Saudi Curtain Lifted on Diplomacy as Syria Spurs Action

Saudi Arabia’s backing for rebels in Syria is the latest sign that Arab unrest is pushing the traditionally reticent kingdom into more active diplomacy.

Arming Syria’s opposition is an “excellent idea,” Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, told reporters at a meeting in Tunisia last month. King Abdullah was blunt with Russia after it blocked United Nations action on Syria, telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev that there was no point in discussing the matter.

“The Saudi position on Syria is unprecedented,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh. “Ever since King Abdulaziz, the founding father, Saudi Arabia has never taken such a bold position against an Arab state by siding with a revolution.”

Saudi Arabia has historically prioritized stability, and suffered a blow at the start of the Arab Spring with the toppling of its ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Driving the policy shift now in the world’s largest oil supplier is the desire to cement an alliance against Iran, Syria’s backer, and bolster Saudi leadership in the Gulf as Qatar’s regional ambitions grow.

Tweaking oil production has been a more typical Saudi foreign policy tool than public exhortations to armed uprising. The kingdom holds about one-fifth of global reserves, and when 1.3 million barrels a day of Libyan oil output halted during the revolt against Muammar Qaddafi, spare Saudi capacity covered the gap. By contrast, neighboring Qatar provided arms and uniforms to Libyan rebels and sent its air force to fly sorties.

‘Stunned’ by Egypt

“Events in Egypt left the Saudi Foreign Ministry in a state of shock,” said Crispin Hawes, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group in London. “They were stunned by the speed with which the military forced Mubarak out. By the time they tried to work out what to do, Libya was already on the go and the Qataris had already jumped in.”

Saudi Arabia posted economic growth of 6.8 percent last year and hasn’t suffered unrest on the scale that forced out leaders in Tunisia and Yemen as well as Egypt and Libya. There have been sporadic clashes in the oil-producing eastern region where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim population live.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leaders have accused Shiite-ruled Iran of provoking the unrest. They make the same charge about last year’s protests in Bahrain, led by the island nation’s Shiite majority. Iran has denied the accusation and says Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain suffer discrimination.

Gulf Unity

Saudi Arabia led a Gulf military intervention a year ago to help Bahrain’s Sunni rulers quell the unrest. As well as sending troops, the kingdom backed a $20 billion aid package to Bahrain and Oman to help pay for economic reforms aiming to allay the protests. Both countries are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

As revolts spread across republics in the Arab world last year, the GCC invited the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco to join the group. Addressing his fellow Gulf heads of state in December, King Abdullah called for the GCC to move toward greater political unity. Efforts to create a single currency, originally intended to be in circulation by 2010, have been postponed.

The king’s call for Gulf unity may be hindered by “the question of sovereignty,” Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre in Jeddah, said in an interview. He said each royal family has “a very special relationship with their people” and may be unwilling to cede power.

Qatar Activism

Qatar, the world’s richest country per capita and biggest exporter of natural gas, has been at the forefront of the GCC’s public response to the Arab uprisings. In Libya, it provided rebels with desert uniforms and set up a field hospital to care for the wounded in Misrata while Qatari Mirage jets helped enforce the UN-imposed no-fly zone.

“Qatar is trying to punch way above its weight,” Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington DC, said in an e-mail. “But for the really big stuff, the leadership of Qatar must clearly see the importance of joining up with their more militarily powerful and more populous neighbor, Saudi Arabia.”

Qatar’s population of about 2 million compares with Saudi Arabia’s 26.5 million, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

Qatar has spoken out on Syria, too. Foreign Minister Hamad Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani has called for a humanitarian corridor to get aid to besieged Syrians. The UN estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago. More than 1,000 have died since the Feb. 4 veto by Russia and China blocked a Security Council resolution calling on Assad to step down, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

‘Used by the Iranians’

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria became strained after the assassination in 2005 of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, a confidant of the Saudi royal family and citizen of the kingdom. An initial UN investigation linked the killing to Syrian officials, and a UN tribunal last year indicted four people linked to the Hezbollah movement, backed by Syria and Iran. Syria and Hezbollah have denied involvement.

Saudi diplomacy has sought without success to persuade Assad to revert to the regional policy of his father, who was able to balance an Iranian alliance with a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, political scientist al-Dakhil said.

“The Saudis are convinced now that Bashar al-Assad must go,” he said. “They think that Bashar is depending too much on Iran and on Hezbollah. They think he is providing the platform for the Iranian regime, he is allowing himself to be used by the Iranians.”

Tribal Ties

For King Abdullah, there are also tribal affiliations at stake in the Syrian conflict, according to Robert Lacey, author of “Inside the Kingdom,” a 2009 history of Saudi Arabia.

About half a million Syrians belong to the Shammar tribe of the king’s mother, and that is “right at the head of the list for Abdullah’s response to Syria,” Lacey said in an interview in Jeddah. “If Abdullah is in a competitive match with the Emir of Qatar, taking good care of his ‘own’ people in Syria would be a major element in demonstrating his power, seriousness and competence.”

The Syrian government “lost its legitimacy once it killed its citizens,” the Saudi Press Agency reported Abdullah bin Yahya al-Mua’lemi, the kingdom’s ambassador to the UN, as saying on March 3. The next day, Prince Saud said after hosting a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers in Riyadh that Syrians had the right to take up arms to protect themselves.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia backed Mubarak right to the end. Two weeks before his ouster, in a phone conversation with the Egyptian leader reported by the SPA, Abdullah expressed his support. “Some infiltrators, in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability,” the king said.

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