Hard as it is to imagine, the kleptocratic kingdom of Saudi Arabia might be President Obama’s only way out of the tangled mess he’s made in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. At any rate, Saudi Arabia is trying the equivalent of a diplomatic hat trick—a bad metaphor, to say the least, since there are few ice rinks in the Arabian peninsula—by seeking deals, talks, and peacemaking with all parties in all those conflicts.
Saudi Arabia’s interest, of course, is purely survival. It’s not easy sitting on a quarter of a trillion barrels of oil while surrounded by nationalists, the poor, and various malefactors who’d love to get their hands on some of it.
Let’s do a quick rundown.
First, Saudi Arabia won huge credit from the Obama administration for saving its behind by uncovering and revealing, in timely fashion, the plot by Yemen-based members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The plot itself wasn’t hugely significant, but had one or two aircraft exploded in the sky a week before the November 2 election, it would have made the Democrats’ electoral rout catastrophic. For the foreseeable future, Saudi Arabia is golden. And that’s not a bad thing, because King Abdullah is trying his best to broker deals involving Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. And, the Saudis haven’t given up entirely on bringing Fatah and Hamas together, either, which is a necessary (but not sufficient) piece of the Israel-Palestine puzzle.
In the past few days Saudi Arabia has offered to broker a deal in the long-running government stalemate in Iraq. King Abdullah has invited all of Iraq’s players to visit Saudi Arabia to hash out their seemingly intractable squabbling. That’s not to say that all parties will welcome Saudi Arabia’s involvement. Most of all, Saudi Arabia favors the Sunnis, who’ve rallied behind former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, and they don’t like Prime Minister Maliki one bit. The State of Law party, the hilariously misnamed party set up by Maliki, has already delivered its to-be-expected rejection of King Abdullah’s initiative, and Kurds don’t like it either, apparently. But Abdullah is not easily deterred. “Everyone believes that you are at a crossroads that requires the utmost to unite, get over traumas, and get rid of sectarianism,” said the Saudi king. By “sectarianism,” of course, Abdullah means Shiite triumphalism. But the Saudi king is smart enough to know that if Iraq is going to have a stable government, it’s going to mean that Maliki, Allawi, and other factions—notably the boisterous Kurds—are going to have to divide power three ways.
That, the Saudi monarch undoubtedly knows, means that Saudi Arabia and Iran (along with Turkey as a minority shareholder) will have to strike a deal of their own to support a broad-based, compromise government. The idea that Saudi Arabia and Iran can make that kind of deal isn’t unprecedented. Over the past several years, they’ve done precisely that in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia and its Sunni partners, along with the Christian allies, stuck a deal with Iran and its Shiite partners, including Hezbollah and its own Christian allies, and so far it’s worked. That deal didn’t make the United States happy, but it’s stabilized Lebanon, as much as that sect-ridden nation can be called stable.
Twice in October, King Abdullah held phone conversations with guess who? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Yes, the mercurial Shiite end-times believer is in regular contact with the king, keeper of the Muslim holy places. They spoke on October 12, the day before Ahmadinejad made his much-publicized visit to Lebanon. Perhaps that talk was about ensuring that the Saudi-Iran accord over Lebanon stayed intact, and perhaps they talked about Iraq. But on October 21, Abdullah and Ahmadinejad held another chat, undoubtedly recorded, transcribed and parsed by the experts at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade. It’s interesting, though, that on the same day Prince Naif, the hardline Saudi minister of the interior, and the king’s half-brother (of course), said: “We are closely following the situation in Iraq and we clearly see gross interference in its internal affairs.” Translation: We’ve taken note of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei are butting into Arab affairs.” It’s hard to believe that King Abdullah isn’t trying to explain to Ahmadinejad that Saudi Arabia is willing to support a Lebanon-style accord in Iraq.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is involved—quietly and behind the scenes—in offering its good offices, its support (translation: lots of cash) and its prayers for a political accord between the Karzai government in Afghanistan and the Taliban. The newly created High Peace Council in Afghanistan is begging for Saudi assistance in getting the talks started. Saudi Arabia has long had ties to the Taliban, and in then 1990s it was one of only three countries in the world that recognized the benighted government (the other two were Pakistan and the UAE). If there is going to be a deal to reconcile with the Taliban, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the UAE are going to be critical in making it stand up. Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia had hosted unofficial talks between key players, including President Karzai’s brother, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, and top officials of the Taliban and during the latest round of contacts between Karzai and the Taliban both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were reportedly helpful.
It’s not at all clear that even dollops of Saudi cash and good will can help ameliorate any of these crises. For Saudi Arabia the worst thing that could happen would be a war between the United States and Iran or, alternately, an Israeli attack on Iran, since it would drastically raise tension throughout the entire Persian Gulf (or, as the Saudis like to call it, the Arabian Gulf). It would raise the specter of Iranian retaliatory attacks against Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. So, as much as Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will do anything it can to avoid a military showdown involving Iran. Which makes Saudi Arabia a useful partner for the United States is virtually every conflict in the region.