Suddenly the world’s spotlight has turned onto a player in the Middle East political drama who, until quite recently, has been assigned only a modest role. Out of the blue, commentators have taken to describing Saudi Arabia as “the region's most powerful influence-peddler” and “a mid-east powerhouse”. The Arab kingdom that straddles most of the Arabian peninsular and, despite its enormous oil-fuelled wealth, has never seemed a contender in the power struggles of the Middle East, has suddenly become critically influential.
In a telephone call on Saturday July 13, US President Obama and Saudi King Abdullah shared concerns about the effect on the region of Syria's civil war. They agreed to continue supporting the rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad régime. Obama and Abdullah also found themselves in broad agreement about the situation in Egypt. Immediately after Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was removed from power, Abdullah had sent the military a message of congratulation. Obama told the king he hoped for an inclusive, democratic process to be set in train in Egypt, to allow a return to civilian government.
This meeting of US and Saudi Arabian minds, particularly on the subject of Egypt, is not perhaps very surprising in view of the reports circulating in a variety of media about collusion by both parties in the military coup.
As for US involvement. political commentator Dean Andromidas, writing in the Executive Intelligence Review of July 12, 2013, claims that the Egyptian Army kept its American counterparts fully informed about its plans to remove Morsi by no later than July 1. In discussions between Egyptian and US military leaders, the report goes, the US insisted that the Egyptian Army must not allow itself to be tarred with the brush of “military coup”. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces must not resume power itself, but needed to create a civilian interim government and move immediately to the drafting of a new constitution and popular elections. Which is precisely what occurred.
DEBKAfile is a Jerusalem-based military intelligence website covering the Middle East. “We start where the media stop”, it proudly announces. Last week it declared: “The Egyptian military high command was not working alone when its operations headquarters put together the July 3 takeover of power from the Muslim Brotherhood: it was coordinated closely down to the last detail with the palaces of the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) rulers and the operations rooms of their intelligence services.”
As he ordered the military into action, DEBKA asserts, coup leader General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had two Saudi-Gulf commitments in his pocket. First, should the Obama administration cut off the annual US aid allocation of $1.3 billion, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would make up the military budget’s shortfall. And secondly. the Saudis, UAE and other Gulf nations would immediately start pumping out substantial funds to keep the Egyptian economy running. The Egyptian masses would be shown that, in a properly managed economy, they need not go hungry, as many did under Muslim Brotherhood rule.
On Tuesday July 9, Abdullah opened his wallet and offered El-Sisi $5 billion in aid. Saudi Arabia's neighbour and ally, the UAE, added $3 billion more, while Kuwait offered $4 billion.
Saudi Arabia’s new-found influence now extends also into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by way of the Arab League’s “peace plan”, the 2002 initiative of then Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah, of Saudi Arabia.
On March 20, 2002, a few days ahead of a summit of the Arab League, Abdullah electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel. Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The quid pro quo for Israel’s acceptance of the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations. The plan was adopted and has subsequently been ratified several times by the Arab League.
Shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Arab League’s peace plan into its Middle East policy – an intention subsequently upheld by Obama’s new Secretary of State, John Kerry.
On the last day of April 2013, Kerry and US Vice-President Joe Biden hosted an Arab League delegation, which included senior officials from Saudi Arabia, to discuss the principles of the Arab peace plan. One of Israel’s basic objections had always been the idea of establishing the border of a sovereign Palestine along the cease-fire line of the Israeli and Jordanian armies in 1949 – which is what the 1967 boundary was. John Kerry managed to persuade the Arab League delegation to soften its stance on this issue. After their meeting, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik al-Thani announced that the delegation had accepted an interpretation of the Arab peace proposal which included the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Emphasising Saudi Arabia’s growing self-confidence, and highly revealing of its strategic thinking, on July 10 a new and strange story surfaced. Images analysed by security experts at IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review have revealed a hitherto undisclosed surface-to-surface missile base deep in the Saudi desert at al-Watah, around 125 miles south-west of the capital, Riyadh. Analysts who examined the photos spotted two launch pads, one with markings pointing north-east towards Tehran – and one north-west towards Tel Aviv. They are designed, according to Jane’s, for Saudi Arabia's arsenal of lorry-launched DF 3 missiles, which have a range of 1,500-2,500 miles and can carry a two-ton payload.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have a common enemy in Iran, which has long seen Saudi Arabia as a rival power in the Gulf, and has sought to undermine it. Experts fear that if, as seems increasingly likely, Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would seek to follow suit, for both the Middle East and the world would have become even more unpredictable than at present. Saudi Arabia does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but it has long maintained discreet back-channel communications in its efforts to promote stability in the region.
All the same, Saudi Arabia is clearly preparing itself for all eventualities.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 July 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 July 2013: