It's the last day of the Arab League summit, March 29, and at the New Man barbershop, Ali Trabulsi is keeping one eye on his scissors and the other on a wall-mounted TV tuned to live coverage of the Arab leaders assembled in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"The Saudis are really challenging the Americans, aren't they?" Trabulsi says gleefully, shearing the beard from a customer's face. "They don't want to listen to Bush anymore. They know that he's weak and that his people are turning against him." When one of his assistants turns on a blow-drier, Trabulsi makes him turn it off so he can hear Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal boasting how Arab leaders refused to change any part of their peace offer to Israel.
But what really excited Trabulsi was a speech at the summit's opening a day earlier by Saudi King Abdullah, in which he denounced, for the first time, the US occupation of Iraq as "illegitimate." "In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing among brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," Abdullah said. Trabulsi normally turns the TV in his shop to soap operas or music videos, but he tuned in to the summit around the clock–even if some customers complained about being bored by the rhetoric.
It's not just the notoriously skeptical Arab street that is falling for the Saudi regime's latest attempt to distance itself from unpopular US policies. American media and analysts rushed to portray Abdullah's comments as evidence that the Saudis are abandoning the Bush Administration, and that a renewed partnership between Washington and Sunni Arab regimes–to counter Iran–is dead.
Abdullah's speech "underscored growing differences between Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration as the Saudis take on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at American urging," the New York Times wrote in a front-page story on March 29. "The Saudis seem to be emphasizing that they will not be beholden to the policies of their longtime ally."
Newsweek went even further, billing Abdullah's comments as "just the latest volley in Saudi Arabia's war of independence from Washington" and offering a glowing Q&A with the Saudi foreign minister. Even the Arab press got in on the trend: The leftist Beirut daily as-Safir titled its lead editorial "King Abdullah in Opposition."
There are signs that the Saudis are pursuing their own agenda in the Middle East. In February Abdullah brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah for a unity government in the Palestinian territories. The king called for an end to the US and European boycott of the Palestinian administration–despite Israeli and US insistence that the embargo continue until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. The Saudis are also reaching out to Iran: Abdullah recently hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh, while other Saudi leaders are working with Iranian officials to broker an end to the five-month-old political crisis in Lebanon.
But taken together, these events don't prove a shift in Saudi policy toward Iraq or the Bush Administration in general. In late 2006, after the Democratic victory in Congress and release of the Iraq Study Group's report recommending a phased withdrawal, the Saudis were quite worried that America might leave Iraq. Nawaf Obaid, a consultant for the Saudi Embassy to the United States, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that if there was a US withdrawal, the Saudi government would provide funding, weapons and logistical support to Sunni militias in Iraq. (Although Obaid was later fired as a consultant, the op-ed was still seen as a warning of how the Saudis would react to a US withdrawal.)
So why are the Saudis sending conflicting messages? The Bush Administration has become so unpopular that even its staunchest allies are trying to publicly distance themselves from it. And this strategy appears to be working for the Saudis, judging by the reaction in the US media and on the Arab street. The Saudis are also hedging their bets–flirting with both the Americans and the Iranians.
The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq fueled a new wave of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Today, anyone allied with the United States is viewed in the Arab world as a traitor, starting with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. "People are against anything or anyone associated with America," says Mohammad Salah, Cairo bureau chief of the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat. "They don't want any more American meddling in the region."
The House of Saud has long experience navigating contradictory allegiances. Since the 1930s, the ruling family has managed a tenuous pair of alliances: one as an ally and major oil supplier to the United States, and the other as a political partner with Wahhabi clerics who dominate social and religious policy in the kingdom. The clerics have long vilified America and the West.
Saudi Arabia, which sits on one-quarter of the world's known oil reserves, is the second-largest foreign oil provider to the United States. Overall, Saudi Arabia provides about 11 percent of America's annual oil consumption, and uses its leverage within OPEC to keep oil prices at levels that please Washington and the oil industry. In return for a steady supply of oil, successive US administrations have supported the Saud family and provided military assistance whenever aggressive neighbors like Iraq have threatened the kingdom. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, the United States sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia and used it as a base from which to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. About 5,000 US troops remained in the kingdom at the Prince Sultan Air Base, and the high-tech command center served as headquarters for US air strikes on Afghanistan in 2001.
The American military presence on Saudi soil enraged Islamic radicals, who decried the Sauds' decision to allow "infidel" Western forces into Islam's birthplace. Osama bin Laden was among those who turned against the ruling family in 1990. Some Saudis speculate that bin Laden specifically recruited fifteen Saudi young men to be the majority of September 11 hijackers as a way to drive a wedge between Washington and the Sauds.
Today, the desert kingdom is full of gleaming office towers, strip malls with brand-name American stores and highways packed with Buicks and Chevrolets. Saudis love American culture and products; they hate American foreign policy. It's important for the House of Saud to make a show of opposing Washington because many Saudis think that America is exploiting their country.
"America has to stop seeing Saudi Arabia as just an oil station," Mojeb Zahrani, a literature professor at King Saud University and a leading Saudi reformer, told me in 2003 in Riyadh. "That's why it has been an unbalanced relationship for a long time."
King Abdullah's new strategy is also intended to obscure the renewed alliance between Washington and authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes–Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries–that is trying to counter Iran (the tip of what Jordan's King Abdullah famously described as an emerging "Shiite crescent" stretching through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon). Each side is helping to fuel a proxy war in Iraq, with the Sunni regimes backing Sunni militants and Iran supporting Shiite militias. Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former National Security Council staff member, argues that this new alliance, which includes Israel, is intended to shift attention from Iraq and focus on Iran as the greatest threat facing the region.
"The organizing principle of the new strategy is confrontation with and containment of Shiite influence–and specifically Iranian influence–wherever it appears in the region," says Sick, who now teaches at Columbia University. "Arab states may even subordinate their hostility to Israel, at least temporarily, out of their even greater fear of Iranian dominance of the region."
Although Saudi Arabia has a Sunni majority, its rulers fear Iran's potential influence over a sizable and sometimes restive Shiite population concentrated in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province. In Bahrain–another key US ally in the Persian Gulf–the Shiite majority is chafing under Sunni rulers, who also fear Iran's reach.
As Iraq descends into further chaos and sectarian bloodshed, Sunni Arab regimes are lobbying the Bush Administration to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. At their recent summit, Arab leaders revived a five-year-old offer–initially championed by Abdullah at the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut–for a peace deal between Israel and all Arab states. The plan calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands captured during the 1967 Middle East war, the creation of a Palestinian state with sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a "just solution" to the problem of more than 4 million Palestinian refugees. But Israel has long rejected withdrawal from East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank, as well as the "right of return" for the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Yet even limited progress on peace efforts could provide diplomatic cover for the Sunni Arab states to cooperate more closely with Israel–and work to further isolate Iran.
The Iraq War unleashed sectarian hatreds that will be difficult to contain, even if Washington and its Arab allies are able to shift attention to Iran. Aside from Iraq, sectarian tensions are most prevalent in Lebanon, where bloody confrontations erupted in January between US-backed Sunni political parties and Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported Shiite militia. During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, the sectarian divide was between Muslims and Christians. This time the conflict is mainly between Sunnis and Shiites. It's also an extension of the ongoing proxy war in Iraq–pitting Iran against the US-Sunni Arab alliance. "Arabs look at events in Lebanon and they worry about spillover from Iraq," says Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The sectarian war could spread."
The traditional centers of power in the Arab world are extremely nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government and Shiite militias, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and its alliance with Syria (which some Arab regimes are accusing of being a traitor to the Arab cause). Contrary to widespread impression, Arab leaders are not worried that Iran will export the cultural and theological aspects of Shiism; rather, they're afraid of political Shiism spreading around the Arab world through groups like Hezbollah. The group's military success against Israel during last summer's war has electrified the Arab street, and it offers a stark contrast to Arab rulers appeasing the United States. Arab regimes fear that their Sunni populations will be seduced by Iran and Hezbollah's message of empowering the dispossessed–creating a new and potent admixture of Arabism and Shiite identity.
There is some precedent for this. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini–and the entire Iranian uprising against the US-backed Shah–inspired revolutionary zeal among nationalists throughout the Arab world. The revolution's aftershocks were felt for a long time in the Middle East, helping, indirectly, to give rise to some militant Sunni movements and inspiring Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq. Nowhere was that influence more deeply felt than in Lebanon, where Iran helped create Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of 1982. We could be witnessing a similar historical moment, with events in Iran and Iraq having profound consequences for the course of the Arab world.
And this is why Saudi rulers are suddenly talking tough against America. Threatened by this new challenge from Shiites to become the torchbearers of Arabism, the Saudis are trying to reassert their role as leaders of the Arab and wider Muslim world. In his speech at the summit, Abdullah insisted that only when Arab leaders unite will they "be able to prevent foreign powers from shaping the region's future"–a reference, undoubtedly, to both the United States and Iran. Then he added a rare criticism of himself and other Arab rulers. "The real blame falls on us, leaders of the Arab nation, for our constant disputes, and our refusal to become united," he said. "All this made the Arab nation lose confidence in our credibility and lose hope."
That too played well at the Beirut barbershop. "At least King Abdullah has the courage to be honest," said Trabulsi. "When was the last time you heard an Arab leader say he made a mistake?"