Sunday, March 30, 2014
The US is paying the cost of supporting the House of Saud
President Obama flew to
Arabia to patch up relations with King
Abdullah at the end of last week in his first visit in five years. The alliance
had been strained by Saudi anger over US negotiations with Iran
on its nuclear programme and Obama’s refusal to go to war in Syria
to overthrow Bashar al-Assad last year. For its part, the US
is upset by Saudi Arabia
covertly supporting al-Qa’ida-type movements in Syria
The US-Saudi relationship is a peculiar one in that it is between a reactionary theocratic monarchy – it is the only place in the world where women are not allowed to drive – and a republic that claims to be the chief exponent of secular democracy. The linkage is so solid that it was scarcely affected by 9/11, though al-Qa’ida and the hijackers had demonstrably close connections to
The Saudis want to persuade the
to make a greater effort to overthrow Assad in Syria.
Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz told the Arab League in Kuwait
last week that “the legitimate Syrian resistance has been betrayed by the
international community and left easy prey to tyrant forces”. This is a bit
rich, coming from the potential ruler of a state in which every expression of
dissent is being crushed, and the number of political prisoners could be as
high as 30,000. Minor criticism of the state on Twitter is enough for Saudis to
be called in by the security services.
On 3 February, King Abdullah promulgated a decree that made Saudi jihadis fighting abroad liable to 20 years in prison on their return. The idea is to choke off the supply of Saudi recruits volunteering to fight in
said to number 2,500 at present. Previously, Saudis were able to reach Syria
with ease, a sign that the government was turning a blind eye, but now it is
saying it will jail them if they come back.
The U-turn may not work: fighting in
has popular support in Saudi Arabia;
Wahhabism, a puritanical and intolerant variant of Islam, is the ideology of
the Saudi state which regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as heretics little
different from Christians and Jews. Having stoked hostility to Iran
and Shia Islam for so long, the government may not find it easy to demonise and
punish Saudis who fought against them.
The criminalisation of the jihadis is designed in part to persuade the Americans that
is not encouraging Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
( Isis), both al-Qa’ida-type groups, to take over northern
On the contrary, the Saudis say they want to fund and supply a third military
force in Syria
that will fight both President Assad and the anti-Assad jihadi forces.
Given that the Syrian army is on the offensive in and around
and Aleppo, any Saudi and American
backed “third force” operating from Jordan
is not going to turn the tide on the battlefield in the foreseeable future. If
the Americans go along with this plan, then they are saying, in effect, that
they are prepared to conduct a long proxy war in Syria,
contrary to all the hypocritical outpourings in Washington
and Riyadh about ending the
suffering of the Syrian people.
For its part, the
establishment has never taken on board that, when it backed the anti-Assad
rebels in Syria,
it automatically destabilised Iraq.
This is sometimes attributed to the departure of US troops, but it was
inevitable that an uprising centred on the Sunni majority in Syria,
would energise and radicalise the Sunni minority next door in Iraq.
Three years after the protests started in Syria,
the whole Euphrates valley from, to Jarabulus, on Syria’s
border with Turkey,
is in the hand of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra. In the past week, Jabhat al-Nusra
fighters have for the first time broken through to the Mediterranean coast
north of Latakia.
A problem for the Saudi government is that it has always used jihadis as an arm of its foreign policy, believing that it could disclaim responsibility for their actions. Private donors and jihadi preachers were allowed to operate unhindered. But the disadvantage of this hands-off approach is that, in
and Iraq, the
jihadis were not under total Saudi government control. Those battling in Syria
and Iraq today
will not be pleased to learn that Riyadh
has decided that they have suddenly become outcasts. In recent months, jihadi
websites and messages on Twitter have begun to attack the Saudi royal family,
one showing a picture of King Abdullah giving a medal to George W Bush with the
caption: “medal for invading two Islamic countries”. Another shows trucks
packed with armed gunmen with a caption saying they are heading for northern Saudi
The Saudi government is showing signs of nervousness. It has backed a counter-revolutionary wave across the
that, in many places, has succeeded. Democratic protesters in Bahrain
were crushed in a Saudi-backed clampdown in 2011. In Egypt,
it is financially supporting the military regime that overthrew the
democratically elected President Morsi in 2013. In Syria,
it has ensured that the political opposition is dominated by Islamists and is
funded and largely directed by itself.
But, along the way, the Saudi royal family is making a lot of enemies. .. read more: