In their golden palaces, the Saudis fear.
They fear the Iranians. They fear the Shia. They fear Isis and al-Qaeda. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood. They fear American betrayal and Israeli plots. They even fear the “power” of tiny Qatar. They fear their own Shia population. They fear themselves. For where else will the revolution start in Sunni Muslim Saudi but within its own royal family?
Just look at the past week. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – Shias to a man – have been fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government army – almost Shias to a man – against Sunni militias around Tikrit. This is Shia Iranian expansionism on a scale undreamed-of since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. At least 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards are fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. Against Sunni militias. Then the US President seeks foreign policy medals with a friendly US-Iranian agreement on nuclear power. And finally, Saudi Arabia thinks the Israeli Prime Minister is its friend.
No wonder US Secretary of State John Kerry rushed from his nuclear talks to Riyadh on Thursday to assure the Saudi royal family that despite the cosy arrangement he is working on with Tehran, the US would not take its eye off Iran’s “destabilising actions” in Iraq and elsewhere.
Rather more feisty than his American opposite number, the elderly Saud bin Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, talked about the “hegemonic” actions of Iran, telling Kerry that “Iran is taking over Iraq”, a comment that might be less damaging to the Americans if it did not contain the merit of truth.
Iran is boasting of its military assistance in the Tikrit battle, its soldiers flying their own national flag inside Iraqi sovereign territory; Iranian state television is broadcasting footage of its Revolutionary Guards in the Iraqi desert – and the presence of that most infamous of Iran’s clever generals, Qasem Soleimani. So when Benjamin Netanyahu stood up in the US Congress to warn of the global threat of Iran, it was only to be expected that Faisal Abbas, the editor-in-chief of the Saudi Al Arabiya English-language news channel, would announce that, while “it is extremely rare for any reasonable person to ever agree with anything Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says or does … one must admit, Bibi did get it right, at least when it came to dealing with Iran”.
Abbas might not represent the Saudi royal family – but he would never have uttered such words unless they had been blessed by the monarchy.
So be a Saudi for a moment. Think not of your vast wealth nor your oil, not the declarations of eternal loyalty from your tribal and ethnic friends – let alone from the Americans. Remember that your kings are perpetually old and that your Foreign Minister uses a walker when he moves around his palace or greets the kingdom’s visitors – as he did, rather pathetically, when John Kerry turned up. And recall, as the Saudis will have done, that Kerry – with his folksy reassurances for the King and Foreign Minister – is the same political failure who promised peace between Israelis and Palestinians within months, and then walked away from this high aspiration with little more than a shrug when it inevitably collapsed.
It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that the Saudis have a few aspirations of their own, quite apart from destroying Iranian ambitions. While ladling out massive pay increases to keep the kingdom’s citizens in unrevolutionary mood, the Saudi government intends to construct 16 nuclear power reactors at a cost of $80bn within 20 years, with France’s help and “peaceful intentions”. These are the problems argued out between the hundreds of restless princes of the kingdom.
As for the Americans, you can scarcely blame the Saudis for regarding Barack Obama as being just as untrustworthy as Netanyahu suggested. For right now, the American President is striking Isis from the air while the Iranians have also been bombing Isis from the air and shelling them on the ground. Assad’s army, too, is fighting Isis. But Obama hates Assad and also refuses to co-ordinate with Iranian troops, or so the Americans claim in a conflict which requires – as well as weapons – ever larger pinches of salt.
Can you therefore blame the Saudis – we are talking of individuals, of course, not for a moment their government, whose adherence to international law is legendary – if they fund the “Islamic Caliphate” when it fights the Shia regimes in Iraq, Syria and Iran and the Shia militia in Lebanon? Oh for the glorious days of Saddam Hussein when he protected the Sunnis from Shia Persian aggression…
Then Saddam decided to add Kuwait (and possibly Saudi Arabia) to his own Iraqi republic. The CIA used Saudi territory to call upon the Iraqi Shia to rebel, then left them in the lurch. And the survivors were “liberated” by George W and Tony, and took over Iraq. And now, in their golden palaces, the Saudis tremble.
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