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Toby Jones says the Saudis see the Arab awakening as an existential threat while the US sees it as something to be manipulated

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

President Obama was in Saudi Arabia visiting King Abdullah on Friday, probably at a time of the most complicated relationships between United States and Saudi Arabia since the establishment of such a relationship by President Roosevelt when he met with Ibn Saud on a boat in Great Bitter Lake in 1945. Now the Saudis are attempting, want to project their own regional power, and they have a strategy not necessarily on the same page as the United States. Certainly, in Egypt the American plan for trying to manage the outcome of the Egyptian Revolution was that Qatar, through the Muslim Brotherhood, would become the new managers of Egypt in alliance with the United States. Well, the Saudis threw all of that overboard. In Syria, the Americans clearly had that as an early plan in the Syrian war, but Saudi support for the Sunni militants that are much more loyal to the Saudis than to the Qataris more or less threw that overboard as well. And now Saudi Arabia is at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, calling on Arab governments to boycott and even make the Muslim Brotherhood illegal in all of their countries. Of course, many Arab countries have not gone along with that, but Saudi Arabia has made membership of the Muslim Brotherhood illegal in Saudi Arabia.

So what exactly is the American plan here? What is the change in the balance of forces? Why is Saudi Arabia playing a game independent of the American umbrella that it seems to have not done so in the past?

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Toby Jones. Toby is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, where he specializes in the Middle East. He’s the author of the book Desert Kingdom: How Oil Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

Thanks for joining us, Toby.


JAY: So, President Obama is supposed to go be in Saudi Arabia and play nice, but there’s some serious divergence in Saudi-American plans here, although I’m not so sure there is when it comes to the long haul. But what’s your take on all of this?

JONES: Well, I actually think over the long haul there are bigger questions about what the relationship will look like going forward. In the moment, I think you put your finger on precisely the two biggest sources of frustration and anxiety from the perspective of Riyadh, and that is that the United States has not been wholly supportive of Saudi Arabia’s ambition to tip the regional balance of power in their favor, either in Cairo or in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s been playing a dangerous game, escalating, you know, sort of a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, at least encouraging it, as well as playing up Islamist forces in their bid to topple Assad in Syria. While the U.S. would like to see Assad fall, they’re concerned long-term about the threat of terrorism and other kinds of regional developments that could come from Saudi Arabia’s sort of narrow-minded approach to regional politics. And so the Americans and the Saudis fundamentally disagree on some pretty important matters.

At the heart of today’s meeting is likely going to be, you know, sort of the question, how do you reconcile those disagreements with what both sides agree has been a productive, profitable, and meaningful relationship?

JAY: Now, at the heart of the disagreement, it’s actually quite profound. I take back what I said–in the long haul, maybe not quite so divergent–if you look at this issue, this issue being that the Americans can live with managing the outcome of the Arab revolutions if they can manage the process so they become essentially neoliberal capitalist economies with some kind of form of, you know, neoliberal capitalist democracy, and which–essentially what the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to be willing to engineer.

But in the long run, the Americans, I think, do understand that one way or the other, the peoples of most of these Arab countries are going to rise up again. And in the long run, they want to manage that process in American interest. But that type of managing is seen by the Saudis as an existential threat to their monarchy.

JONES: That’s right. Popular empowerment is at the heart of–the specter of popular empowerment is at the heart of what’s driving Saudi Arabia’s very desperate, anxious response in the region. You know, they’ve been counterrevolutionary since 2011. We’ve seen that in Yemen, and we saw it in Bahrain, where they committed their own military resources to suppressing a democratic uprising. I mean, you certainly saw it play out last summer in Egypt when the Saudis threw their full financial and political support behind the military coup there and have been outspokenly supportive of Sisi’s bid for political power in Cairo.

And I think you’re exactly right that the United States was caught off guard by the Arab uprisings. It wasn’t in a position where it could predict or shape outcomes. Its primary interest was to make sure that we have something akin to Mubarakism even without Mubarak, the system in Egypt in which Egyptians had a say, but that produced a government that would be friendly to American interests, both its capitalist interests, but as well as its strategic relationships beyond the country. And it seemed like Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were going to play that role.

I think, unsuspectingly to those in Washington, the Saudis saw the fault lines in Egypt being very different, as primarily ideological. The Muslim Brotherhood is a force that not only was dangerous, from Riyadh’s perspective, in the region, but they could also mobilize discontent inside Arabia itself. The Muslim Brotherhood historically has a large following there. The Saudis worry about its potential political power.

So the Saudis saw what was happening in Cairo as potentially what could happen there at home, and worried that the uprisings might have a kind of ripple effect, which I think explains why they cracked down so heavily.

JAY: Now, the U.S. differences with Saudi Arabia over Syria–but more importantly, I suppose, that’s just a beginning or a reverberation of their differences over Iran, the Saudis seeing Iran as a strategic enemy. Are the Americans trying to position themselves now that they can play Iran and the Saudis off against each other?

JONES: No, I think that’s stating it too boldly. I think the Americans see–I think Obama in particular has made it a priority to figure out how to, if not heal, at least repair the relationship with Iran on some of the more fundamental issues that divide the United States and Tehran, most importantly Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear energy program, nuclear research program, or a nuclear weapons program, whatever we think’s going on there. You know, so I don’t think that the U.S. necessarily sees rapprochement or a normalization of relationships in the cards, but they’re interested in achieving some kind of immediate breakthrough.

And that really is a problem for the Saudis, who have long manipulated the idea of Iran as a regional bogeyman, as the source of crisis across the region, and as a reason to keep the Americans close. If the Americans are in fact willing to proceed with any kind of negotiation with Iran, Riyadh sees that as fundamentally problematic and as equally an existential problem as they do the Muslim Brotherhood. So on two levels then, with respect to geopolitics and with respect to ideology in the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia sees a great deal of distance between itself and the United States where it didn’t exist previously.

JAY: But is there not some feeling in the United States that while Saudi Arabia has been an excellent ally over the years, in terms of suppressing and fighting against Nasserism, fighting against socialism in the Arab world and Afghanistan and so on, is there not some feeling now that there is just so much money in Saudi Arabia and they seem so willing to finance and use terrorist tactics? And I don’t think we should ever stop reminding everybody that the joint congressional report on 9/11 specifically accuses the Saudis of financing and facilitating the 9/11 attacks, which–it still amazes me that the American press can cover Saudi Arabia over and over again and never mention this fact. But, at any rate, is there some issue of wanting to contain the power of the Saudis now?

JONES: Well, I think that there’s concern about what Saudi Arabia’s–. I should restate it. I think there’s concern about what the long-term consequences will be from Saudi Arabia’s projection of its own power in the region. And we’ve been here before, as you said, particularly in Afghanistan and over the course of the 1990s, that the radicalization of politics in the region, the way it was exported may not have been Saudi Arabia’s intent, but it was definitely a result of how they played politics in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century.

The Americans are very concerned, but at the same time, the Americans see the Saudis as a partner in counterterrorism. Right? So there’s a fundamental paradox there, that the Saudis appear to be supportive when it comes to taking on al-Qaeda, but they work more at odds against the United States in the way that they crack down or pursue the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, and the sorts of long-term consequences that that might generate, a new generation of radicals or Islamists, not only interested in doing harm in the region but elsewhere. So this is a difficult paradox or a contradiction that the Americans are fundamentally stuck in, I think.

JAY: But we’ve talked about this before. The Saudis seem to play this game where they cooperate on cracking down al-Qaeda out of this hand, and out of this hand they finance and work with al-Qaeda and threaten various people, including, you know, Tony Blair. They’ve threatened Putin. If the congressional joint committee’s right, they actually financed 9/11, which is, you know, fairly astounding that the press doesn’t talk about this. But they play a double game, the same way the Pakistani ISI does.

JONES: There’s no doubt about it. The Saudis are complicit in the globalization of radicalism. They’ve had a hand, they’ve had an interest, or at least some in the Saudi leadership has had an interest in supporting precisely that.

The fact that the American–it’s not as though American policymakers are unaware of this. I think they’re very–.

JAY: I mean, I’d go so far–not that they’re–only not aware of it; they were totally collaborators in creating it. But the Saudis were only doing this over the decades in alliance with the CIA and American policy.

JONES: Well, it’s certainly true historically, whether it’s in Afghanistan or in the proliferation of networks in the 1990s. The United States saw it as convenient, particularly at the height of the Cold War, to support global jihadism. And in many ways the Americans are dealing with and we have been dealing with the consequences of that all along.

You know, Paul, I would say the other thing that’s at play here–and this, too, we’ve talked about before–is that ultimately American policymakers, along with those who support them through campaign donations, as well as the funneling of cash and other ways, you know, don’t talk about–neither does the American press–talk about how important Saudi money is and the fact that Saudi money recycles to the American economy in pretty fundamental ways, particularly through the purchase of weapons, is a big part of our political-economic calculation with–you know, in our relationship with Riyadh. Whatever role the Saudis play strategically–and we’ve outlined the various ways that it’s contradictory and problematic, and it doesn’t align with American geopolitical interests. Where they do align very closely is the fact that the Saudis generate a ton of cash and they recycle a lot of that cash in American industry, in American weapons, and that makes lots of congresspeople and lots of arms merchants very happy. And that is sometimes, I think, the most powerful inducement to maintain the relationship the way that it has, the way that it’s operated historically.

JAY: Right. And maybe there’s one other underlying very powerful inducement. In the final analysis–and it’s the thing in the final analysis the press isn’t talking about–is what we said a little earlier. It’s the Arab people’s revolutions that’s the existential threat, but not just to the monarchies, as the Americans desperately want to manage what that process is, because they’re very afraid that process gets out of their control, and then people start demanding governments that are actually independent of the entire–of the American umbrella and want the oil resources and economy of this region to go to the people of this region. And that, in the final analysis, I suppose unites all of these elites.

JONES: Certainly. I mean, I think that historically the United States has been as hostile to democracy in the Middle East as the Arab regimes have been.

I do think that we can probably concede a little bit of ground, that for all of the talk over the last ten or 15 years or so amongst American policymakers, that they would like to see meaningful reform in the Arab world. I mean, we can acknowledge that there’s probably some earnestness there. They would like for that process to have been managed not through revolutionary politics but from a top-down approach. The fact that the Arab uprisings seemed to charge the region in a way that allowed Arab people to push things on their own terms, you know, the Americans were worried about but were willing to resign themselves to, as we talked about in the case with Egypt.

But the Saudis are not willing to go that route. And if there’s one thing to take away from the current moment in the Saudi projection of its power and claims of their anxiety about their relationship to the United States is that the Saudis are terrified. They remain fundamentally fearful of the possibility of empowerment or popular politics in the region, and everything that they do is practically, pragmatically geared toward making sure that that doesn’t happen.

JAY: Right. Thanks for joining us, Toby.

JONES: Yeah, good to be with you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Toby Jones is a historian of the modern Middle East. His interests are varied. Jones' scholarship focuses primarily on the political intersections between science, technology, the environment, knowledge production, and the state formation, war, and Islamism. Before joining the history department at Rutgers University, Jones taught at Swarthmore College. During the 2008-2009 he was a fellow at Princeton University's Oil, Energy and the Middle East project. From 2004 to early 2006 he worked as the political analyst of the Persian Gulf for the International Crisis Group where he wrote about political reform and sectarianism.