Why The Saudis Are Inching Away From Washington's Tent

Shortly after President Clinton's Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, flew to Israel in late March, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Syria were jetting to Saudi Arabia. Despite the different destinations, they all wanted to discuss the same topic: the Middle East peace process, how to get it back on track, and on what terms. It was yet another demonstration of how Saudi Arabia, Washington's staunchest Arab ally, is moving toward an independent foreign policy.

A few weeks earlier, the sudden hospitalization of Saudi Arabia's already frail, 77-year-old King Fahd bin Abdulaziz had underlined that his reign and the kingdom's instinctively pro-U.S. policies are coming to an end after 16 years. While no one suggests that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are on a collision course, the ascendancy of Fahd's half-brother and designated successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, 73, means that the U.S.-Saudi relationship will be "much more complicated" than before, as one top State Dept. official puts it. Adds Sarah Yizraeli, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: "[Abdullah] will decrease overt Saudi dependence on the U.S."

IRAN INITIATIVE. Already, Abdullah has put a strong stamp on Saudi foreign affairs. He has engineered the surprising rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and its longtime enemy, Iran. Abdullah, who is related by marriage to the family of Syria's Hafez Al-Assad, Iran's key Arab ally, went to the Islamic summit in Tehran last December. By February, the Crown Prince was hosting a large Iranian delegation headed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani--the first high-level Iranian visit to Saudi Arabia since the Shah of Iran's overthrow in 1979. Now, air links between the two countries are resuming after a long hiatus.

Some critics charge that Abdullah still is attached to romantic notions of pan-Arabism. Like many other Gulf Arabs, for example, he helped bankroll Saddam Hussein during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran. But these days, he seems to be aiming for a regional balance of power in which Saudi Arabia plays a pivotal role.

Saudi Arabia's recent actions certainly are at odds with Washington's official policy of dual containment of both Iran and Iraq. Last November, before Abdullah went to Tehran, Riyadh had snubbed a U.S.-sponsored economic summit in Doha, Qatar. More recently, Abdullah seems to have been behind the Saudis' refusal to back a U.S. military strike against Iraq. And some observers detect Abdullah's influence in the pact inked on Mar. 22 in Riyadh between Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Mexico to curb oil production--a move that has led to a 27% increase in Gulf oil prices from earlier lows.

Although Abdullah's accession to the throne is assured, his leadership of Saudi Arabia still faces some key tests. For one thing, he must manage with great care his relations with King Fahd's six powerful full brothers, particularly Defense Minister Prince Sultan, an erstwhile rival for the succession. The so-called Sudeiri Seven, all sons of the same mother, have long had a monopoly on key government portfolios, such as Defense and Interior--along with the vast patronage and budgets that go with them. Many Saudis hope Abdullah will crack down on endemic high-level corruption when he succeeds Fahd.

Internal change, though, may be slower to come than the shifts in external policies that already are under way. Abdullah is far from being anti-American; U.S. military advisers, after all, helped to train the National Guard that he leads. But his increasing influence will mean a more assertive and more independent Saudi Arabia. And as Washington's Middle East policy crumbles, that will be one more headache for the U.S.

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