WASHINGTON – The United States supported the ouster of Saudi Arabian-backed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, creating a serious rift between longtime allies Riyadh and Washington.
Now it looks like history is repeating itself, with the latest military coup overthrowing the democratically elected regime of President Mohamed Morsi, who had the backing of the now-embattled Muslim Brotherhood.
The result could be a significant shift in political links and power across the Middle East.
When Mubarak was ousted, Saudi Arabia decided it could no longer could rely on U.S. security arrangements and began to initiate an independent foreign policy, which was to incite Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon under the leadership of Saudi National Security Council chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The Saudis also saw that the U.S. was prepared to further negotiate with Iran over its nuclear development program. Tehran saw the move as a sign of U.S. weakness because of Iran’s strategic interest in spreading its Shiite influence in the Gulf Arab states.
Riyadh already was wary of Iran’s influence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, so it regarded the offer to negotiate as a threat to its rule. Tehran has sought to inflame the Shiites not only in the Gulf Arab countries but in Saudi Arabia’s sensitive eastern province, where much of its oil production takes place.
In addition, Tehran also attempted to draw in Kurdish leaders in its effort to incite Shiites in the Gulf Arab states, especially Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Kurds generally have been backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, since he has agreed to allow them more independence in northern Syria to offset Turkish aid to the Syrian opposition.
The Assad offer hasn’t passed unnoticed by Iran, which had worked closely with Syria, Turkey and Iraq to tamp down Kurdish influence. Like Turkey, Syria and Iraq, Iran historically has had a Kurdish problem, since the Kurds want to carve out their own Kurdistan, uniting Kurds from all four countries.
With the threat to the Assad regime, however, Iran appears to be keeping its options open with the Kurds and has worked closely with the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq over the years, to Turkey’s consternation, since Ankara had sought to extend its Sunni influence with the Kurds, who also are Sunnis.
Iran wants to prevent against any Sunni uprising in Iraq, whose prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is Shiite.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has provided weapons and personnel – including the funneling of foreign Islamist militants – into Syria to back the opposition. However, the Saudis lack control over them, and the foreign fighters under Jabhat al-Nusra threaten to take over the fighting from the opposition with the goal of establishing a caliphate there.
The U.S. also cut off military aid and military exercises with Egypt over the ouster of Morsi, and the Saudis and the other Gulf countries have decided to pour in tens of billions of dollars to support the interim government the military has established, effectively replacing the $1.3 billion that would have been supplied by the U.S.
Now, relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia appear to be back to where they were following Mubarak’s ouster, suggesting a major geopolitical shift may be under way.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that U.S. opposition to the Egyptian military regime “will achieve nothing.”
The open intelligence group Stratfor says the U.S. and Saudi Arabia “have long been aligned on most issues pertaining to the greater Middle East, and Riyadh has used its financial muscle to support past U.S. foreign policy initiatives.”
“The allies’ divergence on Egypt thus represents a major break with the historical trend,” a Stratfor report says.
For the Saudis, the rise of the Iranian-backed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a greater threat to the existence of the monarchy itself. Consequently, Riyadh has strongly backed the military regime in Cairo to crush the Brotherhood and is using its financial clout to back it up.
Given continued U.S. efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran over the nuclear issue, the Saudis no longer see the U.S. as providing the nuclear umbrella of protection that it once had. It certainly can’t rely on Russia, since Moscow backs Iran’s nuclear development program and Tehran’s efforts to support the embattled Assad regime.
In turn, this development also is causing the Saudis to consider developing their own nuclear program, possibly nuclear weapons, in response to the perception that Iran similarly is working on developing a nuclear weapon.
For Washington, a stable Egypt is paramount to advance what foreign policy interests it has in the Middle East.
“This requires a compromise between the Islamist movement and the military regime,” the Stratfor report says. “The United States cannot turn a blind eye as Egypt comes under military rule and stamps out political dissent. Washington does not see the military regime as capable of single-handedly maintaining stability.”
Washington’s position suggests that the Saudis once again find themselves prepared to undertake an approach to Middle East independent of the U.S., indicating a strategic realignment is emerging.
Prior to the Arab spring, the U.S. worked closely with a security arrangement that included not only the Saudis and Egypt but also Jordan, Turkey and Israel – all aimed at containing Iran.
With Washington and Riyadh at odds once again, Saudi Arabia appears to have decided to undertake an independent course of developing its own alignment with Israel, Jordan and the other Arab countries.
Turkey may be out of the new re-alignment because of its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ousted Morsi government. In addition, it is undergoing its own internal problems that have precluded any significant extensions of its own regional policy interests.
While the new alignment may represent limited U.S. influence in the Middle East, Washington may not be opposed to it as it “can serve U.S. interests in the Middle East by preserving a core group of stable and politically moderate nations even as Washington’s influence in the region is weaker than at any time since the end of World War II,” according to a report of the Langley Intelligence Group Network, or Lignet.
In an approach suggesting that Washington wants countries in the region to settle their own differences, the emerging strategic realignment precludes a more direct involvement as it pivots toward Asia.
For Egypt, an external peace will help it deal with its domestic situation. Cairo won’t tolerate Hamas or attacks from other terrorist groups in the Sinai, an obvious benefit to Israel and the U.S.
The Kurds, for their part, see that they are in a position to play off Iran from the Gulf Arab countries to obtain what they want. They also will work closely with Israel in cooperation with these countries to gain their concessions as internal conditions in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon become more unstable.