Convergences and divergences of the American and Saudi agendas

By Walid Salem (for Safe Democracy)

Walid Salem writes about how two years ago, the Bush Administration was pressuring the Saudi Arabian government for democratic reforms. Now, the same administration has come to the Saudis for help after the failures of Iraq and Lebanon. The author analyzes the pact between Saudi Arabia and the US, and addresses the various convergences and divergences of the Saudi Arabian and American agendas on issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria. In Salem‘s opinion, the Saudi Arabian government has played its cards carefully to exploit the US weakness and further its agenda in the current international climate.

Walid Salem is a political analyst and the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office.

FOLLOWING US FOREIGN RELATIONS WITH SAUDI ARABIA and other “moderate” Arab countries can be confusing. Condoleezza Rice’s multiple meetings with the member countries of the Arab Quartet give the impression that the US has forged alliances with moderate Arab Sunnis against Shi’ite Iran and Jihadist terrorism.

But what about the US pact with Iraqi Shi’ites? What about Syria’s position as a Sunni state allied with Iran? What about Al-Qa’eda being Sunni? And finally, what about the relation of most of the terrorist resistance in Iraq to Sunni groups? This American-Sunni pact, therefore, is more a political pact than anything else, meant to bring the US closer to the Quartet, Israel and other Arab Moderate Countries.

But what does this pact really mean? Have the Arab Moderate Countries really allied with the US against Iran, and forgotten the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Will a Saudi-Israeli normalization take place, regardless of the implementation of a comprehensive solution in Gaza and the West Bank?

To avoid the critique that the Arab moderate states have become collaborators, we must understand the inherent room for disagreements in the formation of pacts. The signing of a pact does not mean that both sides agree with each other on all issues. That said, where do the American and Saudi agendas converge, and where do they diverge?

Saudi politicians meet with American officials on two main issues: combating extremist terrorism, and seeking peace in the Middle East.

The Saudi and American agendas converge in their desire to avoid any connection between Hamas and Iran. The Saudis have taken advantage of this convergence to bring the Palestinians together through the Mecca agreement, despite the fact that it did not satisfy the three Quartet conditions: demanding that Hamas recognize Israel, accept past PLO-Israeli agreements, and condemn terrorism.

The Saudi initiative to bring Hamas out of talks with Iran to a more moderate position has been temporarily successful, but the US has still refused to lift its economic sanctions on the Palestinian government, thus frustrating the Saudi effort to transfer its allocated 650 million dollars to the Palestinian government.

In the eyes of the Saudis, the US takes an unduly biased position in favor of Israel. Saudi officials have attempted to lobby to US officials for Palestinian rights.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called the US presence in Iraq an illegal occupation, very clearly outlining his position on the issue. The Saudis held a conference with different Iraqi groups a few months ago with US support in the hopes of stopping the bloodshed.

While the American administration and the Saudis agree on the need to contain Iranian influence, the American administration has taken extra steps to escalate conflict with Iran. Saudi officials, meanwhile, have visited Tehran several times over the last two years and allowed for the visit of Iranian officials (including Ahmadinejad himself) to Riyadh.

The divergence on this issue is very well defined. The US seems to want to cooperate with Iran to stabilize Iraq, while at the same time preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Saudi politicians, on the other hand, want to cooperate with Iran to stabilize Iraq, find a solution to Lebanon, and, more importantly, limit the emergence of extremist groups. The Saudis have chosen quiet negotiation behind closed doors, rather than bold, inflexible public rhetoric to contain the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Both the US and the Saudis want to see stability in Lebanon, but they hope to attain it in different ways. The US wants to defeat Hezbollah and isolate it, while the Saudis hope to include Hezbollah in the Lebanese political system, pressure Israel to withdraw from Sheba Farms and release Lebanese prisoners, while also pressuring for the release of the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah. The Saudis invited Hezbollah leaders to Riyadh a few months ago to help solve internal Lebanese crises.

The US has pushed, in recent years, for an isolation of Syria due to its alliance with Iran, its hosting of Palestinian terrorist leaders, its support for Hezbollah, and its possible involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. This strategy, however, has not resulted in any positive development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Also important in policy agendas related to Syria is the Arab Peace Initiative. Normalization talks have been proposed between Israel and the moderate Arab countries of the Quartet. But these talks will never get off the ground unless Israel implements the necessary steps for peace in the Middle East. The Saudi newspaper Al-Watan wrote in the beginning of this month Israel wants normalization without implementation. Syria should be pressured for its interference in Lebanon. But Israel should be pressured to return the Golan Heights.

And while the US administration has welcomed Israel’s decision to meet with the Saudis and ignore the Syrians, Saudi officials feel that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should not be implemented at the expense of the Israeli-Syrian peace process.

Saudi policies also converge with US polices with regards to the Hamilton-Baker report currently being implemented by the Democratic majority in the US congress. The Hamilton-Baker report called for a complete withdrawal from Iraq, and the inclusion of Syria in the peace process in order to draw it away from its alliance with Iran.

This is bad news for the Bush Administration, whose declining power is starting to influence its diplomatic pull on the international scene. King Abdullah refused Bush’s invitation to dinner in the US after the Arab Summit. The Saudis, it appears, are waiting for a new administration to take power before dining at the White House.

Olmert, meanwhile, will not take Saudi Arabia’s offers for normalization for granted. With only 2 percent of public support, Olmert will look for any political move he can get. Yet, the Saudis are going to wait for Israel to deliver before making any joint public statement.

Two years ago the US administration was still pressuring the Saudi regime for democracy and reforms. After the failures of Iraq and Lebanon, the same administration has gone to Saudi Arabia for help. Now the Saudis are exploiting this new opportunity to be a world player, while using the language of civil society, reform, and self-criticism as evidenced by the last Arab Peace summit.

With this exploitation (combined with the help of Europe, different back channels, the different track II interventions and also direct negotiations), will the Middle East move forward in peace? This is the subject of another article.

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