Response To Arab Uprisings Causes U.S.-Saudi Rift

Defense Secretary Robert Gates spent a few hours in Riyadh on Wednesday, to thaw deeply damaged relations Gates is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Saudi Arabia since the wave of uprisings began in the Arab world.

Those uprisings have sparked tensions in U.S.-Saudi relations. In a rare open disagreement with the Obama administration, King Abdullah chastised the president for abandoning Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally.

The Saudis have since developed a more aggressive regional policy.

Browsing through Egypt's newspapers these days, one finds growing criticism of Saudi Arabia. It's part of the new freedoms that reflect popular opinion in Egypt. Recently, an influential Egyptian activist charged that the Saudis are pressing Egypt's military rulers not to put Mubarak on trial.

This week, Egypt's newly appointed foreign minister said Cairo is ready to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran after a 30-year break, which is sure to put the Saudis on edge.

Nabil Fahmi, a former diplomat, says the foreign policy reflects Egypt's new approach.

"So, I don't see a strategic shift in foreign policy, but I see a shift in tactics: We are going to go back to our leadership role, and I see a stronger foreign policy and a more constructive one," he says.

For years, Egypt's policy matched the Saudi view to isolate Iran — keep up the pressure. President Mubarak was personally distrustful of Tehran. So how will the Saudis see what is at least Egypt's tactical shift?

"Not very kindly. Egypt has been a reliable ally for Saudi Arabia, particularly along with Jordan, in terms of this moderate Sunni front that saw Iran as a regional threat," says Michael Hanna, an analyst with the U.S.-based Century Foundation.

He says the weakening of the Sunni Arab alliance against the Shiite power in Iran is one factor driving Saudi policy — along with the uncertainly unleashed by the uprisings across the region.

"They are clearly in a defensive, reactionary mode," Hanna says. "They have long been a status quo power and they are clearly somewhat unnerved by events here in Egypt in particular. There is a sense of trying to halt any contagion in the region."

The contagion, as the Saudis see it, has led to a policy that appears designed to keep embattled Arab leaders in place. In Syria, the Saudis backed Bashar al-Assad against an uprising from the street, according to Arab and Western analysts. Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is challenging a Sunni king closely tied to the Saudi royal family. The Saudis saw Tehran's hand in stirring Bahrain's Shiite population to revolt.

For the Saudis, Iran remains the top concern. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi diplomat and intelligence chief, says Tehran is meddling — taking advantage of Arab uprising that have weakened Arab states.

"The king has been very forthright in public with Iran, calling for Iran not to interfere in Arab affairs," he says.

With Arab uprisings on its border, Saudi Arabia feels threatened and will now act aggressively to protect Saudi national interests, says Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Stategic and International Studies.

Bahrain is a particular concern, he says.

"The Saudis saw two threats coming out of Bahrain: The first was seeing a sort of Shia string of pearls from Iraq to a Shia-dominated Bahrain leading into the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which is both where all the oil is and where the Shia are in Saudi Arabia; and a sense that if that was allowed to continue, it would endanger Saudi national security," Alterman says.

A challenge to a Sunni monarch, even next door, was too much of a risk, he says.

"For the Saudis, the monarchy is serious about remaining a monarch and not compromising. The Saudis saw an existential threat from the spread of democracy in Bahrain."

At the same time, the Saudis are deeply worried about an American administration that has sided with pro-democracy demonstrators against longtime friends. This has deeply strained a historic security arrangement, says Alterman.

"It's a Saudi Arabia that increasingly feels that the United States isn't going to provide the security umbrella that they've counted on the United States to do," he says. "I don't think the Saudi attitude has changed; I don't think the Saudi analysis has changed. In the Saudi view, what's changed is the environment, and it will act in its interest."

Gates flew to the kingdom Wednesday to reassure the Saudis that the security umbrella is still in place, even if Washington and Riyadh disagree on how to respond to Middle East uprisings.

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