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Sound and fury: Saudi Arabia’s concerns over Syria are not necessarily the same as ours

Saudi Arabia considers Syria a proxy war with Iran – and wants the US, and the rest of the world, to lend a hand

Saudi Arabia has made no secret of its growing umbrage. In October, the desert kingdom turned down the non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to which it was elected, citing the international community’s failure to authorise intervention in the conflict in Syria. But the discontent has been bubbling for longer than that, and it is not restricted to the renownedly torpid UN. As long ago as 2011, there was clear irritation at the US decision not to support its former ally, Hosni Mubarak, as the Arab Spring took hold in Egypt.

Now, to make the case plainer than ever, the Saudi ambassador to Britain has penned an uncompromising editorial in The New York Times appealing directly to the US public. Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud writes wistfully of decades of friendship with “our Western partners” – for which read the US and, to a lesser extent, Britain – and bemoans policies on both Syria and Iran which “risk the stability and security of the Middle East”. Responsibilities have been shirked and extremism allowed to flourish, the diplomat claims.

It is no surprise that Riyadh is increasingly desperate. Not because, as Prince Nawaf notes, there have been more than 100,000 civilian deaths. Or because, as another senior Saudi Prince averred last weekend, President Obama talked about “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons and then failed to act. Rather, because Saudi Arabia considers Syria a proxy war with Iran – and wants the US, and the rest of the world, to lend a hand.

Here, indeed, is the rub. If Washington’s policy on Syria is problematic, the prospect of a deal with Iran on curbing its nuclear ambitions is even more so. Never mind that it is entirely in Riyadh’s interests that Tehran’s weapons programme be controlled. And never mind that a deal, if it can be agreed and enforced, is a more certain – not to mention humane – solution than is war. An agreement gives the Islamic Republic a new legitimacy that is anathema to its regional rival.

There are many reasons for caution in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s blustering promotions of its own agenda are not one of them.