Apr 01 2012
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Saudi Arabia's regional foreign policy is a complex web of religion, ideology and economics
"The way of politics in the Gulf - as far as I can have witnessed in my life - has not been positive for the Arab countries," said Nisreen Nassereddine, who hosts a show called 'Heart of the World' - a show that promotes an alliance between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey - on Asia TV. A Beirut-based Arabic satellite channel launched in February, Asia TV aims to provide a counterpoint to the lines taken by Gulf-owned media outlets, including Saudi-owned Al Arabiya.
"This area could be a buffer against the extremism of Saudi Arabia," says Entifadh Qanbar, the station's manager. "Everyone is afraid of the Saudis."
Saudi Arabia uses its print and broadcast media empire to promote its policies, a line that has come into greater focus as the country has selectively supported uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East this year. While it has supported rebellions against nominally secular dictators in the Sunni-majority countries of Libya, Syria and Egypt, it used its troops to help put down an uprising among Bahrain's Shiite majority against the Sunni, Saudi-allied monarchy.
As Syria's lopsided civil war continues, the country has become the latest tableau for Saudi Arabia's decades old competition with Iran for influence in the Middle East. The kingdom, along with Qatar, has been outspoken in its support for arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebels fighting Syrian president Bashar al Assad, who is backed by Iran and Russia, another longstanding Saudi foil.
"Is there something greater than the right to defend oneself and to defend human rights?" said Saudi foreign minister Saud al Faisal during a televised news conference in March. "The regime is not wanted by the people. The regime is insisting on imposing itself by force on the Syrian people."
Al Faisal walked out of the "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis in February, frustrated that no country other than Qatar was willing to openly arm the FSA. The kingdom has promised money for the rebels, though it is unclear at this point whether any cash or arms have been delivered.
Iranian media has not held back in response, accusing the Saudis also of trying to sabotage Yemen's transitional government. A Saudi-brokered deal last year provided for the removal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a subsequent election.
"Saudi Arabia wants to end Yemen's revolution by any means and at any cost," a member of Yemen's Shabab al Samood movement, Faris Abu-Bare'a told Fars New Agency, an Iranian government outlet. "Saudi Arabia is fearing the success of Yemen's revolution more than any other revolution because it knows very well that in case this revolution succeeds, the Yemenis will be freed from the claws of the tyranny of the Saudi kingdom and the Saudis' hand will be cut off Yemen's affairs."
Yemen's new president, Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi, has been less harsh, and had planned to travel to Saudi Arabia in March for meetings with King Abdullah.
The Saudi government, however, is willing to soften its lines in order to achieve political goals. The kingdom recently announced its ambassador to Jordan would also serve as its ambassador to Iraq. Riyadh has had no diplomatic representation in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 ushered in a Shiite-led government aligned with Iran.
"Saudi Arabia has been very hesitant, shying away from dealing with the new Iraq, and this is a positive change," Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Washington Post last month.
"Last week, Saudi officials welcomed a delegation of Iraqi lawmakers close to [Iraqi prime minister] Maliki to the capital, Riyadh," The Post reported. "The Iraqi interior ministry released a statement calling the meeting successful and saying that a security agreement had been signed."
The warming may be related to the Arab League summit held in Baghdad on 26 March. Iraq has so far been unwilling to harshly criticise Assad's government, and has allowed Iranian planes to use Iraqi airspace and landing strips on their way to Syria, with unknown cargoes, though it said in mid-March such deliveries would no longer be allowed.
The Saudis, for all their talk, do not appear to be providing any significant support for the Syrian rebels as yet, at least according to the rebels themselves. Recent reports that the kingdom is sending arms via Jordan have been denied by both the rebels and the Jordanian government. Many believe the reason countries have not provided more direct aid is because Assad and his father, Hafez, while not making peace with Israel, have maintained a status quo that has allowed Israel to occupy the Golan Heights while the spectre of an actual conflict remains far off.
As Israeli relations with Turkey have deteriorated in the past year, Saudi Arabia has become the most likely flyover point if Israeli planes attempt to launch an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. It is unclear whether the Saudi government would allow such use of their airspace, but it's far from out of the question. If the Sunnis in Lebanon's north, who are also openly calling for Saudi intervention in Syria, are any indicator, Iran is a far greater enemy than Israel. Saudi Arabia, though lacking a formal peace treaty with Israel, is often accused of not being vocal enough in its support of Palestinians or its criticism of Israel. But that would suggest that the most important indicator of Saudi policy is ideology - a better guess might be that such criticism would simply be bad for business.
Another clue that Saudi Arabia might at least tacitly support an Israeli strike on Iran is the announcement the Saudis would make up any shortfall in oil production related to such a strike. However great a threat Saudi believes Iran's nuclear programme to be, an Israeli strike might at least be good for business.
© The Gulf 2012
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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