US – Saudi Arabia: Towards an appeasement

One of the positive effects of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faysal’s last declaration to CNN é much expected by the observers- was to appease many people in the West while reassuring others in the Arab and Islamic world. But maybe the most immediate effect would be to put an end to the intense polemic that has poisoned the relations between the US and Saudi Arabia in the last months, and most of all to re-conquer a field that was almost void or to use another image to retake it from the people who used to play on the contradictions between Riyadh and Washington.

They were already seeing the USA turning bitterly its back to the old friend and partner. They were even prophesising the end of the “happy days” between the two countries. They were thus betting on the triumph of the radicalism and the extremism in both countries, for who else would rejoice with such an upheaval if not bin Laden and his counterparts in the USA?  Far-rightist militants of the supremacist groups and radical Fundamentalist organisations are not as divergent in their ways and goals as people lean to think.

 A State’s policy cannot be changed in 24 hours; Saudi Arabia thus remains faithful to its tradition: “If the United Nations takes a decision, by the Security Council, to implement a policy of the UN,é said the prince, ” every country that has signed the UN Charter has to fulfill it.”

 This is a matter of pure logic. It is also a matter of political clear-sightedness. Saudi Arabia, like any other state member of the international community, has some obligations to fulfill, as regards its role as Arab and Islamic leader. That’s the reason that lay behind its cautious positions, sometimes ill interpreted. We do not need to remind anybody of the polemic that has stemmed from the situation created by the Sept.11’s tragic events, to which é unfortunately é some Saudi citizens took part. Of course, Saudi Arabia and the USA are different countries, but so is the case of all the other members of the U.N. Why should there be necessary conflicting relations between them? History is there to remind us, if need be, that over the 56 years since King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud established the modern Saudi-American relationship in a meeting onboard a ship on the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal in 1945, there have never been any important crisis threatening to blow up the relationship. Yet, it was neither the controversies that were lacking nor the subjects of confrontation.

As we all know, the Israeli-palestinian conflict has been a sensitive subject in Saudi-US relations since Roosevelt’s first contacts with King Abdelaziz. Then the crisis of 1973 provoked a Saudi-led oil embargo. After Ariel Sharon was elected Israel’s prime minister in February 2001, Riyadh pressed Washington repeatedly to restrain him and bring him back to the negotiating table.

The frustrations felt by the Palestinians have never left the Saudis indifferent. They put on them even more moral pressures than any other Arab state, for a very simple reason: that there is only one country in the Arab and Islamic world that has been endowed with: religious leadership, wealth, and good relations with the Western powers. This weight makes of Saudi Arabia the natural speaker for all the Arab states. If the Arabs have to choose only one state as an interlocutor with the West, which state may exert more influence?

Of course, there are several Arab states that have good relations with the West, but none of them is the guardian of the holy places of Islam (whence the moral influence), and none has the wealth of the Saudis (whence the material influence).

The realities of this world being what they are, the Westerners é USA at their head- have always chosen to pass through Saudi Arabia their message for peace in the Middle East. All the important initiatives of peace traveled in the Saudi diplomatic bags. This is moreover the very reason that made Riyadh the object of continual critics by some press in the Arab world. The gravest accusation consisted in identifying the message with the messenger. Otherwise, if an initiative for peace came from é say- an American origin, and if there is some resistance against it in the Arab world, in 99% of the cases, Saudi Arabia would be held responsible for propagating it, either through its media or even through God knows what secret channels! In this context, we should recall that when the late Egyptian president M. Anwar Sadat signed his peace accords with Israel, two Arab states were said to have secretly participated to the deal é or rather encouraged it é although both of them were among the states that imposed an embargo on Egypt. I mean: Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

But when some time afterwards, Sadat was being assassinated by Islambouli, it was said that those “illuminated radicals” of the fundamentalism have been nurtured by Saudi oil-dollars!

Now if we compare the two accusations, we will find a lot of nonsense and very little é if at all é truths. For if Saudi Arabia encouraged Sadat, why then boycott and even assassinate him? And if Saudi oil-dollars nourished the Egyptian radicalism, then how come that those same radicalists turned their guns against the Saudis themselves ?

Anyway, this is rather a matter of historic records. Today, whereas Egypt has passed the cape of about a quarter of a century of peace settlement with Israel, nobody cares anymore about whether Camp David was good or worthless. What for? Anyway, the Palestinians who were the first to criticize Sadat were also the first to accept a deal that is perhaps still less than what Sadat agreed on in the annex about Gaza and Palestinian self-rule.

So, although Saudi Arabia has begun to tune perfectly with its role of peace mediator, the message has not always been well understood. If the Arabs criticized sometimes the form of the message, the Westerners objected often to its contents. Here and there in both sides, people went wondering: what is exactly the purpose of Riyadh? As if in politics é and especially in diplomacy é we can  still afford to play to the sorcerer’s apprentice, displaying ” publicly accepted” cards and hiding others.

Indeed, that was possible some years ago, when the media and the communications’ channels were not as extremely sensitive, efficient, and rapid as they are nowadays. But would you pretend that you could hide a political fact a long time today? Nonetheless, when people want to take their wishes for realities, what can we do?

Thus, betting on the September 11’s upheaval, people began outbidding in a field made out of fear and misery. All of a sudden, they discovered that “actually” there are tremendous differences between “us and them”! So, how did “we” manage to live all these years? ” Don’t ask, don’t tell”, says an old adage, or “starting from today, you’re from Uruguay”, says another.

Then, from that already ambiguous background darkened by the thick smokes of September 11, emerged the Iraqi affair, that éby the way é has never been completely forgotten, at least on the American agenda.

Saudi Arabia and the United States maintain a close defense relationship, although they do not have a formal defense pact. Without the assistance of Saudi Arabia, the USA would have found it much difficult to oust Saddam from Kuwait in 1991. It is understood that the Iraqi policies have been catastrophic in the region, that the Baathist regime of Baghdad is the one to be accounted for all the evil that struck its country. Who else has jumped from a war to another but Saddam? Who else has caused such havoc and destruction in one é if not several- of the wealthiest Arab countries but Saddam? Who doesn’t know that in Iraq or outside it? Yet, the position of Saudi Arabia after the Gulf war remained faithful to its diplomatic traditions: commitment to the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions, and non-intervention in the Iraqi internal affairs.

It was that second aspect of the Saudi diplomacy that has been ill interpreted in the USA and over-exploited abusively by other parties. We recall that in the wake of Sept 11, there were some obnoxious reactions against Arabs, Muslims, and particularly against Saudis in the USA. It was easy then to inflate the Saudi position concerning the Iraqi internal affairs to excessive proportions in order to distort it, to remove it from its real context, and to show it as if it were an offensive and hostile reaction against the US government.

Naturally, this is not to imply that the Saudis were satisfied with all the American foreign policy. The Crown Prince himself had had the occasion of expressing the Saudi point of view on this subject to the American media. But the point is that what was initially a traditional principle of the foreign policy in the Arab world, has been mistaken for a “moody” reaction.

There is no state that can carry out a credible regional or international policy with “moody” reactions. If it is true for the United States, with its countless think tanks and multiple centers for strategic studies, it is also true for other nations, particularly those that had been charged by history, geography, and other factors of important responsibilities inside their region and on the international level.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.