The extent of the deterioration in US-Saudi relations was exposed for the first time today when Washington accused Riyadh of working to undermine the Iraqi government.
The Bush administration sent a warning to Saudi Arabia, until this year one of its closest allies, to stop undermining the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the defence secretary, Robert Gates, are scheduled to visit Jeddah next week. A diplomat in Washington said of the two governments: “There is a lot of bad blood between the two.”
The Bush administration is preparing to ask Congress to approve arms sales totaling $20 billions over the next decade for Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, The New York Times reported in Saturday editions.
Coming as some U.S. officials contend that the Saudi government is not helping the situation in Iraq, the proposal for advanced weapons for Saudi Arabia has stoked concern in Israel and among its U.S. backers, the Times said. The package of advanced weaponry includes advanced satellite-guided bombs, upgrades for its fighters and new naval vessels.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit said Saturday that Arab countries were waiting for a clear indication from Israel that it was interested in discussing peace with its neighbors.
Speaking to Al-Ahram newspaper, Abul Gheit said an Arab peace-for-land initiative that offers Israel normalization with the Arab world in return for a full withdrawal from land occupied during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war was aimed at establishing a Palestinian state through negotiations.
Abul Gheit said opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu told him during talks in Jerusalem earlier this week that he was not opposed to the initiative. Netanyahu was said to be opposed to the Arab peace plan because he redeemed it dangerous to Israel’s security.
I know what you’re saying right now. Wait a second, Lee, that last item doesn’t sound so bad. It’s not. Here’s some more details from occasional neocon supporter Amir Taheri:
The plan is the brainchild of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah who unveiled its basic principles almost five years ago. At the time, Israel dismissed the plan as nothing but a public relations exercise by the Saudis who wished to divert attention from the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Five years later, Israel’s President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admit that the plan is a serious diplomatic proposal, and should be treated with something other than disdain.
The lesson to be learned here is that the people who have been saying all along that the Arab world can’t be trusted in the peace process have never really understood the real motivations of the leaders in that part of the world. September 11 didn’t just change how we perceive terrorism. It changed how the leaders in the Arab world saw it as well. It was no longer a local problem for them, it became a much more serious liability. And the Saudis, despite their many faults, understood that they were entering a time where they might not be able to use their longstanding trump card, antagonism of Israel, as much as they use to, if at all.
In 2002, when the Saudis first unveiled this proposal, Dick Cheney visited the Middle East with his own mission, to convince the Saudis and others to be on our side in the invasion of Iraq. At the time, two of the most prominent neocons, Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol, slammed Cheney’s efforts:
Nor is it entirely clear what message Cheney delivered to his Arab friends, even in private. We had hoped Cheney would approach the Saudi royal family with the same tough choice the administration presented Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf a few months ago: You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. You decide.
Instead, Cheney seems to have avoided putting the Arabs on the spot. He told Arab leaders both publicly and privately that the United States had made no decisions regarding Iraq. This relieved the Arab leaders of the need to make a choice, at least for now. We have no doubt that Cheney made clear America’s grave concerns about Iraqi weapons programs, and he described the kind of inspections regime the United States wants in Iraq. But this was hardly news to Arab leaders. Probably the most surprising aspect of Cheney’s message, to those leaders, was that the United States still didn’t know what it wanted to do. As the vice president himself put it at a press conference with President Bush this past Thursday, “I went out there to consult with them, to seek their advice and counsel to be able to report back to the president on how we might best proceed to deal with that mutual problem.” Funny, that’s just what Warren Christopher said on his failed trip to Europe.
The Arab leaders, meanwhile, had their own game plan for the Cheney trip, and they stuck to it with impressive unity and determination. On the eve of Cheney’s arrival, Arab officials outlined their strategy to the Washington Post: “They intend to press the United States hard . . . to shelve any plan for a military strike against Iraq and to concentrate instead on [the Saudi peace plan] and on easing the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.” The goal was not to listen to American plans, but to change them, to force the United States to “re-examine” its policies in the Middle East. As one Saudi official told the Post, “The U.S. is concerned with an old issue, Iraq. They are making it a priority when it should not be. . . . Iraq can afford to be delayed. The other issue cannot.” In the tiny United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan told Cheney he was against a strike on Iraq and demanded that the Bush administration “stop the grave and continued Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.” Just about every other Arab leader told Cheney much the same thing.
So while we’re now stuck in Iraq, spending billions of dollars to arm the country that’s trying to overthrow a government that we’re spending billions of dollars to prop up, the rest of the Arab world is still trying to continue moving forward on an Israeli peace proposal that all the very serious people mistakenly thought was just a ruse. And it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that if we’d just listened to the leaders in the region in 2002 and focused on solving the problem that they wanted to solve, rather than assuming that they had ulterior motives, we’d be in a much better state of affairs today.