Kingdom’s leaders fall back on pocketbook diplomacy in a shifting Middle East
Saudi Arabia, the world's number one oil exporter and home
to Islam's holiest places, has long cast itself as a natural leader of the Arab
But on some of the most urgent issues facing the Middle East
today - Palestinian statehood and turmoil in Yemen and Syria - the kingdom's
ageing rulers have so far abdicated a lead role and the chance to shape the
region shaken by Arab uprisings.
Middle Eastern diplomats have long described Saudi foreign
policy as working like a searchlight: able to focus sharply on a single
dominant issue, but lacking the capacity to follow up its interest when
attention has moved elsewhere.
"The Saudis have historically not been
grand-standers," said Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Riyadh.
"They have not made grand proclamations and have preferred to work under
the radar and quietly. This is still very much their style."
Now analysts fear the growing frailty of the kingdom's most
senior leadership has diminished its diplomatic agility in a political system
that relies on sustained interest from the top.
The conservative Islamic state is at odds with its key US
ally over how to respond to Arab pro-democracy movements and appears to have
ceded some regional leadership to Turkey, which has taken a strong line against
Israel and the Syrian president.
Used to working back channels and shunning the limelight,
the kingdom has employed pocketbook diplomacy, pledging billions of dollars to
Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
Underpinning Saudi concerns are its fears that the fall of
established rulers after popular revolts has created strategic opportunities
for Middle East rival Iran, while instability, especially in Yemen, has gifted
openings to al Qaeda.
"Saudi Arabia is a status quo power in a region where
the majority of Arabs oppose the status quo," said Shadi Hamid, director
of research at Brookings Doha Center. "So to the extent that democratic
change provides an opening for hostile forces, they oppose democracy."
Nowhere was that more evident than in Bahrain, where Saudi
forces intervened in March to help the island's Sunni rulers crush pro-reform
demonstrations backed by the Shi'ite majority.
The Saudis had already been upset with the United States for
failing to prevent the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom they
had seen as a vital ally against Iran.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who is in his 80s, is
in poor health and cannot work a full day, while Crown Prince Sultan bin
Abdulaziz al-Saud is abroad for medical treatment.
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The next most senior man, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin
Abdulaziz al-Saud, weighs in on foreign policy, but has been unwell himself and
has a different approach on some international issues, especially with veteran
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who is also unwell.
"King Abdullah's the central figure and ultimately
calls the shots, but he's not in perfect health and neither are the people
around him," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, a political analyst and partner at
Cornerstone Global consultants.
"It's not contributing to the Saudis' ability to create
a coherent policy and establish facts on the ground. The Saudi state is becoming
a passive player."
Although both King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud
have backed the Palestinian statehood claim in prepared texts released to
journalists, neither read out their remarks, which could be a sign they are not
pushing the matter forcefully.
Indeed the king only said Riyadh would join others in
support of the Palestinian bid, according to published remarks.
By contrast, in 2002 King Abdullah proposed a peace plan
offering Israel pan-Arab recognition in return for a Palestinian state. It was
rejected by Israel, but remains the corner-stone of Arab policy on the region's
most stubborn impasse.
Instead of a fresh diplomatic offensive to coincide with the
request for the U.N. Security Council to recognise a Palestinian state, the
kingdom has worked mostly behind the scenes.
This month a senior Saudi prince wrote an opinion piece in
the New York Times warning that Washington's promised veto of the resolution
would make its relationship with Riyadh "toxic".
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief and
ambassador to Washington and London, has no formal role, but his words were
widely interpreted as a message from King Abdullah.
Jordan, the former US envoy, said the Saudis were unlikely
to risk the basic relationship with the United States over any UN vote,
suggesting their leverage on that issue was limited.
"They recognise how closely vital Saudi interests are
tied to vital US interests on a whole range of issues from counter-terrorism to
Iran and maintaining a balanced price of oil," he said. "It would be
almost unthinkable for there to be a major rupture such that the two countries
fail to cooperate."
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Saudi policy on Yemen, where more than 100 people have been
killed in a week of clashes between opponents and supporters of President Ali
Abdullah Saleh, also lacks force, say analysts.
Saleh spent three months in Riyadh recuperating from an
assassination attempt before returning to Sanaa on Friday.
Any expectation that Saleh would bow out to end the crisis
roiling Yemen since protests erupted in January fell flat. He offered no
concessions and no clear path to transfer power.
Saudi princes have strong networks of influence throughout
Yemen, which the kingdom regards as its top security risk, and have spent
freely on their unruly neighbour in the past.
However, while Riyadh has backed a Gulf-brokered plan for
Saleh to step down, it has failed to pressure the veteran Yemeni leader to
implement an orderly transfer of power.
"Yemen is a clear example of where the Saudi regime is
unable to make a decision on what they want," said Nuseibeh, arguing that
top Saudi figures supported rival Yemeni factions and did not know what to do
with Saleh when he was in Riyadh.
Saudi policy on Syria has also seemed half-hearted. In
August, King Abdullah demanded an end to the bloodshed against protesters and
withdrew his ambassador to Damascus, but has not followed through, for example
by pushing for Arab League measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.