Wanted: Patron For Hire

Walter Russell Mead muses over what kinds of payback the Saudis might inflict on US foreign policy now that they're in open breach with Washington. "Saudi Arabia, frustrated with how things have been going in Middle East, is showing its displeasure by foregoing its seat on the UN Security Council." Meads counts the ways in which the Kingdom can gum up the works.

All the signs point to this being decided at the very top of the Saudi government pyramid ... it would be a mistake to not see in this a growing Saudi rage mixed with horror at the Obama administration. ... there is at least the possibility that the White House hasn’t really thought through just what the Saudis could do that would make us unhappy. That would be a mistake. The Saudis have a lot of weight in Pakistan and could make things easier or harder for us there. They have a lot of influence particularly among the hard core Islamists and in the nuclear program. It’s worth thinking about what that could mean. Also, as US dependence on Middle East oil decreases, China looms larger as a customer for the Saudis, and there are a number of favors those countries could do for each other that would make life more complicated for American foreign policy. The Saudis could move more aggressively to fund the kind of jihadis we don’t like in Syria and perhaps elsewhere; they could switch to a more aggressive price policy in OPEC; they could cut the legs out from under the Palestinian moderates on the West Bank; they could aggressively promote radical Salfism in Egypt to take advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood’s eclipse. With Saudi help, however quiet and in the background, Israel’s calculations about an attack on Iran could change, and a conflict could start that the White House might not be able to stay out of.

Would the Saudis really do anything so hostile? That depends on how deeply betrayed they feel by Obama administration's rapproachment with Iran. Tom Phillips, a former UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Israel thinks the Kingdom is very worried about the unreliability of its patron:

Not far below the surface there is also a sense of Saudi vulnerability. The Kingdom is, after all, an ally of the West, especially when it comes to anything connected with Iran.... From a Saudi perspective, the message the West and above all the Americans have sent through their handling of the chemical weapons crisis is that it is has lost the will to get tough (a message which they think will not have been lost on the Iranians); that it lacks consistency (not all that long ago Western spokesmen would say that Assad was toast, and now even Kerry is praising his government for its cooperation with the OPCW inspectors); that it is not concerned about the strategic consequences of the conflict and the risk of refugee flows and other pressures destabilizing Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; and that it lacks morality. Surely, they would argue, the signal conveyed to Assad is that it is acceptable to shoot protesters, but not to use sarin against them. They remain to be convinced that the West will put in a serious effort to achieve a result at the Geneva II conference now scheduled for late November. They worry too -- inevitably, and ironically like Israel -- that Western limpness on the Syrian agenda prefigures a willingness to accept a less than satisfactory deal with Iran, cutting Tehran too much slack in the regional strategic equation.

What Phillips fails to convey is the sense of betrayal the Saudis must feel, recalling that up until a few weeks ago the President was all set to bomb Syria with or without Congressional approval. Up until that point it is safe to assume Riyadh believed they had a deal with Obama, an arrangement he reneged upon in order to save his own political hide.

Viewed in the context of Obama's about-face it's hard not to conclude Saudis feel he folded out of weakness and convenience. From their point of view Obama is either unable or unwilling to do the Patron's job. They bought a kind of international Obamacare insurance policy from him and now find it entitles them to nothing but hospice care -- and three free haircuts at Moe's. He took the Saudi insurance premium and ran.

Their refusal to take the UN Security Council seat must signify a management decision that they cannot double him back. Whatever that insurance represented -- gold, silver or bronze -- it's gone now.  So they are cutting him loose in the most public way possible.

The Russians have piled in on the Saudis, calling their refusal to play the UNSC game "strange". The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement.

“We are surprised by Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision,” the statement read. “The kingdom’s arguments arouse bewilderment and the criticism of the UN Security Council in the context of the Syria conflict is particularly strange,” the ministry added.

One thing the Russians may not have to worry about is the $10.8 billion worth of US arms that might have wound up in the Kingdom's hands. Though it is not yet clear the diplomatic dust-up may have put the kibosh on a proposed sale.

Notice yesterday of the planned sales of advanced weapons made by Boeing Co. (BA:US) and Raytheon Co. (RTN:US) sends a message of support from the Obama administration to two close allies in the Middle East as the U.S. and five other nations are engaged in talks to curb Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. ... The proposal includes the first U.S. sales to Middle East allies of new Raytheon and Boeing weapons that can be launched at a distance from Saudi F-15 and U.A.E. F-16 fighters. The Boeing Expanded-Response Standoff Land Attack Missile and Raytheon Joint Standoff Weapon give those nations new capabilities to strike at air defense sites and radar installations, such as those possessed by Iran, from beyond the range of enemy air-defense systems so pilots aren’t put at risk. The Boeing missile, a derivative of the Harpoon anti-ship missile, can be launched more than 135 nautical miles from a target and be redirected in flight. The Navy says the Raytheon missile can fly 12 to 52 nautical miles and attack industrial facilities, logistics systems and “hardened tactical targets.”

The sales package sounds like a kind of do-it-yourself deterrence kit the Saudis were offered in lieu of American action against Iran. A kind of consolation prize, as in "I can't buy you a car, but here are the parts. Go build it yourself".

The Saudis however, have no talent for conventional warfare and may have regarded the advanced armaments, correctly, as fundamentally useless in their hands. Therefore losing the arms package only punishes Boeing and Raytheon. The Saudis themselves probably lose nothing.

But maybe the Russian's quizzical attitude is also a wonderment about what happens next. The Kingdom's way of defending its interests has been by getting others to do it. It hires help. Given that track record, what is more probable is that Saudi Arabia will cast around for another patron or geopolitical partner in the Middle East to replace Obama. The Saudi refusal to take a seat in the UNSC is equivalent of his pink slip, the House of Saud's way of announcing it is now hiring.

In this connection its worth remembering that in the runup to the Syrian crisis, Prince Bandar reportedly made a secret offer to Moscow. The Telegraph reported that in late August the Kingdom made an extraordinary proposal.

Prince Bandar, head of Saudi intelligence, allegedly confronted the Kremlin with a mix of inducements and threats in a bid to break the deadlock over Syria. “Let us examine how to put together a unified Russian-Saudi strategy on the subject of oil. The aim is to agree on the price of oil and production quantities that keep the price stable in global oil markets,” he said at the four-hour meeting with Mr Putin. They met at Mr Putin’s dacha outside Moscow three weeks ago.

“We understand Russia’s great interest in the oil and gas in the Mediterranean from Israel to Cyprus. And we understand the importance of the Russian gas pipeline to Europe. We are not interested in competing with that. We can cooperate in this area,” he said, purporting to speak with the full backing of the US.

The talks appear to offer an alliance between the OPEC cartel and Russia, which together produce over 40m barrels a day of oil, 45pc of global output. Such a move would alter the strategic landscape. ...

As-Safir said Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord. “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” he allegedly said.

In other words the Saudis asked the Kremlin to sell out Assad and make a deal with them. That deal did not fly. But it suggests what the Saudis might do. Given the rising power of American oil and gas in the world markets and the Obama administration's inability to do the Patron job, one wonders whether the Saudi refusal to sit in the UNSC is merely the prelude to a Saudi rapproachment with Moscow.


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