‘This Is Not How a Protection Racket Is Supposed to Work’

Foreign Policy – by COLUM LYNCH

When Saudi Arabia rejected its U.N. Security Council seat on Friday, the move caught nearly everyone off-guard. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have.

In recent months, the United States has increasingly pursued a foreign policy at odds with its Persian Gulf ally, scaling back assistance to the Saudi-backed Egyptian military, abruptly dropping its plans to attack Syria despite Saudi support, and entering into a new round of nuclear talks with the kingdom’s  regional rival, Iran.   According to U.N. diplomats and officials, the Security Council move merely reflected the Saudis’ deeper anxiety over the course of American diplomacy in the Middle East, exposing a deepening rift in one of America’s most important and longstanding alliances in the region. In short, Saudi Arabia’s U.N. snub was a sign of the monarchy’s mounting panic over the possible demise of its special relationship with Washington.

For decades, Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood –relatively inexpensive oil — to run the world economy and pumps billions each year into the U.S. arms industry. But America’s failure to back Saudi Arabia on matters it considers vital to its security is raising questions in Riyadh about the value of that exchange.

“This is not how a protection racket is supposed to work,” said Christopher Davidson, a scholar and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. “Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a relationship it thought it had in the bag, despite having handed over several percent of their GDP to Western arms companies.” As a result, he said, “Saudi Arabia is retreating into its shell of countries that surround it and who rely on its aid and good will.”

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has sought to take matters into its own hands.

When the U.S. threatened to withhold financial assistance from Egypt’s generals following their overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy, the Saudi king held a fundraising campaign — undercutting U.S. diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement between the generals and Morsy’s government. As Secretary of State John Kerry applies pressure on the Syrian National Council to talk with the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Saudis have sent precisely the opposite messages to the rebels they’re funding. The Saudis, have resisted attempts by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to visit and have applied little pressure on its allies within the Syrian opposition, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

The Saudis have made no secret of their displeasure over U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to call off his cruise missiles and negotiate a deal with Russia to work to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. On October 7, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal abruptly cancelled plans to deliver his government address to the U.N. General Assembly; the move was widely viewed as a response to the Security Council’s endorsement of the Syrian chemical weapons deal. “They saw that as a complete capitulation,” said one U.N.-based diplomat.

In protest, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief announced that Riyadh will dial back  cooperation with Washington to train and equip Syrian rebels. “Our interests increasingly don’t align,” a U.S. official told the paper.

A further sign of pique: the Saudis didn’t even inform America’s top diplomats in New York that they planned to abandon the Security Council. The Saudi protest at the U.N., according to Davidson, constituted a kind of cry for attention, an effort to “shock and wake up their erstwhile allies.”

From Riyadh’s perspective, the Syrian civil war represents a pivotal front in an existential political and religious struggle for influence in the region, pitting Iran’s Shiite rulers against predominantly Sunni Arab rulers. “There is a realization in Riyadh that it is time for the major Arab powers to prepare a response for maintaining order in the Arab world and to counter Iran’s expanding infiltrative policies,” Nawaf Obaid, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies,  wrote in Al-Monitor. “The kingdom and its regional allies will increase their support to the Syrian rebels and prevent a collapse of collateral nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan. The removal of the tyrannical regime in Damascus is simply too important for the future of the Arabs.”

Read more here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/10/21/this_is_not_how_a_protection_racket_is_supposed_to_work

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