relationship has many shades.

"Every relationship is complex and nuanced and has multiple facets. While the United States is working to ensure the flow of oil from the Gulf region, looking to contain what it views as Iranian threats and expansion, the United States also wants to see change in the region [and] countries to open up in more democratic ways," Amr says.

"On the one hand you have frustration with the [Saudi] political system and maybe what is going on in Iraq and, on the other hand, a positive relationship on oil [and] on the business front," he adds. "It is not a black-and-white situation."

International Wahabbi Front

As the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi royal family -- the House of Saud -- sees itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. It has spent a considerable part of its oil wealth bankrolling Muslim causes worldwide.

Such efforts also center on promoting its ultraconservative official Wahabbi faith. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia matched U.S. assistance to anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedin guerrillas and private donations from Saudis are believed to comprise the bulk of financial support for Islamist militancy worldwide.

Following the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Saudis eyed the rise of Shi'ite Islam with growing concern. Both became the opposing poles of the Islamist split and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry fueled a larger Sunni-Shi'ite divide in the Muslim world.

Steve Clemons, senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New American Foundation in Washington, told Radio Free Afghanistan that although there is little concrete evidence of official Saudi support for the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, it views the rise of Shi'ite power in the region with great concern and has done little to stem the flow of private Saudi support to Iraq.

"The Saudis have been telling America for a long time that if we didn't do anything to stop the ethnic-cleansing strategies of the Shi'ites that the Saudi Arabians, the Syrians, the Jordanians, and others who have a family relationship with the Sunnis inside Iraq will move to help them," Clemons says.

"There is a lot of Saudi NGO activity actually supporting and funding these beleaguered Sunnis," he continues. "The Saudi government has made it very, very clear to the Americans that abandoning Iraq or leaving in a circumstance in which essentially an Iranian puppet government that does not have solid protection and guarantees for the Sunnis inside Iraq will lead to a real regional mess and we are on the edge of that."

Not Just Sunni Vs. Shi'a

But some analysts maintain that looking at the Persian Gulf region's complicated politics in sectarian terms might be an oversimplification. Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert with the Washington-based Brooking Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says that the biggest mistake within U.S. policy in the region is to look at everything through a sectarian prism.

"Its always been a matter of strategic interests and [state] position[ing] in the Gulf," Saab says. "Whoever holds a hegemonic position in the Persian Gulf, who has access to the energy resources, has better defense capabilities. I do not see it as a Sunni-Shi'ite divide."

Saab adds that even a cursory look at the regional alliances will back his assertion -- arguing that regional alliances even outrank the Persian-Arab divide.

"Syria is an Arab country and Syria is closely allied with the Iranians. Bahrain does not see Iran -- in the same way as Saudi Arabia does -- as a threat," Saab says. "So the divide has more to do more with the national interest. Egypt, because of its relationship with the United States, also sees Iran as a potential threat but this is again the balance of power in the region. This has little to do with sectarian politics and more with interest against state interest and the state's position in the region."

Saudi Security Concerns

With global oil prices soaring, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to settle for a lesser role in shaping the region's future. Despite internal squabbling among its some 5,000 princes, the Saudi monarchy is stable under the leadership of octogenarian King Abdallah.

Steve Clemons, at New American Foundation, believes that Saudi Arabia might be looking at a future without a Western security umbrella.

"It's very clear that Saudi Arabia is positioning itself and its regional Sunni allies as a counterforce to Iran and is doing so without much regard for the United States or Europe, both of which [it] assumes and looks at as incredibly weak at the moment," Clemons says.

However, Amr in Doha maintains that the Saudi kingdom is likely to continue a collaborative partnership with the United States for regional peace and stability.

"Although the Saudi-U.S. relationship [may] have bumps in it, I don't think either country can achieve its objectives in the region without each other. I think that's becoming more and more apparent," he says.

"Saudi Arabia is going to play an increasingly important role in the region and the United States will not be able to achieve its objectives whether in Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, or Iraq without effective partnership with Saudi Arabia," Amr continues. "Saudi Arabia wants a thriving, stable Arab world and it can't do that without America. America wants a safe and secure Middle East that provides a flow of oil and gradually democratizes. America [wont be able to do that] without Saudi Arabia."

(Abubakar Siddique is a correspondent from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan based in Prague.)

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. ​