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Saudi Arabia's Threats To Its Own Survival

Politics / Middle East Oct 19, 2013 - 12:44 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of the family enterprise called the Wahabite Kingdom did not make his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly, this year. The Kingdom wanted to score a diplomatic snub against the UN Security Council's five permanent members.

Saud al-Faisal's ministry, Friday 18 October, announced the Kingdom had also turned down a two-year non-permanent membership seat in the Security Council alongside Chad, Nigeria, Lithuania and Chile, replacing the five previous non-permanent members.  The Kingdom cited two main reasons for its two-part action of refusing to make an address to the Assembly and rejecting a non-permanent seat. It is enraged by the five permanent members' internal standoff between its Western members, and China and Russia, leading to no military action in Syria, which Riyadh says shows that the “permanent five” are operating “double standards in the Security Council”. Riyadh said it also delivered the double snub because the Security Council and the international community have been “failing to find a solution to the Palestinian cause for 65 years”.

Saud al-Faisal repeated his country's well-worked and well-known theme of Bashr al-Assad's regime using chemical weapons “to kill its own people”, but did not add that Saudi-paid mercenaries do the same, and according to Turkey, either possess or possess and use chemical weapons.

In particular, according to the Saudi prince  "allowing the regime in Syria to kill its own people.... without confronting it or imposing any deterrent sanctions ... is a proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and assume its responsibilities". The prince went on to criticize Council failure to remove or destroy weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, and especially identified nuclear weapons as a regional threat to peace.

We can name the countries he did not mention. Nuclear weapons are certainly held by Israel, and possibly held by Iran.

Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, with the first reactor on line in 2022.  This programme will “confer” it the status of possessing huge nuclear Dirty Bombs when these reactors are completed and have operated at full power more than about a year, due to build-up of highly radioactive materials.

The Wahabite Kingdom's determined attempts to encourage or incite Western powers and Israel into attacking Iran are very well known. Its “objective ally” in this quest – Israel – would have little alternative but to attack all large Iranian nuclear targets, designated either “civil” or “military”, to carry out the Hebrew State's repeated threats of unilaterally stopping Iran from being able to produce nuclear weapons.

Exactly the same logic could apply to Saudi civil reactor “soft targets”. When or if the Kingdom is judged by other well-armed countries as possessing too many large nuclear facilities and installations on its territory, able to produce nuclear weapons “with a few turns of a screwdriver” they could be the target of military attack. Being an oil exporter like Iran, the same political rationale would apply – Saudi Arabia does not need and has no justification for possessing nuclear reactors or nuclear facilities of any kind.


In a theatrical gesture towards the UN Security Council's five permanent members, the Prince said: “Accordingly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia......announces its apology for not accepting membership of the Security Council until the Council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security”.The Prince went on to accuse the Security Council of “enabling” al-Assad to press his military campaign against rebels “with impunity”, including the use of chemical weapons.

Saudi Arabia often claims that it wants “to make the Middle East a free zone of all weapons of mass destruction”, but this is directed much more at Iran than Israel. The Kingdom's policy towards Iran – extreme hostility –  counts on Israel as its only or best regional ally able to do the dirty work, and take the military risk of bringing down Iran's government. This would cause massive human casualties due to Israel's likely or certain use of nuclear weapons for first strike against Iran.

At its core, Iranian-Saudi rivalry is about religious-political power and oil money. The two oil giants vie for control of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow sea passage through which the US EIA estimates about 17 million barrels a day was shipped in 2012, almost exactly 33% of world traded oil and about 19% of world total oil consumption. Since the fall of the last Shah in 1979 and the rise of Iran's “political Islam”, Saudi Arabia's ruling family and clans have developed an extreme, almost hysterical, existential fear of Iran.

The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, not Allah.

Saudi royals have spent vast amounts of money funding the spread of the extreme-Sunni Wahabi sect or school of Islam, seeing this ultra-conservative, totally literal interpretation of the Coran as a bulwark against Iran's Shia branch of Islam. Ensuring deep religious animosity with Tehran, the official title of the Saudi King includes his self-assigned duty of "Guardian of the Two Holy Places", Mecca and Medina, suggesting or claiming divine authority. Pursuit of its own religious-political strategy over the last 33 years has led the Wahabite Kingdom to firstly support and finance the Muslim Brotherhood across the entire MENA region, then to rabidly oppose the Brotherhood, most extremely and recently with its open support to the Egyptian army's overthrow of Brotherhood-backed president Moursi.


As we know, both China and Russia were, and remain totally opposed to military action by Security Council members US and France against Syria's government. In the case of Russia, it likely harbors highly negative views on the Wahabite Kingdom's islamic destabilization campaign in the Russian Caucuses. International weapons inspectors are now inside Syria seeking to identify and dismantle its stocks of chemical weapons under a deal brokered last month by Russia and the US, ignoring Saudi pressure, to avert American and French military action in reprisal for alleged poison gas attacks by the regime, near Damascus on August 21.

The effective or de facto US-Russian agreement for avoiding the use of military force against the Syrian government has enraged the Wahabite Kingdom, followed by increasing signs of the Saudis' worst nightmare becoming real - the US administration “striking a grand bargain with Iran”. According to former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan, in a Reuters interview this week the nightmare is treated as a near-mortal threat by Saudi royals. Such a deal could, for example, see Washington willing to tolerate Iran's influence in Syria in exchange for international inspection of Iran's nuclear facilities, followed by Iran increasing its oil production and exports.

"If the Saudis perceive Iranian influence in the region to be threatening, clearly any approach that suggests a US-Iranian rapprochement would be very worrying", the leading regional analyst John Barnes-Dacey told Deutsche Welle this week, "The Saudis are intent on pushing back against groups linked to Iran, whether that be Assad or Hezbollah, but it also means pushing back groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who subscribe to a political ideology the Saudis see as a threat internally”.

Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Syria and a scholar at Carnegie Europe, pointed out that US re-engagement with Iran may be the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis, "If the US wants to resolve the chaos in Syria, there is no way around the involvement of Iran," he said in interview with Reuters this week.  "The nuclear issue is also a further reason to engage. Everything else has to be seen in that context - not that anyone should trust Iran blindly, but Tehran is an essential component."

Effectively, he says, the gravity of the Syrian conflict shown by Assad allegedly using chemical weapons against his own people, has sidelined the regional power play of Saudi Arabia. Other analysts and commentators say the Wahabites have almost certainly gone too far in recruiting and financing tens of thousands of Islamic insurgents in Syria, with constantly rising potential for spillover across the region when the Syrian civil war ends, starting with Iraq.

At the same time as the US is being forced into a more diplomatic, less gung ho approach in Syria, driven by strong public opposition to any kind of military intervention, observers note that the US is war-averse, today, in the Arab world – due to Iraq and Afghanistan. In both these cases, starting with the 1980-88 war between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Iran, the 1991 Kuwait war, the 2003 Iraq war, and the now-12 year US led military campaign inside Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia has played a major leading role, but has never exposed its own regular armed forces to any risk.


The Saudis have shown that they are now openly willing to defy Washington because they see their interests threatened and above all see a “bang for the buck” using their petrodollars.

As soon as influential voices in Washington called for the US to cut aid to Egypt, after the ouster of Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Moursi, Riyadh immediately started delivering lifeline billions of dollars – among other things to import food – to keep the al-Sisi military coup in place and secure. US aid was indeed partially cut, but since July 18 Saudi Arabia has given Egypt more than $5 billion - three times Washington's annual contribution – and extended this with gifts from other minority Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies to a total exceeding $10 billion.

More serious in fact, Saudi ideologues have clung to the belief that Wahabism is a “one size fits all” political-religious lever for power in any Sunni-majority Muslim society. Highly ironic given the over-20-years of unstinting financial and political support given by Saudi royals to the Muslim Brotherhood, terminating in the 1990s and featuring the growth of the al-Qaeda movement, Saudi Arabia now harbors an obsessional fear that the Brotherhood is extending its influence across the Middle East and North Africa. Reasons for this are purely ideological and concern the Brotherhood's very longstanding opposition to all monarchies, for Islamic ideological reasons, which for the Saudi royal family would be impossible not to know.

For Barnes-Dacey, the fear of Saudi royals is that the Brotherhood will spawn “a string of Brotherhood organizations in places like Egypt, Syria, and beyond, who could then empower similar ideological groups in Saudi Arabia". These would then overthrow the Saudi royal family.

He goes on to claim that despite the clear falling out of Riyadh and Washington on Egypt and Syria, the “depth of their historical alliance”, dating from 1945 and signed in oil and petrodollars, as well as non-Saudi blood, can or might limit the clear trend of the Wahabites taking an aggressively independent line in the Middle East and North Africa. The real strength of this historical alliance is however open to question, in part due to Wahabism clearly being nationalist Arabian, xenophobic, anti-democratic and Islamic fundamentalist, which for US geostrategists is impossible not to know.

Inside Egypt, the pace of political change is such that major new groupings brought together by the Tamarod movement are themselves a threat to both Riyadh and Washington, due to their mix of Egyptian nationalism and secular anti-religious politics. Inside Syria, Riyadh is heading for a lose-lose outcome whereby either the survival of Bashr al-Assad, allied to Iran and totally anti-Saudi, or victory for Sunni extremist rebels including Brotherhood forces, can easily blowback against Saudi Arabia.

Saudi action in the region can now be called “wild card” or “loose cannon” due to the intensity of the Wahabite Kingdom's ideological belief and geostrategic view that the moment has come for it to extend its power across the region – and ensure its survival. The means it uses are however turning into a real threat for its own survival. Where it goes now is hard to forecast, but its ability to play the “oil card” may be less than it counts, due for example to surging US production of shale oil and gas, high levels of Russian oil output, and growing supply from other nonOPEC sources.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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