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Saudi stability, continuity and a smooth transition

What happened in Riyadh last week was a confirmation of stability, encouragement of moderation, and commitment to fighting terrorism

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

In both the U.S. and Western Europe, there are two major political currents that are always happy to doubt and belittle any constructive step taken by traditional regimes in the Middle East: the ultra-conservative Right and the radical Left.

The ultra-conservative Right is usually, and wholeheartedly, not only anti-Arab, but anti-Third World in general. It sees the Third World countries either as a burden that hinders the West’s well-being, a fertile ground for radicalism which threatens its interests or loose cannons beyond its comfort zones, if and when they attempt to choose a path independent of its wishes and directives.

The radical Left, on the other hand, has dogmatically set its conditions of whom to accept, while rejecting all “others”; thus its views of any event or phenomenon are already and irrevocably prejudiced. In cases like this, suspicion-based conviction becomes a habit and incrimination by association becomes an established norm.

Last week, Saudi Arabia passed an important landmark in its modern history with the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and the succession of the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz to the throne. Along with these two events, Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, who was the Deputy Crown Prince, was confirmed as Crown Prince, and Prince Mohammad Bin Naif was appointed as Deputy Crown Prince, in addition to keeping the key portfolio of the Ministry of Interior. This further cements the precedence that ensures fluidity of appointments and smooth transition. Last but not least, the other key post of Minister of Defense went to Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the King’s son, along with the position of Head of the Royal Court.

Keeping all of the above in mind, it is worth mentioning that some Western doubters and skeptics from both the extreme Right and Left have, during the last few years, been busy posing cynical questions about the political future of Saudi Arabia. However, insiders who know much more about the nature of the Saudi regime always seemed quite sure as regards its checks, controls and priorities—something that these doubters have never sought or desired to know. Indeed, what happened last week was very significant, and the transition was fast and smooth, without any complications, especially, as concerned the “third generation,” i.e. the grandsons of the founder King Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Missing a good opportunity

The level of foreign representatives at the departed King’s funeral and the subsequent days of condolences were also significant; in particular, the change decided by the White House that resulted in cutting President Barack Obama’s pre-planned official visit to India short to fly to the Kingdom. The official high-level U.S. delegation included leading politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties and amply reflects the fact that U.S.-Saudi relations are not reliant on the chemistry of any given administration, but rather on a deep, strategic and long-term relationship that benefits both sides. This, at least, is how a serious analyst would read the situation in the current unclear climate, and amid the wrong signals being sent by the Obama administration towards the Middle East’s complex issues; most prominently Iran’s expansionist ambitions and nuclear programs, extremist terrorism and the teetering Arab-Israeli peace process.

The reality is that just a few years ago Washington and the international community had a good opportunity to avoid the present mess that we are seeing throughout the Middle East and parts of North Africa. Then, during the early days of the “Arab Spring” it appeared the West was ill-prepared for the unfolding changes. Some even claim that Washington never had a “Plan B” in case the process of change that started in 2011 took a wrong course, as may be seen now in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

In his now famous interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, early last year, President Obama sounded as if he was blaming America’s Middle East “friends” for being taken by surprise by the 2011 events. He may be right there. However, those “friends” may have mitigating excuses, but this should hardly apply to a superpower, like the U.S., which was supposed to have been monitoring political trends and frustrations and security tensions in the region for decades. What we are witnessing today is an American administration that “reacts” rather than “acts,” and we need look no further to its endorsement of Russia’s approach and interests in Syria as proof of this.

In fact, Washington’s stubborn refusal to intervene at the right time and in the right way in Syria allowed takfirist extremists of all kinds to assemble in Syria from all corners of the world, hijacking the popular uprising, and turning the country into a “theater of operations”. In the meantime, with “reformist” Hassan Rouhani winning Iran’s presidential elections the viewpoints of the West’s anti-Arab hawkish Right and anti-GCC radical Left converged, and went on to redefine “Islamic” extremism.

Some are already pushing for the rehabilitation of Iran and promoting it as a reliable ally in the Middle East. Yesterday, I read an article in a British newspaper written by a retired diplomat obliquely calling for the West to begin dealing with Iran as an ally and Saudi Arabia as an enemy! To justify such a strange outcome the writer simply claims that Sunni extremism “is driving the burgeoning sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia,” adding that “it should be plain enough that to throw in our lot on one side of a sectarian conflict in the Middle East could have catastrophic consequences both for regional stability and for our own interests.”

Surprising, these quotes come after him saying: “The key to success against ISIS has to involve encouraging Sunni Arabs themselves to reject Isis, as they rejected and fought Al-Qaeda in Iraq in coordination with the so-called U.S. surge from 2007 onwards. Unfortunately, western support for, and relationships with, those Sunni Arab elements dwindled after the success of that policy, and that is partly why we have ISIS. Rebuilding those relationships now is going to be difficult because the Sunnis feel the west betrayed them.”

The basic fact that the retired diplomat has ignored is that extremism is not limited to one sect, and certainly not to one religion. If there were extremist Sunnis–and there are–Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have been witnessing another opposite form of extremism reflected in theocratic dogma, discourse and actions. The United Kingdom and the U.S. surely still remember who was behind the Lebanese Hostage Crisis between 1982 and 1992, when no less than 96 foreign nationals, mainly American and British, were kidnapped, and some executed.

Overlooking “reformist” Iran’s ambitions, as some in Washington are happy to do, would be the greatest gift to Sunni extremism at a time when all the Middle East needs is more support for moderation in all shapes or forms.

What happened in Riyadh last week was a confirmation of stability, encouragement of moderation, and commitment to fighting terrorism. A leadership with an agenda like this is the one that deserves to be endorsed and supported, not undermined by turning against it and favoring its enemies.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 31, 2015.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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