Saudi Arabia: proactive or reactive?

Summary: Prince Salman bin Sultan, son of the late Crown Prince and veteran defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, has been appointed deputy minister of defence.

Prince Salman bin Sultan, son of the late Crown Prince and veteran defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, has been appointed deputy minister of defence replacing Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Abd al-Rahman. Reuters comments that as deputy head of the National Security Council he has worked closely alongside his brother Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of intelligence, on Saudi support for Syrian rebels.

We thank Conflicts Forum for the two reports below. The first by Reuters claims that the purpose of Prince Bandar bin Sultan‘s visit to Moscow discussed in our posting of 7 August was to buy a change in Russian policy towards Syria. If correct this would be a remarkable new departure for Saudi policy, and if successful an even more remarkable new departure for Russian policy; the Russian TV channel RT reports that while neither Moscow Riyadh has commented officially, Moscow has already said “no”. The second by Madawi Al-Rasheed, Saudi Professor at the London School of economics, considers the problems Egypt presents for Saudi Arabia and argues that either turmoil or military rule in Egypt are preferable to democracy which would be hard to co-opt or contain and might unify opinion in Saudi Arabia rather than dividing it.

We thank independent consultant and former British defence attaché  Brian Lees for a comment on our posting of 7 August:
“Probably both the US and the UK governments thought they were doing the right thing by backing the Syrian rebels and going so far as to toy with the idea of supplying them with arms including anti-aircraft weapons. The governments have boasted that they have already supplied “non-lethal” equipment although, to an ex soldier, there is no such thing: radios, GPS systems etc merely help para-militaries to be more effective killers. Neither government seems to understand the necessity of a nuanced approach where religious differences – Shia versus Sunni – and the Saudi perception of military threat from Iran are concerned. Not all the Sunni rebels in Syria are acceptable to the Saudis, Russia has its own Islamist internal problems. A little more standing back, relying on skilled diplomacy and not conducting policy in the media would benefit both the US and the UK governments. The role of Israel and especially the influence on US policy should not be ignored.”

Exclusive: Saudi offers Russia deal to scale back Assad support – sources
Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Amena Bakr, Reuters, 7 August 2013
AMMAN/DOHA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has offered Russia economic incentives including a major arms deal and a pledge not to challenge Russian gas sales if Moscow scales back support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Middle East sources and Western diplomats said on Wednesday.
The proposed deal between two of the leading power brokers in Syria’s devastating civil war was set out by Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week, they said.
Russia has supported Assad with arms and diplomatic cover throughout the war and any change in Moscow’s stance would remove a major obstacle to action on Syria by the United Nations Security Council.
Syrian opposition sources close to Saudi Arabia said Prince Bandar offered to buy up to $15 billion of Russian weapons as well as ensuring that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia’s position as a main gas supplier to Europe.
In return, Saudi Arabia wanted Moscow to ease its strong support of Assad and agree not to block any future Security Council Resolution on Syria, they said.
A Gulf source familiar with the matter confirmed that Prince Bandar offered to buy large quantities of arms from Russia, but that no cash amount was specified in the talks.
One Lebanese politician close to Saudi Arabia said the meeting between Bandar and Putin lasted four hours. “The Saudis were elated about the outcome of the meeting,” said the source, without elaborating.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, could not immediately be reached on Wednesday for comment about the meeting. A Saudi Foreign Ministry official was also not immediately available to respond.
Putin’s initial response to Bandar’s offer was inconclusive, diplomats say. One Western diplomat in the Middle East said the Russian leader was unlikely to trade Moscow’s recent high profile in the region for an arms deal, however substantial.
He said Russian officials also appeared skeptical that Saudi Arabia had a clear plan for stability in Syria if Assad fell.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS
However, in a possible sign of greater flexibility by Moscow, other diplomats said that in the run-up to the meeting Russia put pressure on Assad to allow in a U.N. mission to investigate the suspected use of chemical weapons.
The U.N. team is expected to visit Syria next week.
“This was one of those unannounced meetings that could prove much more important than the public diplomatic efforts being made on Syria,” one diplomat said.
A senior Syrian opposition figure said there had been a “build-up of Russian-Saudi contacts prior to the meeting”.
“Bandar sought to allay two main Russian fears: that Islamist extremists will replace Assad, and that Syria would become a conduit for Gulf, mainly Qatari, gas at the expense of Russia,” he said. “Bandar offered to intensify energy, military and economic cooperation with Moscow.”
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim powers have been strong supporters of the mainly Sunni rebels battling Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. The rebels have been joined by foreign Sunni jihadis.
Assad has enjoyed military support from Iran and fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ites.
Russia has maintained military sales to Syria throughout the two year conflict in which 100,000 people have been killed, and helped block three U.N. draft resolutions criticizing Assad’s crackdown on the mainly peaceful protests against him in 2011.
The Security Council has been considering a possible resolution on aid for Syria for several months and a shift in position by Moscow could alleviate this.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based defense think tank CAST, said he had no direct knowledge of the offer, but he would not be surprised if a contract to supply Saudi Arabia with 150 Russian T-90 tanks were revived.
“There was an order of T-90s that was stopped for mysterious reasons, and if this is a resurrection of that order then we could suspect that the Saudis want something in return and that something could be linked to Syria,” said Pukhov, who is close to Russia’s Defense Ministry.
“If the Saudis want Moscow to outright drop Assad, they will refuse the deal, but they may have a more nuanced position, which they could possibly agree to.”
Russia and Saudi Arabia penned an arms contract in 2008 for 150 T-90s as well as more than 100 Mi-17 and Mi-35 attack helicopters as well as BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, but the contract has stalled for years.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported at the time that the contract was concluded to persuade Moscow to curtail its ties with Iran, though the Kremlin denied that report.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Saudis Divided Over Egypt
Madawi Al-Rasheed for Al-Monitor Posted on July 30.
The Egyptian crisis continues to divide Saudi society after its elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was deposed by the military on June 30. While the Saudi government made it clear that it supported the coup and rewarded Egypt with $5 billion, a disenfranchised society had different views on foreign policy. Three trends are discernible: One put its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood, one sided with the government decision and one showed caution in celebrating the end of a short-lived democratic experiment. However, all were equally passionate about the crisis. Their heated passions may not have been about Egypt. To a large extent, Saudi responses clearly reflected a growing tension and polarization in Saudi Arabia itself.
A Saudi Muslim Brotherhood constituency remains unrecognized in formal societies or political parties since those are banned in Saudi Arabia. Yet, religious scholars and lay activists known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its discourse were quick to condemn the coup in Egypt and their own government’s lavish financial support offered only hours after the Egyptian coup. Veteran Islamists quickly organized an online petition to gather signatures in support of the Egyptian president and condemned the killing of more than 100 Egyptian protesters. The Saudi government called in the organizers of the petition for interrogation and banned a couple of television shows on Islamist television channels. Saudi foreign policy is too important to be questioned by activists.
Deprived of any channel for formal debate in the public sphere, Saudi activists sought refuge in the virtual world to launch attacks on their own government and several other groups. They condemned the Egyptian Nour party, which supported the Egyptian coup, because it was considered an extension of the local Saudi Salafis, opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood activism. They also launched attacks on Saudi writers in the official Saudi media who celebrated the demise of Morsi. The battles of Rabia al-Adawiya where pro-Morsi supporters gathered were juxtaposed on an equally bloody yet virtual Saudi terrain.
While Saudi Islamists continue to demand the return of Morsi to power, many so-called Saudi liberal writers concentrated their efforts on celebrating the end of Islamist politics not only in Egypt but in their own society. Demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood, magnifying their mistakes in power and writing premature obituaries of political Islam became regular features of Saudi print, visual and virtual media, all in support of the official Saudi foreign policy. It was clear that an official green light was given to end any kind of tolerance for Islamist politics. Most of these attacks reflect local politics where the euphoria of Saudi Islamists had to be curbed following the success of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia. The demise of Islamists in Egypt was seen as a great victory that had to be replicated at home.
Yet a third Saudi group was cautious. It consisted of a small elite disenchanted with Muslim Brotherhood practices in power but sympathetic to their ideological position. They praised democracy as a framework for government, warned against military intervention in the political process and condemned the shooting of protesters in Egypt without taking an obvious position in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the message of this small group of elite writers was lost amid the passionate verbal battles between Saudi pro-Morsi activists and their opponents. The Egyptian crisis left Saudis divided with no neutral ground to occupy.
Saudi engagement with what is going on in Egypt is not new, for Egypt has always inflamed Arab imagination beyond its borders. In the 20th century, it has produced three trends that influenced not only Saudi Arabia but the rest of the Arab world. First, modernity — with its arguments and debates, not to mention its popular culture —  spread from Egypt to the rest of the region, with Saudi Arabia receiving its share of this early 20th-century development. Second, with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Arab nationalism came to Saudi Arabia from Egypt and recruited supporters, among whom were well-known royalty such as Talal ibn Abdul Aziz and his Free Princes movement. Arab nationalism’s anti-imperialist jargon inflamed the imagination of a local population, especially that in the Hijaz and the oil-rich Eastern Province, still adhering to primordial identities and trying to find its place in a new world. Finally, the latest of the Egyptian trends was Islamism, which inspired a new generation of Saudis who were struggling to find a language of opposition that combines Islamic authenticity with mobilization, the latter being forbidden under local Salafist religious discourse.
While Saudis never ceased to be inspired by Egyptian intellectual and political exports, their government endeavored to eliminate the spread of alien ideas and their consequences. Its religious scholars dubbed modernity a form of blasphemy that leads to secularism, doubt and loss of Muslim identity. The government initially used Islamism to fight Nasser’s Arab nationalism, considered a remnant of the pre-Islamic age of ignorance whereby celebrating Arabism undermines the unity of Muslims. The Saudi government reached an amicable relation with Egypt only after Anwar al-Sadat came to power but felt compelled to boycott him after the 1979 Camp David Agreement. Under Mubarak, harmonious but occasionally tense relations with Egypt were maintained against a whole range of enemies, Iran being one of them.
Saudi Arabia is putting its full weight behind the Egyptian military coup that promises to end all Islamist politics and relieve Saudi Arabia of the menace of one of its most popular Islamist movements. A blow to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organization is believed to undermine all affiliate branches, destroy their popularity and, most important, end the era of Islamism across the Arab world. While awaiting the final death of Islamism, Saudi Arabia also has at its disposal a local Salafist trend that abhors the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a competitive, divisive and dangerous trend. The Muslim Brotherhood undermines Salafist monopoly over the religious and political scene, not to mention educational and social institutions.
Yet, the real danger to Saudi Arabia is not the multiple isms Egypt has previously exported. In fact, a stable democratic Egypt will be the ultimate threat that will reverberate across the region and set a precedent that many Saudis will carefully observe.
As long as Egypt is crippled by post-revolutionary turmoil, Saudi Arabia can rest assured that it will never become a source of inspiration. A prolonged military dictatorship ensures that the Saudis remain fearful of revolutionary action and its consequences, hence the government’s determination to continue supporting military rule in Egypt. A democratic Egypt will be hard to co-opt or contain. Rather than dividing Saudi opinion, Egypt may then unify them.

Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalization, religious trans-nationalism and gender.

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