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Opinion: Saudi Arabia’s greatest asset is stability | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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epa04579855 A handout photograph made available by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz (R) receiving dignitaries, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 23 January 2015. Saudi King Abdullah died in the early hours of 23 January, aged 90, after ruling since 2005 though he had been defacto ruler since 1995 […]

In one of those coincidences that adds spice to history, the meeting this week between US President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman Bin Abdulaziz also marked the 70th anniversary of the first meeting between the leaders of the two nations. For it was on January 23, 1945 that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt departed the US for the Red Sea where be would meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Al Saud aboard the USS Quincy.

Roosevelt had sought a meeting in the aftermath of the Yalta Conference, where the victorious allies of the Second World War agreed to divide Europe into zones of influence as the first building bloc of a new world order. At the time, Latin America, regarded as a US backyard, was scripted out of the international give and take. African stability was seen as a responsibility of British and, to a lesser extent, French colonial powers. In Asia, Japan had not yet been subdued while a question mark hung over a China in the grip of civil war. As for the Indian subcontinent, the hope was that Britain would somehow manage the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, thus helping to stabilize a large chunk of the Asian landmass. The missing piece of the puzzle was the region known as the Middle East, which had been in turmoil since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

So why did Roosevelt wish to call on the Saudi King in spite of Winston Churchill’s opposition? Believers in the conventional wisdom might cite the lure of oil. However, at the time, Saudi Arabia was not a major oil producer and nobody had an accurate estimate of its reserves. A decade earlier, the British had turned down a Saudi application for a loan of 500,000 US dollars to develop the Arabian Peninsula’s oil resources. The man who vetoed the plan was a Foreign Office top diplomat, Sir Lancelot Oliphant. (Since then, the proverb, “Doing an Oliphant,” has entered the English language to mock stupid decisions by high-ranking officials.)

The Americans did not see Saudi oil as the main reason for their interest in the then-impoverished Kingdom. The Kingdom offered something more valuable: stability. Bartley C. Crum, who was to serve as Mideast emissary for President Harry S. Truman, met Prince Faisal Bin Abdulaziz and described Saudi Arabia as “a key element for a stable situation in the Near East.” In 1945, Saudi Arabia’s principal “wealth” was stability, at the time almost unique in one of the world’s most turbulent regions. In the seven decades that followed the Abdulaziz–Roosevelt summit, the Kingdom remained a pillar of stability as the rest of region was struck by foreign invasions, civil wars, military coups, revolutions, and economic meltdown.

In other words, Saudi Arabia was not important solely because it had oil. Lots of other peoples also had oil. Until 1951 Iran was the biggest oil exporter in the region and, for a while in the 1970s, topped the list of OPEC producers. For over 50 years Libya produced three times more oil per head of population than Saudi Arabia. And no one could underestimate Iraq’s fabulous oil reserves. Yet, Iran, Libya and Iraq did not achieve the stability needed for building the institutions of a modern and durable nation-state. Seventy years later, they remain victims of their own follies.

Again, by coincidence, Saudi Arabia today is more important because of the contribution it makes to regional stability than the volume of oil it can pump out. The Kingdom is the linchpin of stability within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance that has been under internal pressure for at least the past four or five years. Saudi Arabia also plays a crucial role in helping Egypt regain its bearings after four years of tragic upheaval. Any attempt to prevent the disintegration of Yemen into half a dozen warring mini-states would require major Saudi input. Defeating the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a prerequisite for Iraq’s survival as a nation-state and Syria’s revival as one, also needs Saudi participation and leadership. If, and when, the historic mood becomes propitious for a serious bid at solving the Israel–Palestine problem, the Kingdom, in tandem with the US, could play a leading role in speeding up the process. With opportunist powers such as Khomeinist Iran trying to foment instability while advancing hegemonic goals, the Kingdom is destined to play a leading role in efforts to frustrate those ambitions.

In a broader sense, the Kingdom should also play a role in developing a new modus vivendi between the Muslim segment of humanity and the rest of the world, in a common quest for peace and prosperity. A decade ago, many in the West, including Obama, claimed that “the war on terror” was a hollow slogan. Now, however, a consensus is emerging on the need to resist and ultimately defeat the jihadists. That again requires Saudi leadership to mobilize Muslim energies against groups whose principal victims are Muslims.

Like all partnerships, the US–Saudi one has had its ups and downs. The past three years could be regarded as one of the “down” periods. President Obama’s bizarre behavior in Egypt, his erratic approach to the Syrian tragedy, and his naïve stance on the Iranian nuclear issue have sent the wrong signals to the region and, by extension, harmed relations with the Kingdom. However, there are signs that the US political establishment may have realized that restoring the partnership with Saudi Arabia to its historic importance is both desirable and necessary. Seven decades separate the Red Sea rendezvous from Tuesday’s summit at the ancient town of Irqa, west of Riyadh. However, the geostrategic interests that bind Saudi Arabia and the US remain largely the same.

The speed with which King Salman formed his administration, ensuring the stability of key institutions, shows that Riyadh is prepared to assume a more active role in the international arena. With six decades of presence at the center of the Saudi system and numerous foreign visits, King Salman has a deep and often direct knowledge of major international issues, a fact that is bound to revitalize Saudi diplomacy at a crucial time. Thinking ahead, that is to say also beyond Obama, the Saudi–US partnership is even more important today than it was seven decades ago.