Traffic Cop in an Unsettled Region



The Saudi Arabia which German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit this weekend sees itself as a force for order in the Middle East. Not only is the country trying to stem conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, but it has also taken a tough stand against Iran.

The world quickly reached its verdict after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Much of the blame, many agreed, could be laid at the feet of Saudi Arabia. It was seen as the dark power behind the attacks, with 15 of the 19 attackers coming from the kingdom along with their fanatical ideology and, most of all, al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden himself. This peculiar country — ruled by a high-handed group of princes, oil-rich yet inspired by a backward-looking form of Islam, highly modern and yet practically calcified — suddenly found itself facing tough questions, particularly from the United States, its traditional ally and protector.

Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz (center), are playing a greater role in the Gulf these days.
For two years Saudi Arabia was marginalized on the global political stage — ostracized, feared and avoided. But then, in the spring of 2003, the country fell victim to terrorism itself, as more than 120 people died in attacks in Riyadh, Khobar and Jeddah, forcing the kingdom to realize that it faced serious unrest within its own borders. “A storm is raging over this country,” Mohsen al-Awaji, a prominent Saudi dissident, said at the time. “And we are trying to safely land a jumbo jet.”

Has the jet landed yet?

“No, we are still on the approach,” says Awaji, who is also an avowed Islamist and sharp critic of the ruling Saud family. “The last few meters are the most crucial. We still haven’t reached safe ground.”

This weekend German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, the second and most important stop on her Middle East trip, which first takes her to Cairo and, after Riyadh, continues to Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. She will meet with King Abdullah, 83, and Crown Prince Sultan, 82, and spend a night in the Saudi capital. It will be an atypical, wintry country that confronts Merkel, a country which stands at the forefront of a number of conflicts that Merkel, in her six-month capacity as president of the European Union, will be addressing over and over: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the entire tumultuous Middle East.

Find out how you can reprint this DER SPIEGEL article in your publication. Saudi Arabia has strong interests in each and every one of these conflicts; a first hand look at them would make sense even under less turbulent circumstances. But since the Iraq war began, and against the backdrop of religious tensions between Shiites and Sunnis throughout the region, Saudi Arabia no longer speaks only for itself. Indeed, it has transformed into a kind of envoy for Sunni Arabs. And despite having passed through its own deep crisis only recently, Saudi Arabia has regained significant political clout.

Regional realities

One of the most palpable signs of this shift is the increasing frequency and growing caliber of political visits to Saudi Arabia. High-profile visitors to Riyadh in the past two weeks alone have included the new US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, his counterpart at the State Department Condoleezza Rice, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Following on the heels of Merkel’s trip will be a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. All are major players on the global stage, and — should it come to that — all would play a direct role in the decision about a possible military strike against Iran.

Regional realities are pushing Saudi Arabia gradually into the role traditionally played by Egypt; and the political hub of the Arab world is shifting along the route Merkel’s jet will travel on Sunday: from Cairo to the East.

Economically speaking this is nothing new. As the world’s largest petroleum producer, the country exports about 9 million barrels of oil a day, which translates into daily revenues of approximately half a billion dollars. Even as oil prices declined in the second half of 2006, Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues amounted to $180 billion — a monumental sum of money in a business that is once again booming.

Many contemporary witnesses joke that in the 1970s, during the country’s first oil boom, the sky was darkened over Riyadh — “by vultures carrying black attaché cases.” A similar rustling of money pervades the city today and Riyadh’s limited number of five-star hotels are booked solid, despite the exorbitant rates — some of the suites go for up to €800 per night.

“Proud to be Saudi”

Saudi consular officials are making the rounds of trade and industry conventions in the Gulf region to ensure that executives receive their business visas, sometimes literally overnight. “I just met this customer yesterday, but he already wants to take me along to Riyadh today,” says the head of a Munich-based security equipment outfitter at the Saudi consulate in Dubai. “I hope I can reschedule my flight home.”

Saudi Arabia’s “swing capacity” — the exclusive ability to directly influence the price of oil — now applies in a much more general sense. The country can pick and choose where it wants to invest its renewed oil wealth and who it wishes to bless with lucrative contracts — its traditional partners in Europe and the United States or its new oil customers in India and the Far East. As far as the Saudis are concerned, all that matters is the quality of the bid.

Saudi Arabia has become a representative of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.
Yellow rubber armbands that read “Proud to be Saudi” have been sold in Riyadh and Jeddah for the past few years. Launched as a somewhat clumsy attempt to boost morale in the country, the campaign, five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, is slowly acquiring an air of truth.

German business delegations have made frequent trips to Saudi Arabia since the days of Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. But this time the German chancellor is traveling to Riyadh on a political mission, and politically the country she will visit is a bundle of nerves. The images of last week’s bloody clashes at Beirut Arab University triggered more unrest in Riyadh than anyplace else in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia sees itself as a protector of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims. Fuad Saniora, the beleaguered Lebanese prime minister, was one of the closest confidants of his predecessor Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Hariri himself amassed a fortune as a businessman in Saudi Arabia and was treated almost as a member of the family in the House of Saud. “Why have you killed our son?” Crown Prince Abdullah is said to have asked Syrian President Bashar Assad after the deadly attack on Hariri.

Confrontation course with Iran

Saniora can count on Riyadh’s unconditional support. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal promised him $1 billion at the donors’ conference for Lebanon in Paris last Thursday.

But as close as they are to their fellow Sunnis in Lebanon and Iraq, there is no love lost between the Saudis and the Shiites who support Hezbollah in Lebanon or the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. This dividing line has become a major element in Saudi Arabia’s Middle East policy. The kingdom has had a falling out with Syria over Damascus’s support for the militant Hezbollah. Its relations with post-war Iraq’s Shiite-led government are strained.

And for months it has been on a confrontation course with Iran, its large Shiite antipode across the Persian Gulf.

The tensions are not the result of any lack of diplomatic effort. Last week Prince Bandar made a surprise visit to Tehran for talks. Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington, now holds the powerful position of head of his country’s national security council. Although the official reason for the visit was to discuss the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon, it also appears that moderates in Tehran are seeking communication with the United States. In this respect hardly anyone could be more helpful to the Iranians than Bandar, who is said to have better access to the White House than many a cabinet secretary in Washington.

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Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal sought to dampen expectations at the Lebanon donors’ conference in Paris, insisting that it would be premature to talk about a “Saudi initiative.” Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the great schism in the Islamic world, reopened by the Iraq war, can be bridged as quickly and easily as some might hope. Bandar himself, the son of Crown Prince Sultan, is considered a hardliner when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran. And this is one of the few issues in which even sharp critics of the Saudi royal family agree with Bandar.

Among them is Riyadh businessman Mohsen al-Awaji. He has been imprisoned three times, most recently last summer, for a total period of four years for his outspokenness. Awaji, who signed a petition that calls for transforming the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, considers the current system a “dictatorship” and is constantly challenging the Saudi royal family in provocative essays and television appearances.

Itching for a fight

Awaji maintains close ties to the militant underground and becomes irate when he laments the establishment’s arrogant dismissal of anger among young Saudis. In 2004, when the country was plagued by terrorist attacks, he served as a middleman between members of the Saudi arm of al-Qaida and the government.

Despite his animosity toward the Saudi system, Awaji hasn’t a single word of criticism for the increasingly sharp attacks against Iran in the country’s state-controlled press. Indeed, he is even more vociferous in his own criticism of Iran.

“I am a Wahhabi myself,” he says, referring to the kingdom’s rigid official religious doctrine, “but we mustn’t kid ourselves: Wahhabis and Shiites cannot live peacefully together in the long run.” Awaji believes that Iran is itching for a fight, and that the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province is Tehran’s “natural point of attack.” According to Awaji, the tremendous amount of influence Iran is exerting in Iraq is a clear indicator of what would happen in the Middle East if Tehran developed nuclear weapons. “We would be just as dependent on Ahmadinejad’s good will as Fuad Saniora is today on that of Hezbollah leader (Hassan) Nasrallah.”

Awaji’s surprising conclusion says in a nutshell what many commentators are currently suggesting in the Saudi press: that a preventive strike against the Iranian nuclear program is “inevitable,” and that it must be led by the United States, preferably before the Bush administration — otherwise highly unpopular in the Arab world — leaves office in 2009. Saudis, it seems, would rather give up a portion of their dignity than lose everything.

Riyadh has seen a number of important visitors in recent weeks.
The Saudi royal family’s approach to combating terrorism in the wake of the 2003-2004 attacks was not entirely conventional. Offers of amnesty helped weaken resolve within the Saudi branch of al-Qaida, and about 250 militants were arrested and another 60 shot in a hard-hitting police campaign. In a television campaign involving up to 25 ads a day, the population was encouraged to participate in the government’s efforts to combat terrorism. A dedicated education channel called al-Fajr (“The Dawn”) was established to refute the terrorists’ religious arguments.

Magical moment for the Sunnis?

This nationwide approach to the terrorism problem was successful at first, and the leadership was able to recover political latitude. Saudi Arabia is once again viewed as a rational, moderate force for order in the region. But has it regained enough latitude to attempt the same kind of balancing act it performed during the first Gulf war: as Lord keeper of the seal of Islam, on the one hand, and as the political and economic beneficiary of another Western military operation, on the other?

US President George W. Bush, who issued a directive last week allowing US troops to kill Iranian agents in Iraq, appears to put a lot of trust in the Saudis once again. Now, of all times, with the Iraq crisis more precarious than ever and faced with a constant stream of bad news from Lebanon, Washington wants to turn its attention to the core conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The old Middle East quartet — the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the EU — will meet in Washington this Friday to discuss the 2003 Middle East peace initiative, the so-called Roadmap for Peace, despite its having been declared dead long ago. US Secretary of State Rice promised her allies that the group would also discuss the 2002 Saudi Arabian peace plan, which was ridiculed at the time. Under the plan, the Saudis called for “normalization of relations” with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders.

As daring as it may seem, this could be a magical moment for the Saudis and their Sunni neighbors. Rarely in the history of the Middle East have the interests of the Arabs and the Israelis converged as closely as they do today, in light of the nuclear threat from Iran.

Awaji, the Saudi Wahhabi, explains why: “Israel’s agenda has its limits,” he says, implying that Israel’s main goal is to uphold the existence of the Israeli state. “But Iran’s agenda is global,” he adds. And that agenda includes hegemony over the entire region, including Saudi Arabia.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
SPIEGEL ONLINE – February 1, 2007, 05:10 PM

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