A document leaked by “Wikileaks” quoted Hillary Clinton as saying that the Saudi Kingdom “remains a critical financial support base for terrorist groups” and that US officials are not pleased with the “Islamic model” the Saudis present and try to spread, as it is the country that is most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism, and it “used its oil wealth to export a violent version of Islam through its Wahhabi clerics.”
… Throughout the past three months, the Saudi leadership seemed to have abandoned its “cautious silence” method and decided this time to publicly state its resentment of the Obama Administration’s approach through statements by Saudi royals and surprising policy shifts as an only way to convince Washington to alter what Saudi royals see as an errant path, according to Simon Henderson author of “After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia”.
The first indications to the new Saudi approach appeared in Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud Al-Faisal’s refusal to give his speech at the UN General Assembly in the beginning of October. Two weeks later, Riyadh took a dramatic, unprecedented step in the history of the United Nations when it turned down its rotating seat at the Security Council (18 October). This stance was surprising to the diplomatic circles in New York, especially as Saudi officials have been waging for the past three years an intensive massing campaign to gain a seat at the Security Council, after having submitted a team of 12 diplomats to a one year long preparation course on performing this task in Columbia University.
Three days after the kingdom announced turning down its rotating seat in the Security Council, “Wall Street Journal” and “Reuters” quoted European diplomats as saying that Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan warned of a “major shift” in Riyadh’s relations with Washington in protest to its inaction on Syria. According to “Wall Street Journal” Prince Bandar was also quoted as saying that he would scale back cooperation with the CIA on training Syrian rebels and work with other allies including France and Jordan. Prince Bandar added that the kingdom’s turn down of its rotating seat in the Security Council was a message to “the United States not the United Nations”. The timing and way Prince Bandar bin Sultan sent his message to the Americans had several indications. Regarding the timing, the Saudi objection came on the eve of the expected meeting in Paris between US Secretary of State, John Kerry and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud Al-Faisal (21 October). As for the way, it reflected the steady growth in relations between Saudi-France, as Prince Bandar bin Sultan chose the French Ambassador in Saudi Arabia (Bertrand Besancenot) to pass on his message. He invited him to spend the weekend (19-20 October) in Jeddah, then the latter returned to Riyadh , informed his European associates about the content of the meeting, and the remarks were leaked to “Reuters” and “Wall Street Journal” after that.
For his part, Prince Turki Al-Faisal also participated in the Saudi campaign against Obama Administration, knowing that he was an ambassador of his country in Washington and was the Chief of Intelligence in Saudi Arabia for a long period (1979 – 2001). Al-Faisal chose to deliver his direct message from the American territories, whether by making a speech before the Arab-US Policymakers’ annual conference (22 October) or by appearing on US media, specifically his long interview to “Washington Post” (4 November) in which he considered that Obama’s policies towards Syria and Iran were wrong and disappointing and the only way to repair things was by finding a solution to the Palestinian cause and putting pressure on Iran which presents itself as a liberator of the Palestinians and Syrians.
These statements reflected the wide gap between Saudi officials and the Obama Administration. It is not just a limited disagreement over a certain detail in the US policy in the region. For the Saudis, it is more of a complete opposition over the whole policy, as Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal complained in the past about the George Bush Administration, saying in 2001 that “dealing with the United States makes a sane man go mad”. What would he say today about the crisis taking place between Riyadh and Washington under the Obama Administration, and which surpassed the opposition that was taking place during the Bush era.
All indicators show that the basis of the relations between Washington and Riyadh is no longer the same, for there is a change in the scene which affected them. The scene after the cold war differed from how it was during it. Moreover, the United States presents itself as an international power producer, which minimizes its dependence on Saudi oil. Hence, the Unites States is not forced to keep this kind of relation which lasted decades with the kingdom, according to Christopher Davidson, author of “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies”.
Among the indicators which triggered Saudi concern and Fury was what happened during the reformation of the national security team during the second period for the Obama Administration, as no high-leveled figure was appointed to deal with the Saudis. This in itself reveals the retreat of the kingdom in the list of interests of the US foreign ministry and national security planners in this period for Obama.
There is an increasing conviction among the US decision-makers that their priorities differ from those of the Saudis’, and that the benefits of the two countries no longer harmonize. For instance, if Washington had to choose between working on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and Saudi power, it’s priority would undoubtedly be preventing the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Despite these furious Saudi criticisms, the Obama Administration has not issued any loud stances, and rather went for “diplomatic pacification” and containment of the Saudi anger by making them understand that the gap is not in expansion and sending them the message that the US benefits in the region come in the first position.
Even though the US official stance towards the kingdom was calm, some harsh non-official stances came out against the Saudis (journalists, Academics, experts in research centers, former employees in the American Administration…). It is not ruled out that the US official department is behind many of the indirect messages sent to Riyadh. Here, one could refer to the harsh editorial by Fareed Zakaria in the “Time” Magazine (11 November) under the headline: “The Saudis Are Mad: Tough!”, and Zakaria is known for his strong ties with the US Department of State and he is the presenter of a weekly show on “CNN” which mostly tackles foreign affairs. The editorial begins with the subtitle “Why we shouldn’t care that the world’s most irresponsible country is displeased at the US”. He added: “If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia… But whatever one thinks of the Obama Administration’s handling of the region, surely the last measure of American foreign policy should be how it is received by the House of Saud!”.
Zakaria stated that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted in a leaked document by Wikileaks in December 2009 as saying that Saudi Arabia remained a “critical financial base” for terrorism and that Riyadh has taken only limited action” to stop the flow of funds to the Taliban and other such groups.”
Zakaria also quoted Stuart Levey, a top Treasury official in 2007, as telling ABC News that: “If I could snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia… It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom’s immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics.”
Moreover, Zakaria quoted former Pakistani Law Minister, Iqbal Haider, as saying in 2012 that: “Whether they are the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Taiba, their ideology is Saudi Wahhabi without an iota of doubt.” He added: “There was no doubt Saudi Arabia was supporting Wahhabi groups throughout Pakistan.”
Fareed Zakaria concluded by saying that : “Whatever the reason, let’s concede that, yes, Saudi Arabia is angry with the U.S. But are we sure that’s a sign Washington is doing something wrong?”
Despite that Fareed’s Zakaria’s assault against Saudi Arabia was the toughest, many commentators and influential columnists in several US newspapers strongly criticized the Saudi Foreign Policy. For instance, Fred Kaplan wrote an article under the headline: “A Royal Pain”. In its introduction, Kaplan related the differences between Saudi Arabia and the Obama Administration to the kingdom’s weakening position in the world, and concluded that: “Obama should make it clear that our interests in the Middle East are not as wrapped up with the desires or fate of the royal family as they used to be.”
For his part, Doug Bandow published on Huffington Post website an article in which he strongly criticized the Saudi Royal family. Bandow, a researcher at CATO institute, who worked as a special assistant to the president in the Reagan Administration, considered that: “Saudi Arabia is angry with Washington. In Riyadh’s view, the US government isn’t doing enough to support tyranny and war in the Middle East.” The writer refuted Saudi calls for concern over the Syrian people who are being butchered by chemical weapons on the hands of Assad (according to Turki Al-Faisal) who couldn’t have committed all that if it wasn’t for the US president’s retreat from punishing him for crossing the “red line” which Obama himself set. Doug Bandow further reminded the Saudi Royal family that it had supported former Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, in his violence against Iran, in which he used chemical weapons and killed up to a million people, concluding that: “But mass butchery by Riyadh’s de facto ally mattered less to the Sunni Saudi royals than defeating a Shia Islamic regime.”
On the apparently failed campaign which the Saudis led to influence the decision corridors in Washington and urge them to work closer with them, Bandow said that: “But Americans shouldn’t be concerned that powerful Saudi elites, used to buying everything they want, are frustrated that they no longer can so easily purchase Washington’s services… Instead, the Obama Administration should tell America’s foreign “friends” that Washington acts in the interests of the American people, not corrupt dictators.”
Doug Bandow concluded his article by saying that: “President Obama deserves kudos for refusing to bend American policy to suit the whims of the Riyadh royals. Washington might not be able to stop the Saudis from promoting tyranny and war. But the US certainly shouldn’t aid them in their quest.”
Translated by Sara Taha Moughnieh