Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Saudis Jockeying for Post-US Withdrawal Era: The BackStories

Saudi Arabia has told Dick Cheney that an American drawdown of troops or withdrawal will result in the support of the Saudis [and left unsaid, other Sunni countries in the region like Egypt and Jordan] of the beleaguered Sunni tribal elements left stranded in a Shi'ite hegemony. The New York Times column by Helene Cooper says:
The Saudis have been wary of supporting Sunnis in Iraq because their insurgency there has been led by extremists of Al Qaeda, who are opposed to the kingdom’s monarchy. But if Iraq’s sectarian war worsened, the Saudis would line up with Sunni tribal leaders.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who told his staff on Monday that he was resigning his post, recently fired Nawaf Obaid, a consultant who wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post two weeks ago contending that “one of the first consequences” of an American pullout of Iraq would “be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”

Mr. Obaid also suggested that Saudi Arabia could cut world oil prices in half by raising its production, a move that he said “would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today’s high oil prices.” The Saudi government disavowed Mr. Obaid’s column, and Prince Turki canceled his contract.

But Arab diplomats said Tuesday that Mr. Obaid’s column reflected the view of the Saudi government, which has made clear its opposition to an American pullout from Iraq.

Okay, are you ready for an even weirder apercu into what is going on?

The fact is that the al-Saud family, the Sabah family in Kuwait, the ruling family of Bahrain, and the ruling families of the United Arab Emirates are all, are you ready for this? These families are all relatively junior:
MEMBERS OF THE MESALIKH BRANCH OF THE UNAIZA CONFEDERATION which is the main congeries of Sunni tribes in the Syrian Desert stretching all the way down to the Yemeni and Omani borders, more or less. By the way, there are other tribes, other confederations, and many "tribeless" Saudis and other Arab affiliations.

But when I was political officer in Saudi, my Arabic language skills and other assiduous strokings of the local greybeards allowed me a peek into what really drives the dynamics of this ancient group of inhabitants living there since the times of Sargon, the first Semitic conqueror of Mesopotamia 4200 years ago.

The dynamics are tribal, and the senior elder graybeards told me that the most senior tribal groupings to whom the Al-Saud, Al-Sabah, Al-Khalifah, and other peninsular rulers are in Iraq, way up at the head of the notional tribal table. And despite the trillions of dollars among the rulers of SAG, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar: They all owe fealty and allegiance and BayH [my Arabic is rusty] to the tribal leaders of Iraq. That's how it's been for thousands of years and although the tribal ethos has diminished, or some say disappeared, there is evidence that the exquisitely conservative and traditional King Abdullah still upholds those tribal traditions of honor and allegiance.

So there is the backstory, in part, of why the Saudis must come to the aid of their Sunni tribal elders in Iraq if summoned. It's an oath of a concept long forgotten in the West and even throughout the rest of the world, the Middle East included.

And there is more to the Turki al-Faisal story:
Prince Bandar bin Sultan was the natural son of Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz and a Sudanese slave woman [or let's call her a household retainer]. He had no royal standing in the family because of his mixed origins until he proposed to Haifa, the sister of Turki Al-Faisal and Saud Al-Faisal, and she accepted, which was extraordinary since parental permission was usually requested before the girl accepted the proposal. This happened in the late '60s and Bandar sealed his newly-acquired royal status when at a majlis he asked King Faisal, father of his bride, what he should be called from now on, since he was married to the King's daughter. Faisal answered, "Prince" Bandar bin Sultan, conferring him with legitimate birth denied him by his own father.

Bandar thus gained parity with his two brothers and went on to become the Ambassador to the United States, while Turki headed Saudi intelligence and Saud the Foreign Ministry. Now Bandar is head of the Saudi National Security Council, which he revealed the existence of to me back in the mid-'70s after a long dinner and evening at his home in Dammam. I wrote it up in an Airgram to the State Dept and was commended for discovering something even the CIA had not known. Personally, by word of mouth, which is the only way to find out what is really going in Saudi Arabia.

So now Bandar, the consummate brash arriviste upstart, and Turki, the suave polished diplomat, are contending for the post that their brother is departing.

Remember the TV series Dynasty, back in the days of J R Ewing and Joan Collins and scheming and manoeuvering? Multiple the stakes by a thousand and the consequences of the outcomes by ten thousand, and then what is happening among the countries in the Middle East comes into perspective.

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