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Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Riyadh today. He's the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Saudi Arabia since a wave of uprisings swept across the Arab world. And that turmoil has sparked tension in U.S.-Saudi relations. In a rare open disagreement with the White House, King Abdullah chastised President Obama for abandoning Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak, a long time ally.
As NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Cairo, the Saudis have also responded to turmoil nearby with a more aggressive regional policy.
DEBORAH AMOS: Browse through Egypt's newspapers these days, and you'll find growing criticism of Saudi Arabia. It's part of the new freedoms that reflect popular opinion here. This week, an announcement that's sure to set the Saudis on edge: Egypt's newly-appointed foreign minister said Cairo is ready to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran after a 30-year break.
Nabil Fahmy, a former diplomat, says the foreign policy reflects Egypt's new approach.
Dr. NABIL FAHMY (Former Foreign Minister): So I don't see a strategic shift in foreign policy, but I see a shift in tactics. We're going to go back to our leadership role, and I see a much more, a stronger foreign policy and a more constructive one.
AMOS: 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 Saudi's see what is at least Egypt's tactical shift?
Mr. MICHAEL HANNA (Analyst, Century Foundation): 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.
AMOS: That's analyst Michael Hanna 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 uncertainty unleashed by the uprisings across the region.
Mr. HANNA: They're clearly in a defensive, reactionary mode. They've long been a status quo power. They're clearly somewhat unnerved by events. Here in Egypt in particular, there is a sense of trying to halt any further contagion in the region.
(Soundbite of chanting protestors)
AMOS: 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 Saudi's 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 uprisings that have weakened Arab states.
Prince TURKI AL-FAISAL (Former Diplomat and Intelligence Chief, Saudi Arabia): The king has been very forthright in public with Iran, calling for Iran not to interfere in Arab affairs.
AMOS: With Arab uprisings on its border, Saudi Arabia feels threatened, says Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, and will now act aggressively to protect Saudi interests. Bahrain is a particular concern, he says.
Dr. JON ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): The Saudis saw two threats coming out of Bahrain. The first was seeing a sort of Shiia string of pearls from Iraq to a Shiia-dominated Bahrain, leading into the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which is both where all the oil is and where the Shiia are in Saudi Arabia; and a sense that if that was allowed to continue, it would endanger Saudi national security.
AMOS: At the same time, the Saudis are deeply worried about an American administration that has sided with pro-democracy demonstrators against long-time friends. This has deeply strained a historic security arrangement, says Alterman.
Dr. 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. In the Saudi view, it changes the environment and it will act in its interest.
AMOS: Defense Secretary Robert 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.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.
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