The Arab world needs a fatherly Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Kingdom has greatly developed its military capabilities during recent years

Jamal Khashoggi

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What is the conclusion that any Saudi official will come to after listening to American President Barack Obama’s speech at the West Point Academy last Wednesday? It’s that he continues to adopt the policy of dissociation - the Lebanese will like this one - and that he will not militarily intervene to finalize any struggle unless it’s extremely necessary to do so. Saudi officials may disagree with one another on whether this is just Obama’s policy or a permanent American policy. However, both will agree that this “policy of dissociation and of not intervening unless it’s extremely necessary” will last for two years until Obama’s term ends. But two years amidst this disturbed Arab situation as a result of the Arab Spring is a very long time, and they may lead to regional repercussions that don’t serve Riyadh’s interest and that may be long-lasting.

The Saudi official asks his colleague, “so what’s the solution?” to which the latter replies with Imam Shafii’s famous verse: “Nothing can scratch an itch quite like your own nails, so take care of all affairs by yourself.” So, can Saudi Arabia take care of all its affairs? Or rather, take care of the Arabs’ affairs? It doesn’t have a choice as it’s the only Arab country competent enough for this task of being the “Big Brother” considering that it’s widely respected and that it’s the most competent on the military level and the most stable. It’s also the one with a strategic vision that includes the entire region.

Saudi Arabia’s moves

For example, only Saudi Arabia can send a high-ranking team to Libya to request different parties meet under its auspices to find an agreement and not be dragged towards a civil war. It’s the only one whose demands will be met if it calls on Egypt for a national reconciliation - a reconciliation that Egypt clearly needs especially following the state’s fragile performance during the recent presidential elections and the low voter turnout. Saudi Arabia is also the only one capable of uniting Yemen’s parties and having them sit on a real negotiating table to implement the Gulf initiative which lost its influence after the vacuum in Yemen made the Houthis aspire to finalize the struggle in their favor - even if just in some parts of Yemen - by resorting themselves to power and imposing a fait accompli. Saudi Arabia is also the one capable of uniting chiefs of staff in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE to discuss some sort of intervention in Syria. If it does so, Washington will certainly hear of it and this will change Obama’s stance against intervening there. Once he realizes how serious Riyadh is, Obama will rush to alter his stance and participate in a way that doesn’t contradict with his public position against sending any American soldier to a new war outside the United States. No one wants Obama to do that in the first place. All we want from him is to provide the support required for regional action that puts an end to Iran’s arrogance.

Can Saudi Arabia take care of all its affairs? Or rather, take care of the Arabs’ affairs?

Jamal Kashoggi

Saudi researcher Nawaf Obaid at Harvard University said Saudi Arabia is capable of all this. During a lecture delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last Wednesday and in which he presented his recent study published by Harvard’s Belfer Center and titled “Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine,” Obaid said: “Away from the impression that [Saudi Arabia] is a fragile state that depends on the U.S., Saudi Arabia has in recent years proven its status as a leader in the Arab world. [It’s proven] it pushes the region towards stability and that it’s a solid power in the face of terrorism and a nuclear Iran.” Obaid added that three threats confront the kingdom, and they are: disorder in the region, a hostile Iran and terrorism. Obaid added that Saudi Arabia can, or rather must, assume its leading role in the so-called Arab Spring countries in order to aid the latter in civil reconstruction programs.

Old strategic theory

The Saudi Kingdom must abandon the old strategic theory it’s believed in for years and which is based on strategic partnership with Egypt. It’s a correct theory but Saudi Arabia must accept the truth that Egypt is no longer capable of fulfilling the conditions of this partnership. For Egypt to restore its capability, Riyadh must practice its role of the “Big Brother.” This will push Egypt towards a reconciliation, then stability then resuming its absent role. The deteriorating situation in Syria, Libya or Yemen will not wait until Egypt recovers. Therefore, Saudi Arabia must perform its duty all by itself.

Obaid thinks that Saudi kingdom has the capability to do that on its own. He thinks that Saudi Arabia’s need to depend on the U.S. “is the biggest misconception” Riyadh is subject to. However, at the same time, he says that Saudi Arabia must work “to parallel its strategic aims with its unexploited capability.”

Developed its military capabilities

The Saudi Kingdom has greatly developed its military capabilities during recent years and has allocated $150 billion to improve its armed forces. $100 billion is allocated for contracts to buy developed arms and train with the United States. Expenditure on the Saudi army increased by 30 percent. Spending increased by 35 percent on the national guards, by 30 percent on air defense and strategic missiles and by 50 percent on the air force and the navy.

Obaid thinks that structuring an independent Saudi defense doctrine does not make for the deterioration of relations or distant relations between itself, the U.S and Western countries. It’s rather an issue that serves both parties as the West also wants a stable Middle East. Therefore, it’s in the West’s interest to have a friendly moderate state that leads this stability.

The kingdom has taken the initiative of acting unilaterally in Bahrain - a policy that protects its interests and the region. The West approved of Riyadh’s rule of the game. Therefore, Saudi Arabia can do this in other countries especially if it keeps neutral from all parties. In this case, all parties will welcome its role or will, rather, hope for it.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 31, 2014.


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.

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