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Analysis: Syria and the 'Saudi Dawn'

Saudi Arabia's sharp condemnation of Syria signals it is no longer willing to wait for Washington to take the lead in the Mideast.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 8/14/2011, 9:10 AM

As the Obama administration appears reticent and issues tepid condemnations on world events, Saudi Arabia has become bolder in its strategy for dealing with the turmoil in the Mideast.

No longer willing to wait for Washington's cue, the Saudis are aggressively trying to influence the regional turmoil and boost its twin goals — protect fellow royal houses and isolate its rival, Iran.

The more decisive Saudi policies by King Abdullah were on full display last week as he took the lead among Arab nations by removing his ambassador from Syria and demanding an "end to the killing machine" of President Bashar Al Assad's regime in a startlingly strong condemnation of Damascus' bloody suppression of protesters.

It was the first time Saudi Arabia has weighed in publicly on Syria's upheaval — and demonstrated the Saudis' willingness to shift gears dramatically as needed if their interests, and those of their fellow Arab monarchies, require it.

To date Saudi Arabia has been the region's pro-status quo, anti-Arab Spring power.

The reason for the shift, of course, is Iran. For the Saudis, the revolt in Syria is a chance to strike at one of the key pillars of Iran's regional influence.

Golden Opportunity

"Saudi Arabia sees this as a golden opportunity to further chip away at Iran's influence in the Arab Middle East and also ... to change the strategic map," Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said.

"This is going to make your foreign policy more robust and aggressive," he said of the Saudis.

But that doesn't come without some potential complications for Saudi Arabia. Stronger Saudi policies open the risks of friction with Washington, which is Saudi Arabia's main arms supplier and had counted on Saudi support to push US interests in the Arab world.

Analysts say there is virtually no chance of a serious rift, and US and Saudi officials are on the same page on other pivotal showdowns, such as efforts to get Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after months of protest and bloodshed.

Saudi Dawn

But Saudi Arabia's short term reliance and alliance with the US may not be in King Abdullah's long-term plans, especially in light of the Obama administration's open desire for the United States to step back from being the global engine and leave "allies" to lead in their regions.

The Saudis, who play a pivotal and driving role in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, are at the heart of efforts to transform the GCC into a unified diplomatic and military confederation to counter Iran's influence and rise to being the region's primary power player.

The GCC, comprised of the Gulf's six Sunni Arab monarchies, has also moved to include the world's remaining two Arab monarchies -- Jordan and Morocco -- as King Abdullah has actively sought to solidify GCC alliances with his royal houses via royal marriages.

The Obama administration may find its own reluctance to take decisive action has given rise to the Saudi dawn.