Winds of Change Are Shifting in Arabia

Middle East oil and political environment is shifting.

Jan 25, 2014 at 12:06PM

This article was written by -- the leading provider of energy news in the world.

Throughout the years of the Cold War, the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the stability that kept the tumultuous Middle East in check. The kingdom counted on silent diplomacy and staunch U.S. support for its security. And as one of the major oil producing countries in the world, a stable Saudi Arabia meant a stable oil market.

Indeed, rarely did a Saudi member of the royal family or the government make a public statement having to do with another country's internal affairs. The Saudi leadership preferred to keep silent in public and to act behind the scenes, letting the power and influence of its petrodollars and its stature as the unofficial leader of the Muslim world help it persuade. The Saudi king, in his capacity as "the custodian of the two holy mosques" (Mecca and Medina), wielded great sway.

That modus operandi largely worked until Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, forcing Saudi Arabia to become openly active in its politics, and in spite of Osama bin Laden's strong opposition to having "the boots of infidels trample upon the soil of Saudi Arabia," the king called for American troops to enter Saudi Arabia. This set off the fury of al-Qaida, which had become even more determined to remove the royal family. Thus began a campaign of terrorist attacks in the kingdom.

If they were tardy in reacting to a string of attacks, including attempts to assassinate the Interior minister -- a favored target of the Islamists -- the Saudis made up for lost time. They formed antiterrorism groups and had them trained by the Americans, French, Germans, and British. Their success was impressive. They killed or arrested piles of terrorists or potential terrorists and in a relatively short time practically put the terror cells out of commission. Many were imprisoned, others were reformed and released, and the terror threat seemed to dissipate, at least the one emanating from the Sunni side.

But no sooner had the Saudis distanced the Sunni threat that they began to feel the rise of a new menace, one coming from the Shiite side. Iran, a majority Shiite country, has much influence over parts of the Arab world through the Shiite community. Animosity between the two sides goes back to the early days of Islam and disagreement over the succession to the prophet.

When Bahrain, with which Saudi Arabia is connected via a causeway, was about to give in to demands from the Shiite community who make up the majority of the island's population, and appoint a Shiite prime minister, Saudi Arabia and others from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries stepped in and dispatched armed troops to put down the rebellion.

Today, what held true during the Cold War years and beyond is no longer the case. The kingdom's policy has become anything but quiet, and Washington's support has become somewhat questionable, with a president in the White House who is undecided about Washington's policy in the Middle East.

The difference is more than noticeable, and breaking with long-standing traditions, the previously silent Saudi Arabian policy has now come out publicly in support of Syrian opposition and its worries about Iran's interference in the region.

What brought all this change about is in large part the current conflict in Syria, in which initially the Saudis thought they could continue with their silent diplomacy and persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

"The Saudis believe that allowing Assad to stay in office will prolong the uprising and endanger their own stability," writes Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, in the Winter 2014 issue of the Middle East Quarterly.

And as though to spite the Saudis even more, Assad announced on Monday that he would be a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections in Syria. No one has any doubt as to the outcome of such elections. In the past, candidates for the presidency -- usually the sitting president -- would win with an astounding 99.99 percent of the vote. "This time," said one Middle East observer, "he might show some modesty and go with 92 percent."

The Saudis fear that the Syrian civil war, if left unchecked, will eventually reach its own territory. And in part the Saudis are also very concerned about the current state of the Sunni community in Syria. They still hold Syria accountable for the role it played in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, someone who was very close to the Saudi royal family.

But most of all, what concerned Saudis -- and, indirectly, the international community -- more than anything else is what could happen to Saudi Arabia itself if the current trend of popular upheavals continues in the Middle East. And, consequently, what would happen to the stability in the production of oil.

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