Arab monarchies become Israel’s unspoken allies
The unprecedented Saudi refusal to take up its Security Council seat is not just about Syria but a response to the Iranian threat
By Robert Fisk, The Independent
October 23, 2013
The Muslim world’s historic – and deeply tragic – chasm between Sunni and Shia Islam is having worldwide repercussions. Syria’s civil war, America’s craven alliance with the Sunni Gulf autocracies, and Sunni (as well as Israeli) suspicions of Shia Iran are affecting even the work of the United Nations.
Saudi Arabia’s petulant refusal last week to take its place among non-voting members of the Security Council, an unprecedented step by any UN member, was intended to express the dictatorial monarchy’s displeasure with Washington’s refusal to bomb Syria after the use of chemical weapons in Damascus – but it also represented Saudi fears that Barack Obama might respond to Iranian overtures for better relations with the West.
The Saudi head of intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan – a true buddy of President George W Bush during his 22 years as ambassador in Washington – has now rattled his tin drum to warn the Americans that Saudi Arabia will make a “major shift” in its relations with the US, not just because of its failure to attack Syria but for its inability to produce a fair Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
What this “major shift” might be – save for the usual Saudi hot air about its independence from US foreign policy – was a secret that the prince kept to himself.
Israel, of course, never loses an opportunity to publicise – quite accurately – how closely many of its Middle East policies now coincide with those of the wealthy potentates of the Arab Gulf.
Hatred of the Shia/Alawite Syrian regime, an unquenchable suspicion of Shia Iran’s nuclear plans and a general fear of Shia expansion is turning the unelected Sunni Arab monarchies into proxy allies of the Israeli state they have often sworn to destroy. Hardly, one imagines, the kind of notion that Prince Bandar wishes to publicise.
Furthermore, America’s latest contribution to Middle East “peace” could be the sale of $10.8bn worth of missiles and arms to Sunni Saudi Arabia and the equally Sunni United Arab Emirates, including GBU-39 bombs – the weapons cutely called “bunker-busters” – which they could use against Shia Iran. Israel, of course, possesses the very same armaments.
Whether the hapless Mr Kerry – whose risible promise of an “unbelievably small” attack on Syria made him the laughing stock of the Middle East – understands the degree to which he is committing his country to the Sunni side in Islam’s oldest conflict is the subject of much debate in the Arab world. His response to the Saudi refusal to take its place in the UN Security Council has been almost as weird.
After lunch on Monday at the Paris home of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, Kerry – via his usual anonymous officials – said that he valued the autocracy’s leadership in the region, shared Riyadh’s desire to de-nuclearise Iran and to bring an end to the Syrian war. But Kerry’s insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime must abandon power means that a Sunni government would take over Syria; and his wish to disarm Shia Iran – however notional its nuclear threat may be – would ensure that Sunni military power would dominate the Middle East from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean.
Few realise that Yemen constitutes another of the Saudi-Iranian battlegrounds in the region.
Saudi enthusiasm for Salafist groups in Yemen – including the Islah party, which is allegedly funded by Qatar, though it denies receiving any external support – is one reason why the post-Saleh regime in Sanaa has been supporting the Zaidi Shia Houthi “rebels” whose home provinces of Sa’adah, al Jawf and Hajja border Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are – according to the Sunni Saudis – supported by Iran.
The minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain – supported by the Saudis and of course by the compliant governments of the US, Britain, et al – is likewise accusing Shia Iran of colluding with the island’s majority Shias. Oddly, Prince Bandar, in his comments, claimed that Barack Obama had failed to support Saudi policy in Bahrain – which involved sending its own troops into the island to help repress Shia demonstrators in 2011 – when in fact America’s silence over the regime’s paramilitary violence was the nearest Washington could go in offering its backing to the Sunni minority and his Royal Highness the King of Bahrain.
All in all, then, a mighty Western love affair with Sunni Islam – a love that very definitely cannot speak its name in an Arab Gulf world in which “democracy”, “moderation”, “partnership” and outright dictatorship are interchangeable – which neither Washington nor London nor Paris (nor indeed Moscow or Beijing) will acknowledge. But, needless to say, there are a few irritating – and incongruous – ripples in this mutual passion.
The Saudis, for example, blame Obama for allowing Egypt’s decadent Hosni Mubarak to be overthrown. They blame the Americans for supporting the elected Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi as president – elections not being terribly popular in the Gulf – and the Saudis are now throwing cash at Egypt’s new military regime. Assad in Damascus also offered his congratulations to the Egyptian military. Was the Egyptian army not, after all – like Assad himself – trying to prevent religious extremists from taking power?
Fair enough – providing we remember that the Saudis are really supporting the Egyptian Salafists who cynically gave their loyalty to the Egyptian military, and that Saudi-financed Salafists are among the fiercest opponents of Assad.
Thankfully for Kerry and his European mates, the absence of any institutional memory in the State Department, Foreign Office or Quai d’Orsay means that no one need remember that 15 of the 19 mass-killers of 9/11 were also Salafists and – let us above all, please God, forget this – were all Sunni citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Palestinian Prime Minister (Gaza) Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal travel to Jeddah for an audience with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah February 2007. Photo by Suhaib Salem / Getty
Double standards claim as tension bursts into open with Syria conflict topping complaints, but critics mock ‘petulance’
By Ian Black, Middle East editor, Guardian
October 18, 2013
In a fit of diplomatic pique Saudi Arabia has spurned its chance to occupy a seat on the United Nations security council, accusing the world body of double standards and failing to do its duty over Syria, nuclear weapons and the Palestinians.
Months of simmering tension over the thorniest issues in the Middle East boiled over into public view on Friday in a strongly-worded complaint from Riyadh. Normal Saudi discretion was thrown to the winds in what appeared to be a concerted campaign to advertise its anger.
“Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the UN security council’s inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities,” said the Saudi foreign ministry. The issue was then amplified through a Twitter hashtag in Arabic.
Critics described it as a petulant and ineffective stunt that would undermine the conservative kingdom’s ability to affect decisions it cares about.
Saudi Arabia is the leading supporter of armed Syrian rebel groups, some with an Islamist identity and agenda, seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. It is also a strategic opponent of Iran and alarmed by signs of a thaw in its relations with the US and the positive tone in this week’s talks about its nuclear programme.
The statement came hours after Saudi Arabia was elected for the first time to the 10-strong rotating membership of the council, whose five permanent members are the US, Russia, China, France and Britain. Non-permanent members usually use their two-year stint to set the agenda and suppress international censure of their policies, especially on human rights. The general assembly holds a vote every year for five of the seats. The only precedent dates back to the depths of the cold war.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 2013. Photo by Thaer Ghanaim /EPA
Signs of anger had been multiplying since last month when the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, refused to speak or even hand out a copy of his speech at the general assembly in anger over the security council deadlock on Syria and Palestine. That came shortly after the US-Russian agreement to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons, which avoided the need for US-led air strikes and let Assad off the hook. “It was a sign of the frustration felt,” said Nawaf Obaid, a senior adviser to Saudi officials.
The Saudi statement also complained that the UN had proved unable to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for decades and had failed to transform the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction – presumably a reference to Israel’s undeclared atomic arsenal and perhaps also to Iran’s ambitions.
Frederic Wherey, a Saudi expert at the Carnegie Endowment, said: “This is a dramatic but ineffectual gesture. The Saudis realised the tide of the security council was against them on portfolios they care about. But operationally, it doesn’t mean much. It’s more theatrics than substance.”
Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding said: “There is shock at their behaviour. The Saudis are the only member of the G20 who’ve never been on the security council. You have to question the sense of this. If they want to change the way the international community operates the UN is the perfect venue to make your voice heard. Do they expect the world to rush to Riyadh and apologise for not listening to them more? The whole thing seems petulant and very short term. It’s a teenage tantrum.”
After Thursday’s vote the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said his country’s election was “a reflection of a long-standing policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means”. But the statement from Riyadh appeared to take the envoy by surprise. “They worked hard to get in trained diplomats for the [UN] job,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a US-based Saudi opposition commentator, “but maybe the king pulled the plug in one of his fits.”
Edward Luck of the University of San Diego called the decision a “a baffling case of shooting oneself in the foot.”
The Saudi move attracted as much ridicule and sarcasm as serious analysis. “Hopes for a UNSC resolution protecting the world’s women from the dangers of driving shattered by Saudi decision to vacate its seat,” tweeted the Middle East expert Marc Lynch. Analyst and wit Karl Sharro commented: “You would think Saudi Arabia would be more grateful that the UNSC allowed it to invade Bahrain and crush the uprising with no fuss.”
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims line up to enter the shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Shia pilgrims say they often do not feel welcome by the Sunni-Wahabi Saudi elite or Sunni pilgrims.
By Al Arabiya
October 23, 2013
Israel is committing “daily violations” against Palestinians and the United Nations is “incapable” of implementing its decisions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Nations Abdullah al-Muallami said on Tuesday.
Addressing the United Nations on the latest developments in the Middle East, Muallami also criticized the “Israeli aggression on sacred sites in the Palestinian lands.”
“The Israeli occupation is a major threat to the international peace and security,” the Saudi diplomat added.
He also reiterated the kingdom’s demand for urgent action to resolve the Syrian conflict, saying the regime of President Bashar al-Assad should not be allowed to buy time.
Ambassador Muallami also noted that “the parties helping the Syrian regime kill its people should not be allowed to determine Syria’s future.”
He was referring to recent discussion on whether Iran should take part in the planned Geneva II peace talks.
While Washington has said it is open to the possibility of Iran coming to the Geneva conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was hard to see Tehran playing a constructive role unless it backs the idea of a transitional government.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, said Iran must support a proposed interim government in Syria including figures from Assad’s administration and the opposition as the way to political dialogue and free elections.
“If Iran could start from that position as well as the rest of us, then Iran would be more easily included in international discussions on the subject,” he said.
Syrian opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba told a group of Western leaders in London on Tuesday that more than 60,000 Iranian fighters are fighting alongside the regime’s army in Syria.