The Saudis are sulking big time with Washington. This is not just due to a temper-tantrum by the kingdom’s spymaster, Prince Bandar. The entire House of Saud is in ructions over what the rulers perceive as “American treachery”.
When Prince Bandar bin Sultan briefed anonymous Western diplomats at his Jeddah majlis last weekend about a “strategic shift” by Saudi Arabia away from its long-time ally, there was speculation that the Saudi intelligence chief was perhaps speaking out in a personal capacity.
That is unlikely; subsequent furious comments by former ministry of interior chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, about Washington’s “farcical policies”, and a testy meeting in Paris between US top diplomat John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal earlier this week confirm that the kingdom’s inner circle is up in arms with its American patron.
Bandar’s frustration is symptomatic of paranoia in the House of Saud. When he churlishly “threatens” a “strategic shift” it is not actually on the Saudis mulling such a move away from its historic sponsor in Washington, but rather it betrays a distrust among the Saudi rulers that it is the Americans who are the ones stealthily shifting.
But what the Saudi monarchs are confusing in their reactionary mindset is the difference between American tactics and strategy in the Middle East.
Bandar, who was Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years, is a senior member of the House of Saud. He was appointed personally by the Saudi king to oversee the funding, arming and logistics of the Saudi contribution to the West’s covert terror war in Syria.
Known as “Bandar Bush” because of strong personal connections to not only the former US president but to the Washington establishment generally, his appointment for running Syria operations was based precisely because of his direct line to US government.
In that regard, Bandar is both the Saudi terror master and the point man for American collusion in the regime change campaign against Syria.
It is thus a safe bet that Bandar’s pique with US policy in the Middle East is shared among the inner circle of Saudi rulers, all the way up to aging King Abdullah.
That means there is a potential fracture in the historic alliance between the two countries – an alliance that goes back to the foundation of Saudi Arabia as a state in 1932.
One former member of the US National Security Council, Michael Doran, told the Daily Telegraph that he had “never seen relations so low” as they are now.
Doran is quoted as saying: “Iran is the number one issue – the only issue for Saudi policy makers.”
Recall that diplomatic cables between Riyadh and Washington leaked in 2010 cited King Abdullah as urging the Americans to “cut off the head of the snake” – meaning Iran.
Tensions between the Saudis and the Americans have been rumbling over the past year. These tensions have expressed Saudi frustration over what they claim as Washington not doing enough to arm the militants fighting in Syria to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad – a close ally of Iran.
The deadly chemical incident near the Syrian capital, Damascus, on 21 August, which implicates the involvement of Saudi intelligence, led by Prince Bandar, can be seen as an attempt by the Saudis to push US President Barack Obama into all-out military attack on Syria.
That gambit failed, from the Saudi viewpoint, for various reasons, including the mobilization of anti-war protests in the West and a timely diplomatic intervention by Russia to secure a chemical weapons decommissioning deal.
Although the Syrian army was not the culprit for the use of chemical weapons, as Western governments and media were claiming, nevertheless President Assad turned diplomatic tables on his enemies by signing up to the decommissioning plan.
The veering away from war plans against Syria by the Obama administration must have been a stinging blow to Prince Bandar and the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia wants to destroy Syria as an independent Arab state for several geopolitical reasons. Chief among these reasons is to curb any move towards democracy in the Middle East. Syria under Assad represents a relatively progressive, pluralist state, and therefore from the Saudi view, must be subverted.
Another reason is the deep pathological hatred from the Wahhabi House of Saud towards Syria’s Shia-affiliated alliance with Iran. Cutting off the head in Syria is Saudi Arabia’s method of trying to decapitate Iran.
The feudal oil kingdom, with its vast disparity of wealth between a ruling elite and massive poverty among the ordinary population, sees Iran as its nemesis for influence in the Middle East region. The latest UN Human Development report (2013), which puts “Iran among those making fastest progress” (despite Western sanctions), can only but drive Saudi rulers livid with envy.
This explains why the Saudis joined the Western campaign for regime change in Syria with such bloodthirsty zeal. The Saudi rulers have been the main sponsors on the ground for an array of murderous mercenary groups, including Al Nusra, Liwa al-Islam and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. It is elite Saudi obsession with Iran that is the motive for this fanaticism to destroy.
Washington, London and Paris of course share this geopolitical campaign to defeat Syria in order to cement a bridgehead for further regime change in Iran. But the West has sufficient intelligence to know that the military option in Syria is all but redundant because of the steadfastness of the Assad government, its popular mandate and the professionalism of the Syrian army.
That explains why the Western powers are now belatedly pushing for the political process through the putative Geneva II conference. The West is shifting tactics to the political field away from the exhausted battlefield. But the strategy for regime change remains. That’s what the Saudi rulers fail to grasp.
This shift in tactics by the West may also explain why the US has suddenly turned, ostensibly, to rapprochement with Iran. Washington knows that if it is to gain any traction in its political maneuvers over Syria, it must engage Tehran, even though that engagement is being presented as a separate initiative over the nuclear dispute.
On two scores then, the House of Saud is shaking with ire at shifting US policy.
Firstly, from the US not bombing Syria, and secondly from Washington appearing to pursue warmer relations with Iran. In the Saudi mindset, this must appear as the most fiendish treachery by the Americans. Added to that is that the House of Saud is up to its neck in guilt with Western intrigues and plots against neighboring countries, including the subversion of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, as well as Syria and Iran.
The Saudis know full well that the Americans or the other Western former colonial allies cannot be trusted. Their complicity in past Western treachery fuels Saudi suspicions. But that paranoia is blurring Saudi judgment presently about American tactics for regime change, misconstruing the change as a strategic shift that might betray the House of Saud.
Washington has no intention of doing that. Its imperialist hegemony in the Middle East rests upon the pillars of Saudi and Zionist despotism. But the clumsy paranoia of the Saudi rulers may lead to an unintended fatal rupture with the US.
Finian Cunningham, originally from Belfast, Ireland, was born in 1963. He is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime