Why the US Is Stuck With Saudi Arabia

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In succession drama, Saudis prize stability above all else.

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who passed away Friday due to complications from a lung infection, elicited a series of gushing tributes from American leaders. World delegations flocked to the Saudi capital Riyadh on Saturday to offer their condolences on the passing of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Al Arabiya News Channel reported. And yet, while much is wrong with Saudi Arabia’s royal family, one thing that it proves time and again is its capacity for unity when the stakes are high.

Secretary of State John Kerry called him a “man of wisdom and vision.” Vice President Biden, meanwhile, announced he’d lead the American delegation to Saudi Arabia to mourn the king in person. Pradeep Bhatnagar, a top state official based in the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, said U.S. security officials informed him of the cancellation Saturday. The president was due to arrive in India on Sunday for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then attend Monday’s annual Republic Day festivities, which mark the day in 1950 that India’s constitution came into force. But the announcement of his passing came only when the designated successor, now King Salman, was prepared to show that the House of Saud was in order.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president and first lady Michelle Obama would travel to Riyadh on Tuesday and meet with new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. The newly enthroned King Salman, who is said to be in poor health, followed King Abdullah’s wish and named his half brother, 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the second deputy prime minister and ex-intelligence chief, as his crown prince and next in line. Despite Riyadh’s repulsive human rights record, unproductive role in regional security, and American advances in shale oil production, the United States needs Saudi Arabia more than ever. Moreover, with the designation of the interior minister Mohamed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince — and second in line — King Salman answered a question about the fate of the crown that has long puzzled Saudis and their western allies: who would be the first king from the hundreds of grandchildren of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdelaziz bin Saud? In addition to the Republic Day events, Obama was to hold a fresh round of bilateral meetings with Modi and an economic summit with U.S. and Indian business leaders.

The president’s visit is expected to be heavy on symbolism and lighter on substantive advances, though climate change, economics and defense ties are all on the agenda. This sets the stage for considerable intrigue in the future, given the large number of grandsons and great grandsons vying for the crown, and no rule yet as to how power will be transferred after Prince Mohamed. Two weeks ago, in a case that aroused international condemnation, the government lashed a Saudi blogger named Raif Badawi 50 times after he dared to defend atheism. While military cooperation and U.S. defense sales have grown, Washington has been frustrated by India’s failure to open up to more foreign investment and to address complaints alleging intellectual property violations.

India’s liability legislation has also prevented U.S. companies from capitalizing on a landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2008. Relations hit a new low in 2013 when India’s deputy consul general, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched in New York over allegations that she lied on visa forms to bring her maid to the U.S. while paying the woman a pittance. He is to be replaced by Mohammed bin Salman, 30, the new king’s son, who will be both chief of the royal court as well as defence minister (the post his father held).

Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” system requires them to seek male permission to travel, work, or leave the house; they also, famously, are not allowed to drive. King Abdullah did receive credit from International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde for his “discreet” improvement of women’s lives in the country—more women than men now attend college there, and many have received scholarships to study overseas.

He was denied a U.S. visa in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official. King Abdullah bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt and urged President Obama to use force to preserve Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the country’s leadership in 2013, Riyadh has helped finance his brutal suppression of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. The centerpiece of Obama’s visit will be Monday’s celebrations, which are partly a Soviet-style display of India’s military hardware and partly a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-type parade with floats from across the country highlighting India’s cultural diversity. Ironically, given Saudi contempt for “godless communism”, the situation there is reminiscent of nothing so much as the gerontocracy that was the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The kingdom is the largest and most important producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the bloc that controls around 40 percent of the world’s oil.

But the most pressing challenge for the new collective leadership — one that will be hamstrung by the existence of strong political fiefdoms and a relatively weak centre — is how to deal with a strategic environment that has deteriorated markedly from the Saudi vantage point. The latest blow is Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south, where Iran — Saudi Arabia’s principal rival for influence — has the upper hand. Observers project that in five years, the U.S. will get 80 percent of its oil from North and South America and will be mostly self-sufficient by 2035. Yemen is already a staging ground for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; on Thursday, the president resigned after the capital was brought to a halt by rebels. The OPEC decision to not cut supply in response to falling oil prices signaled that the North American boom had fundamentally changed the commodity’s global logic.

Iraq is fighting for its life against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), but even if it survives, the result will be a weak and divided country that Iran and Iraq’s Shia majority dominate. Jordan, arguably Saudi Arabia’s closest partner in the region, has its hands full with millions of refugees that have crossed its borders, while Bahrain’s minority Sunni regime is having difficulty maintaining order among its Shia majority population. Saudi officials are understandably worried about the country’s nuclear programme, and also have a perpetual concern about Iran’s ability to stir up trouble among the kingdom’s own Shia minority of some 3m people, many of whom live in the oil-rich eastern province.

The danger is not simply terrorist attacks in the classic sense, although that threat is significant, particularly if they demonstrate the regime’s inability to provide security to pilgrims making the journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Rather, there is the likelihood that Isis, which seeks to bring about a modern day caliphate, will try to gain control of the country that is home to Islam’s two most important holy sites. The internet, more than bombs, could be the government’s undoing, especially as resentment of the kingdom’s thousands of cosseted princes is both broad and deep. But muddling through what could be years of relatively low oil prices against the backdrop of a restive population and a chaotic and dangerous neighbourhood will require a leadership both united and capable.

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