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TRNN Replay: Madawi al-Rasheed: US wants to contain and manipulate Arab uprisings while the Saudis want to crush them

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Friday, President Obama met with King Abdullah from Saudi Arabia to “repair frayed ties”, according to The Wall Street Journal; New York Times said, to give assurances to Saudi Arabia on Syria and Iran.

But the problems between the United States and Saudi Arabia go far deeper than just some assurances can fix. Saudi Arabia sees the negotiations with Iran and sees Iran itself as an existential threat. It also sees the Arab Awakening, Arab Spring movements as existential threats. It sees the fight in Syria as part of a fight with Iran–again, as part of an existential threat.

The United States doesn’t see these issues the same way. America’s national interest, as articulated by President Obama, can see these issues as things that can be managed. Well, that puts them on quite a different page with the Saudis.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She’s originally from Saudi Arabia and currently lives in London. Her research focuses on history, society, religion, politics in Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf. And her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.

Thanks very much for joining us, Madawi.


JAY: So what do you think of what I’m suggesting? The difference here is Saudi Arabia sees these things as a real threat to their rule, the Americans don’t, and American interest and Saudi interest isn’t quite on the same page as much as it used to be.

AL-RASHEED: Yes, and I think what brought all this rift between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is the Arab uprising. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was shocked, and as a result of the uprisings starting in North Africa and then moving close to home, in Yemen, Bahrain, and even Eastern Saudi Arabia. And therefore Saudi Arabia developed two strategies to deal with this uprising.

The first one is a determination to preserve monarchy as a form of government in the Arab world, starting with the GCC, and then in North Africa, Morocco, and in Jordan.

And the second strategy was to try using all means to revert the situation to the earlier phase, when it had these loyal allies in the person of Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the others. And therefore Saudi Arabia wanted to return to a kind of militarized republicanism in places like Egypt and in Yemen and elsewhere.

And therefore it tried to play this role as a counterrevolutionary force in the Arab world.

Now, from the perspective of the United States, the United States also didn’t really desire this Arab uprising, because it was very comfortable with the old Arab order. But even if it was cracking internally at the domestic level, it did serve the purpose of Washington, for example in maintaining stability on top of fermenting a sort of chaos and repression, and therefore the divergence between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia came as a result of the U.S. position that was not willing to save Mubarak, for example. So Egypt was key to this rift between the U.S. and Riyadh.

And on top of that, Saudi Arabia wanted to have another military adventure in Syria, when it pushed through the Arab League first, and then the United Nations Security Council, and, finally, putting pressure on Washington to deal with the Assad regime using military force, as it did in Libya.

So Saudi Arabia was pushing for military action against Assad, but Western government–Washington, London, Paris–were talking about military action but were not prepared to go into a war over Syria, simply because Syria was more complex than Libya, where military action or direct military intervention did take place.

And hence the conflict between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. started at that moment when Riyadh realized that its pressure on Washington is not going to give the right result, from the perspective of the Saudi regime. And finally, while Saudi Arabia was pushing the U.S. to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program, it was shocked when it transpired just a couple of months ago that Washington and Iran were carrying out secret negotiations organized under the patronage of nobody but Oman, an important member in the Gulf Cooperation Council. And these negotiations were going to lead to further discussions that may end up lifting the sanctions on Iran and rehabilitating Iran in the international community. And therefore Saudi Arabia realized that it cannot trust Washington anymore, because in the past three, four, five decades, Saudi Arabia was actually part of U.S. policy in the Muslim world, let alone the Arab world. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia was a close ally. It used its influence, its even religious ideology in order to fight communism in places like Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Arab world.

JAY: [incompr.] a very, very close ally of the CIA, involved in a lot of the black ops and rather dirty operations.

AL-RASHEED: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was going on for years. But Saudi Arabia felt that it is incumbent on Washington now to honor Saudi wishes, which obviously is not happening at the moment. Hence Mr. Obama’s visit to Riyadh was supposed to, in inverted commas, assure Saudis of the close ties between the two countries.

But I think the relationship had been fraught from the very beginning. Here is a country in the Middle East which has extreme wealth, and also extreme importance to Muslims around the world, yet this country remains the epitome of a repressive authoritarian monarchy that is allied with the United States that claims to support democracy and human rights and freedom of expression and all the other things that democracies want to happen.

Yet the Americans have decided that only realism would allow them to have relations as close and as intimate as the ones they have with Saudi Arabia. And I think in 2014 we’re seeing the limits of this American realism in its foreign policy, and the rift with Saudi Arabia is symptomatic of this divergence of interests. And I think Washington wants to contain the Arab uprising and ensure that it can maintain good relations with whoever comes to power after these upheavals, whereas the Saudis from the very beginning opposed the Arab uprising and wanted to return to the status quo ante and was not going to have anything less than that. It decided to put its diplomatic and political weight behind projects that actually undermined the Arab uprising and divert them.

What is so interesting is–and also sad–is to see how Saudi Arabia opposed the North African uprising and also the ones that are in its vicinity, such as in Bahrain and in Yemen. But against this background, it put all its full weight behind the Syrian uprising, to the detriment of the Syrian uprising, and to diverting it from its early peaceful, democratic demands into something that resembled a sectarian war. And this is really the unfortunate development that resulted from Saudi foreign policy and its strategies to derail the Arab Spring or the Arab uprisings.

JAY: The American attitude towards the Saudis is in some extent a little hard to understand at some level in terms of the broader national interests of the United States. And the only other one you can say that’s like that is Israel, but that’s a separate conversation.

But there’s a piece of this which I keep repeating ’cause I don’t want this story to go away, although the rest of the media has let this story go away, which is–and, again, it’s very hard for me to get my head around why. As I have said on The Real News many times, the congressional joint committee investigating 9/11, one of the leaders of that was Senator Bob Graham. And we did a series of interviews with him. They concluded that the Saudi government–not individual rogue princes or something; the Saudi government–although, if I understand correctly from some of your work, the Saudi government is very medieval with, essentially, like, fiefdoms and a king almost like a chairman of the board of the fiefdoms. But that being said, the congressional joint committee found that the Saudi government facilitated and financed the 9/11 attacks. This was enough to justify an invasion of Afghanistan although it had nothing to do with it. It was used to justify an invasion of Iraq. Yet the American-Saudi relations kind of carry on as if none of that happened. Why is that?

AL-RASHEED: I think there are big questions to be asked in Washington itself. But from my perspective, it is simply a function of the so-called special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

But this special relationship has been magnified and made us believe that it’s a holy alliance. And I think in politics there are no holy alliances.

But if you imagine that 9/11 was the work of 15 hijackers who were not Saudi, who belonged to any other Arab countries, what would have happened to that Arab country? And how would Washington have reacted to that event?

So there are big question marks. And I think perhaps the Obama administration is putting a brake or moving slower than previous administrations in dealing with Saudi Arabia and not sort of glorifying this medieval configuration.

So, for example, on human rights, Washington lectures the whole world about abuse of human rights in countries that are deemed or considered to be unfriendly. But it’s completely silent on Saudi Arabia. Yes, there are reports on religious freedom, reports on abuse of human rights, but is the work of civil society, really, in the U.S. and in the West in general. But it’s never been an important issue brought openly for discussion by any American administration so far. And therefore it is not a holy alliance. There are interest groups who want us to believe that this is a holy alliance, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. And obviously here we’re talking about military weapons companies, we’re talking about oil companies, we’re talking about those who benefit from this political umbrella that is provided by Washington to Saudi Arabia and do not want to undermine this relationship, in order to keep its business and economic and financial, military relations going.

JAY: Right. If this relationship were to rupture in some way and they be open about 9/11, but also many other issues, yeah, it would rather piss off (excuse the language) a great deal of American arms manufacturers, as the Saudis are one of the biggest purchasers of those arms there are. And they use that to play Europe, France, and England, the United States all off against each other.

AL-RASHEED: Yes. And I think initially, when this so-called special relationship started in 1945, Saudi Arabia needed the U.S. more than the U.S. actually needed Saudi Arabia, until oil became abundant and the Saudi sort of government started having that surplus, which it recycled, and used it to buy weapons from Western governments.

But at the same time, the Saudis realized recently that they have this purchasing power, and immediately after any kind of rift between Washington and Riyadh, the Saudis tried to arrange visits to other Western countries, or to Asia recently, and also offered to buy military equipment.

And to just give you an example which is really symptomatic of this kind of empowerment that the Saudi regime feels, recently Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese government, and also aid to the Lebanese Army, provided that this money is used to buy military equipment from France. And this is interesting that this happened at the time when relationship with Washington was not going as usual. And therefore the Saudis are using their power to purchase military equipments and have huge contracts–and not only contacts to buy, but also to maintain the equipment afterwards. So it’s an ongoing sort of source of income for these companies. And therefore it is using this purchasing power in order to put pressure on other governments, especially Western one, to remain silent on its own abuse of human rights, on its own undemocratic system, and also on its intrigues, whether they are direct or indirect in the Arab world and beyond.

And I suppose the American position would be–they probably wouldn’t say this openly, but they would say, well, what’s the alternative to this regime?

AL-RASHEED: Yes, we’ve heard this argument for the last 30, 40 years. Remember, when Egypt was under the dictatorship of Mr. Mubarak, everybody thought, oh, what is the alternative? The alternative is radical Islamists. And we saw how the Islamists did even participate in bringing this dramatic change in 2011.

But, yes, when they were given an opportunity to participate in free elections, they did win. But then, a year later, they were removed from power as a result of a coup. And therefore the alternative is to actually to allow these societies to have a breathing space, to allow them to form free associations, civil society, in order to prepare for the alternative.

But one thing that is really important is I don’t know of any dictatorship that prepares its society for an alternative. If it does, then it wouldn’t be called a dictatorship, would it?

JAY: Right. Okay. We’re going to continue the discussion in a second part and delve a little more into Saudi Arabia’s domestic politics, both within the elites and outside the elites.

So please join us for part two of our interview about Saudi Arabia on The Real News Network.


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Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at The London School of Economics and Political Science. She is originally from Saudi Arabia and currently lives in London. Her research focuses on history, society, religion and politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State .