By Neil Partrick

It was Saudi Arabian intelligence which helped prevent the explosion of bombs hidden in printer cartridges on aircraft in Britain and Dubai. Riyadh has recently been politically active in a number of conflicts in the wider Middle East, but will decline suggestions it should become a pivotal power in the region.

The United States and British governments have put Saudi Arabia centre stage for its role in the successful prevention of an attempt by the Yemen-based group, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to use parcel bombs to bring down aircraft over US skies. Saudi Arabia's ability to use former, and possibly present, Saudi Al Qaida members and the kingdom's in-country intelligence network to gather information appears to have been decisive in the interception of the packages.

The US head of counter-intelligence John Brennan expressed a 'debt of gratitude' to Saudi Arabia for alerting them to the threat. However a rather different note was struck by the Saudi owned newspaper Al-Hayat, published in London, which said on November 3 that, regardless of the prevention of the assaults, Al Qaida had been 'successful' as panic returned to the international travel industry.

Al-Hayat is owned by the de facto head of the defence ministry, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the son of Crown Prince Sultan, and is less likely to trumpet the success of the kingdom's intelligence services, which are run by rival princes, than some other segments of the national media.

However the comments were an antidote to the assumption that this was in any sense a turning of the tide in battling international threats from Yemen. Saudi Arabia cannot put itself at the fulcrum of the west's efforts to deal with dangers from Yemeni radicals. Much less can it aid the stabilising of western allies across the broader Middle East, and in the process counter a shared regional adversary, Iran.

In theory Saudi Arabia, an economic powerhouse and home to Islam's two holiest sites, should be able to broker deals, legitimise flagging rulers and manage regional tensions. To this effect Saudi Arabia's western allies have been arguing that it, together with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), should take the lead in Yemen and jointly help to stabilise the semi-failed state.

However Saudi Arabia does not consult the GCC, nor seek the approval of the US and other key western states, when it pursues a mixture of military and hi-tech security solutions to its border security problems, nor when its senior princes patronise disparate Yemeni political, military and tribal players to contain direct threats and to try to shape future internal political scenarios.

Notably, Qatar's current interest in revisiting its effort to mediate peace between the Yemeni fighters who triggered Saudi Arabia's military intervention in November last year, and the Yemeni government, is welcome in the west but seen in the kingdom as interference in its backyard.


Ever since the Saudi ruler Abdullah bin Abdulaziz ascended the throne five years ago, there has been hope in western circles that the country would use its prospective weight to stabilise regional flashpoints. Saudi Arabia proved willing to mediate in the Islamic world and showed it could deliver a political agreement, even if not to the total satisfaction of the US.

Specifically, King Abdullah oversaw the intra-Palestinian Mecca Agreement in 2007. However that deal became toast as it lacked both US and Egyptian support, whose favouring of the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas helped trigger the Hamas takeover in Gaza and the entrenched Palestinian division of today.

Saudi attempts to mediate on other fronts such as Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia floundered in part because of the strength of local disputes but also because its financial attractions could not overcome diplomatic shortcomings both practically and politically. Despite having been chastened by the Palestinian experience, in November Saudi Arabia threw itself into the diplomatic quagmire of Iraqi politics and launched an ill-conceived public offer to host all the Iraqi factions to iron out their differences after an increasingly violent eight month post election impasse without a new government.

Predictably, the marginalised Sunni Arabs of Iraq welcomed the intervention of Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia; the Kurds politely stressed the importance of the tentative understandings already reached, and those close to the Shia Arab leadership of the incumbent and likely next premier Nouri al-Maliki were blunter in declining the Saudi offer.

With Saudi Arabia having long made plain its preference for its Iraqi ally, Ayad Allawi, as part of an effort to unite secular Shia and the mass of Sunnis against Iranian-backed Shia options in Iraq, it is hard to see what Riyadh thought it could achieve. Though unlikely to be the intention, it has set back the efforts of those advisers who have long urged Saudi Arabia to deal with Maliki on the basis that he, or someone of a similar political complexion, is likely to rule Iraq.

Crisis Avoidance

Saudi Arabia continues to show an interest in engaging with Iran to aid what seems to be a mutual short term crisis avoidance strategy of calming the situation in Lebanon. On the one hand in mid-October Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad went to south Lebanon and postured for local Shia and wider Arab popular opinion. On the other he was also keen to telephone Abdullah before and after the trip to counter the fallout from the visit and from the outcome of the expected report of the UN backed enquiry into who killed the Saudi ally, and former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

Saudi Arabia would like to challenge Iran on a number of regional fronts but recognises that Tehran holds many of the cards in Iraq, and to a degree in Lebanon and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. It will therefore engage for tactical benefits, while lacking the capacity to rein back Iran in these and many other areas.

Abdullah has also been seeking to befriend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of a pragmatic recognition that the peace accord in Lebanon, mediated by Qatar in 2008, reflects Syrian and Iranian weight in that country. Hence the summit meeting of the two men that followed Ahmedinejad's trip to Lebanon was intended to cool growing tensions.

There are Saudi voices that stress the limitations of this approach and of the trustworthiness, from their perspective, of the Syrian as well as the Iranian leadership. What these gentle critics lack, however, is a coherent alternative.

There are also reports that Mecca will be the venue for a meeting of the different Afghan political factions at the end of November. The importance of the kingdom, and of the financial reward for parties to agreements brokered under its watch, cannot be ignored.

However Saudi Arabia has been making clear for two years, and has recently reiterated, that any significant contribution it makes to a putative Afghanistan peace accord will require the Taliban to cut links with militant jihadi groups outside Afghan borders. This stance seems partly to contradict Saudi Arabia's strong support for Pakistan which retains links to such groups in Kashmir, just as both countries used Afghan and Pakistani jihadis to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s.

Saudi Arabia has to balance its own need to constrain domestic terror threats that it largely defeated five years ago and its sensitivity to US preferences, with a pragmatic acceptance of how Pakistan pursues its regional interests.

No New Posture

Saudi Arabia is not on the verge of a bold new posture in the Islamic world that could make it pivotal to western-led efforts to promote their allies and counter Iran. Riyadh is usually cautious in drawing up foreign policy and lacks a clear institutional basis for its development. An ailing Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, provides counsel to the ageing King but lacks the energy and, in common with others providing input into policy decisions, a trusted devolved framework for analysis and policy follow up.

A former adviser to a senior Saudi prince has confided that the kingdom is 'famous for its lack of follow-ups!' Out of this melee the King's Iraq initiative presumably sprung, while in Yemen the three Saudi princes who run defence, interior and intelligence manage seemingly uncoordinated interests.

The bottom line for Saudi Arabia when it comes to the broader Middle East is its bilateral relationship with the US. Intelligence that is by no means guaranteed always to detect plots before their realisation, may be provided direct to Washington and its major European allies, but, notably, not to Dubai or Yemen.

The kingdom is happy to be seen as a helpful to the US, and for interests in common to assist the provision of an enhanced Saudi air strike capability in the proposed new sixty billion dollar US-Saudi arms deal that is as much about dealing with Yemen as, conceivably, Iran.

Iran's nuclear programme will continue to concern Riyadh greatly as it does a number of Gulf Cooperation Council states. However Saudi Arabia largely views itself as a spectator in this affair, recognising it lacks the means to prevent either a regional military conflict, a small Iranian nuclear weapons capability, or a, probably undesired, US-Iranian deal.

Saudi Arabia is neither diplomatically energised nor capable of helping reshape the region. It is always available to help with talks, but only if the disputant parties are ready to agree and if such a prospective agreement is not harmful to Saudi interests.


Neil Partrick, freelance Middle East Consultant


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