Saeed al-Wahhabi is a young Saudi writer with a sharp and straight-to-the-point writing style. Last Sunday, he aptly summarized the Saudi public mood, especially as Saudis have had enough of analyzing and interpreting Iran’s agreement with major powers on its nuclear program. He tweeted: “Saudi Arabia is surely feeling lonely tonight.”
Yes, it was a tough night. There was no formal statement to welcome the agreement with reservation yet. Threatening ghosts and illusions of isolation prevailed that night. Analysts kept using expressions like “Iran is now the region’s policeman,” “as usual the U.S. betrayed and abandoned its allies” and “Iran abandoned its nuclear program but gained dominance over the region."
The last expression was mine; I gave that statement to Agence France-Presse news agency in line with the prevailing anxiety in Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, this concern is bereft of any justified reasons accompanying those who go to bed after a hard day of feeling lonely. The agreement is normal and is the natural progression course of history. It is in the interest of the region to dismiss the threat of war that hovered over the region for decades. Prince Turki al-Faisal, who served as the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States of America, used a brief expression to explain the Saudi position towards the Iranian nuclear project. Whenever he was asked during a press conference or a meeting with the Americans about this issue, he used to say: “We live everyday fearing two nightmares: The first is Iran possessing a nuclear bomb and the second is Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, thus pushing the region into an endless war.” This agreement relieves us from such nightmares, at least for the next six months. Iran will stop its uranium enrichment activity that would eventually have led to a nuclear bomb, and Israel will not bomb Iran’s facilities to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear project. This agreement will most probably turn into a sustainable state when the negotiators return to Geneva, and finally the region will enjoy an ever-lasting peace.
What should worry Saudi Arabia?
What should worry us in Saudi Arabia are the feelings of “anxiety and apprehension” and “going to bed feeling lonely” as al-Wahabi said. This is if we are even able to sleep at all. Dr. Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia’s appointed Shura Council, said that “the people of the region will not be able to sleep anymore.” These negative emotions are what we should be worried about as they reflect the absence of confidence about our ability to cope with changes happening in the region. I believe that the reason behind these negative feelings is that we have always relied on the United States as a strategic ally who aids us in times of crisis, only to realize that the region has been witnessing disturbance and instability since the fall of Saddam Hussein and Iraq (and here I do not regret that he or his regime had to leave), since the rise of Turkey as a regional power, since Egypt’s exclusion as a result of its internal situation during the “Arab Spring” era, and since the withdrawal of Pakistan to deal with its internal wounds after the Sept. 11 attacks and its mini civil war with the Taliban.
We can say that Saudi Arabia stands alone in the face of Iran and its ambitions in the region. Even if Saudi Arabia had interconnected interests with other countries in the region, such as Turkey and Qatar regarding the conflict in Syria, and with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar regarding the conflict in Bahrain, there is no integrated front or agreement to face Iran. All the above-mentioned countries, and the countries of the region in general, have two-sided relations and interests with Iran. There is no unified strategic position to face Iran, particularly when it comes to the Syrian crisis where we can see a prevailing state of rivalry and distrust, which allowed the regime and its Iranian ally to advance against the rebels.
The agreement does not give Iran the total freedom to act as it wishes in the region, but it also does not prevent it from acting as it did prior to the agreement - intervening in Syria with men and weapons with no party to prevent itfrom doing so. Therefore, it can simply point to the agreement to say that the West cannot question Iran about what it is doing in Syria, Yemen or Bahrain, as long as the inspectors are accomplishing their tasks and the rate of enrichment did not cross the agreed limits. Saudi Arabia will have to face this on its own, but is not obliged to stand alone as there are still many common interests with major regional countries. It is vital to restructure the Saudi defense policy, and Saudi Arabia should realize that relying on the United States is unhealthy because the current stance of the U.S. towards us is not a temporary decision taken by Obama, but a permanent policy by the American administration as a result of the historic changes taking place in the U.S., the priorities of which have changed.
Saudi Arabia should then redraw the map of its alliances in the region. Turkey is important and its leaders want special relations with the kingdom. Egypt did not get back to its prior state because it is still enduring an internal political deadlock paralyzing its external commitments. The utmost that the kingdom can expect is Egypt appreciatively saying “we agree with you in everything you do,” even if they do not agree on the Syrian issue. In order for Egypt to recover -and this will need time- it needs friends to help it get out of its internal deadlock and change its policy of “fear, anger and revenge” into genuine national reconciliation. Pakistan is also in need of a helping hand to achieve reconciliation with Taliban so that the strong Pakistani army can focus on its national duties.
It is also necessary to open communication with Ira, even during this times of tension. Every now and then, they say that they want good relations with the kingdom so let us be patient and listen to what they have to say.
The region has plenty of problems; the more these problems are neglected the more they will exacerbate. But, whatever happens, they can always be solved. We have allies and friends so we must not let loneliness prevail after that miserable Sunday.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 30, 2013.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.