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A Saudi citizen asks: Is it worth the risk?

Time has come to convince Saudi society that issues of war and peace cannot be postponed

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

A few days ago, the Washington Post published a negative article about what it described as the risks of the expanding Saudi military intervention in the Syrian conflict, as if Iran and Russia have been handing out roses. The article says Saudi citizens are afraid their country is getting involved in wars on two or more fronts.

It quoted a “prominent Saudi political observer who is close to senior officials” saying: “Our economy is really struggling, and yet some leaders come out and say things that could get us caught up in a war in Syria against Russia!” Before we accuse the observer of defeatism, we must admit that he represents a real movement among Saudis who talk openly and pose difficult questions.

Writers with the same opinion express it through their articles, so we should listen to them. “There is a serious concern about our involvement in all these foreign conflicts,” said the Saudi observer. “I think there’s a sense that we’ve lost an ability to look at things realistically.” I was not alarmed by his words, but by the absence of tactical rhetoric that would eliminate these doubts and strengthen the confidence of the Saudi people.

Inevitable confrontation

Since confrontation is inevitable, the time has come to convince Saudi society. Issues of war and peace cannot be postponed. Any well-informed analyst knows the battle against Iranian meddling in the Arab world will be long and hard, and so must be given priority. It is time for Saudis to hear directly and accurately a discourse that clarifies and outlines the purposes and causes of the coming battle, and what is expected of them.

Confrontation with Iran, involvement in Syria and war in Yemen have become subjects of controversy, as if they are marginal such as women driving cars or conflicts between political parties. A writer questions the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish alliance because it does not appeal to his political convictions. Another writer wants to involve Egypt in an alliance it never wanted because it suits his whims.

Any well-informed analyst knows the battle against Iranian meddling in the Arab world will be long and hard, and so must be given priority

Jamal Khashoggi

A third insists that those calling for confrontation with Iran want to get Riyadh embroiled in conflicts because this serves their political preferences. Amid all this polarization, it is normal that the picture becomes vague. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has been outstanding in his statements, but they are addressed externally. It is time Saudis listen to a discourse aimed domestically in order to remove all doubts.

Any wise observer can recognize the cautious Saudi method of intervening in external conflicts, and how the kingdom chose to support national forces in Yemen and Syria that can resolve the conflicts since it is their cause. However, Saudis and non-Saudis are afraid to see two fronts opened at the same time, as if Riyadh was behind the revolution in Syria and had set the date for the coup carried out by the Houthis and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi officials never said they would send an army to Syria. They mentioned limited special forces on condition of international cover, specifically that of the United States. They never said Riyadh would cut ties with Russia - bilateral communication is ongoing, the last contact being made between King Salman and President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

Saudi resolve

Saudi Arabia is using all its means wisely and cautiously to protect itself. The Syrian opposition might soon acquire surface-to-air missiles, which will raise the wrath of Russia and Iran. However, no Saudi official will ever come out and say: “We have sent these weapons.” Riyadh did so quietly in Afghanistan two decades ago and came out victorious, protecting its strategic interests. It can do so in Syria.

I am certain most Saudis trust their leadership and are convinced that confrontation is inevitable to protect the homeland. They have finally realized that it is not a simple matter of external conflicts.

This article first appeared in Al Hayat on Feb 27, 2016.
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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. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

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