Saturday, December 16, 2006

Saudis Jockeying for Post-US Withdrawal Era: The BackStories Part II

Back when I was Political/Military Officer for the US Embassy in Jidda in the '70s , I was sent to study the political situation in Eastern Province, and in particular, the Shi'ite minority who actually comprised the majority in the Al-Hasa Oasis, and towns like HufHuf, where pious Shi'ites refused to allow me to photograph them. As a sort of perverse joke on the ninety-percent Sunni Saudi population [at that time], the Shi'ites occupy the real estate where a huge amount of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves are located.

While I was in Dhahran to check on the Shi'ites [as a sidebar political officer for internal affairs to my main job as Pol/Mil], the US Consul General said that I had to meet a Saudi Prince who was an actual commander of a Fighter Wing for the RSAF, an unparalleled achievement for senior Saudi Royals, who normally existed at that time in otiose languorous oisivete, French for being layabouts with money.

When I met Bandar bin Sultan at his spartan office, he invited me to his home for dinner and after meeting his pregnant wife Haifa and their kids, we had dinner and then retired for orange juice and cigars for what turned out to be seven hours of what diplomats call a "tour d'horizon." Bandar is voluble and incredibly street smart with a charismatic charm that is virtually irresistable. He told me very late that evening the fact hitherto unknown to the US government that there existed a Saudi National Security Council, told me who was on it, and finally told me that he wanted to be king someday. I forwarded this to Washington in an airgram, and former Saudi and Egyptian Ambassador Hermann Eilts began a correspondence with me that turned into a friendship recently terminated by his death in Wellesley. Bandar famously went on to be a fabulously successful Saudi Ambassador to the US for over twenty years.

But that was then and this is now. Bandar himself now sits as the head of the Saudi NSC and jumping forward, the recent rapid return to Saudi Arabia by Prince Turki al-Faisal while his brother, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal lies ill means perhaps that Turki is lobbying to succeed his brother, while Bandar vies to supplant the Bani Faisal [sons of King Faisal] in the line to highest levels of internal Royal Family power and influence While I doubt that a more mature and seasoned Bandar still aspires to become King, one can surmise that his becoming Foreign Minister would be a steppingstone to the highest royal status---and I will eventually get to why that's something that may be important to the US.

[Background digression: skip if you want to cut to the chase] When you talk about the US-Saudi relationship, Saudi Oil Minister Zaki Yamani used to call it a "Catholic marriage,' full of broken hurled crockery, but fundamentally stable. However, three decades later Catholic marriages aren't what they used to be, and neither is the relationship once affirmed with the so-called Carter Doctrine, which pledged defense of Saudi Arabia if attacked, and the Reagan Corollary, which pledged defense of the Saudi Royal Family. King Abdullah has departed slightly, more by nuance than by policy, from supporting the US in every eventuality that King Fahd appeared to follow.

But King Abdullah has heart problems, and may soon be succeeded by Bandar's father, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, which would escalate Bandar's ascendancy in the Royal Family and perhaps put the sons of King Faisal, a talented group who must live more by their wits nowadays than by dynastic connections, in a permanent backseat to the chief policymakers of the KSA.

So what, you say. I beg your forbearance in letting me develop the backdrop a bit more with another digression.

And indeed, the influence of the Saudis in particular and the Arab Middle East in general is receding as Turkey is being backpedaled back into the region by its apparent rejection by the EU and its nervousness about the independent Kurdish polity in Iraq. And of course, the advent of Iran as a nuclear power would put Saudi Arabia's favorite enemy [KSA and the Shah's Iran had no diplomatic relations while I was there] in a hegemonic regional position. So the Saudi coalition of Egypt, Jordan, Sunni Iraq, the Gulfies and the Arab League becomes relatively diminished in the overall weight-class in the political boxing matches afflicting the region. But the Saudis have another weight-class when it comes to economics.

Economically, the Saudis control to a large extent the price of oil through its role of swing producer in Opec. The Saudis can and have in the past frequently moved the price downward and then let the price rise by lowering production, often at the behest of the US as in the mid-eighties and again for GHWBush's '88 election. Now King Abdullah has changed this relationship with the US dramatically as he is now allowing Opec to move out of the dollar where all oil purchases are denominated in US currency and into a "basket" of currencies which are not losing value, as the dollar is and appears set to continue to do. This is happening slowly, but a rapid withdrawal from the dollar could cause harm to the US economy. Parenthetically, the Saudis also allowed a higher oil price at the recent OPEC meeting in Abuja.

And Abdullah appears vexed by the US performance in Iraq. I recall reading that the Saudis and Gulfies and other Arabs reluctantly agreed to the US unilateral invasion of Iraq, but in a Shakespearian "if it is to be done, let it be done quickly" mode.
Three and a half years later, Abdullah sees Lebanon [where King Abdullah has close family ties] and Iraq appear ready to revert to anarchy. The Saudis would have preferred Saddam to anarchy or an absolute Shi'ite paramountcy, which could ensue if the US leaves before some final agreement or cessation of hostilities.

So is Abdullah going to revert to the Saudi semi-neutral position when it signed on to the '73 Oil Embargo to punish the US for supporting Israel? Or will he decide that the Saudis cannot depend on the US, or that US support will be too radioactive in the turbulence ensuing from a "non-precipitous" withdrawal?

Finally getting to the point, I think an interesting tea leaf to the answer may lie in who is appointed to the Foreign Minister post, Bandar or Turki. There is also the third alternative, to leave Saud acting-FonMin for as long as it takes to hammer out a decision on the candidates among the members of the senior Royals, who will finally decide.
[I have to run now, but am going to put up this post while I finish the second half and the bizarre reasoning processes one goes through when "wearing one's Saudi hat."]

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