15 JANUARY 2009


Two most senior Saudi Arabian royals were in New York recently, only weeks after a visit by King Abdallah, ostensibly to attend a U.N. inter-faith meeting. Word in Middle East political corridors is that Saudi authorities are very interested in finding out more about U.S. President-elect Obama's plans, not only on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also on Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. To them, it's a totally new ballgame, particularly that Prince Bandar is no more hanging around the White House to read the leaves.

Gulf countries had been briefed to expect a McCain win; one reason may have been that a noted Republican campaign manager helped Saudi P.R. in Washington, D.C. With an Obama win, projections had to shift. The pragmatic, survivalist ruling family is eager to find out as much as possible about the new players, especially that the new President's middle name is Hussein.

The Saudis operate cautiously almost casually. The first move was shifting the venue of their sponsored "inter-faith" conference from Geneva to U.N. Headquarters in New York. Initially, it was a contact venue between some Arab and Israeli officials in the quiet surroundings of Lac Lemain. There was special effort to shift it to New York, to allow for His Majesty's visit. Initial reluctance by the U.N. Secretariat was quickly overcome, despite Qatar's insistence on its unique role in the Dialogue Among Civilization, a totally different enterprise with a totally different angle. A meeting on the sudden financial crisis hosted by President Bush in Washington on 20 November, provided an added opportunity to get closer. Reportedly, Mr. Obama was not in a receiving mode -- as expressed to all visiting dignitaries, from the hyperactive self-proclaimed buddy, French President Sarkozy, to the rest of those who were politely told that there was only one President at a time. In practical terms, that gave the President-elect time to reflect and not show his hand internationally until he took actual charge and held all the power. Distinguished chiefs had to contend with the eager Dr. Albright, who is always delighted to visit with admiring heads of state, but could pass little more than best wishes and the most sincere intentions.

By the first week of December, the city of New York welcomed two very highly regarded, highly placed Saudi Arabian princes who are key decision-makers. While here, they happened to receive the Prime Minister of Qatar, a compulsive intermediary with incredible connections. Obviously, there were not hanging around to enjoy the cold and drizzle of Manhattan -- and certainly not to take advantage of 50% off sales at nearby Syms, where an educated consumer is the best customer.

Besides the obvious questions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, for which the Saudi Kings had proposed a noted plan; the level of maneuver on energy requirements; and cash deposits (lost or otherwise) in U.S. firms; there were three specific areas of special Saudi concern:

  1. Iraq: Whatever happens in Iraq would spill over to Saudi Arabia. It is not only the Sunni/Shia divide, nor the tribal set up, but also the impact of neighbouring regional players (Syria, Iran, Turkey) if and when U.S. troops diminish or redeploy troops.
  2. Iran: A bigger question is the leeway to be given by the new U.S. administration to Iran, a populous neighbour with clerical predominance and strategic locations. It is also a competitor for influence in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it would be wise to await the outcome of Iranian elections next spring. Meanwhile, Ryadh would like to have a closer picture of U.S. thinking regarding Teheran. How would Iran's neighbours fend for themselves if it was allowed to acquire nuclear weapons?
  3. Afghanistan: The new U.S. administration had indicated it would shift its enormous strength to Afghanistan without clarifying how that could effectively be done. The Saudis who had financed "mujahedeen" there since the Soviet invasion, feel better qualified to provide practical advice. Afghanistan is an uncontrollably huge country with almost impossible geographic challenges and complex population. "You cannot buy an Afghani but you can rent him," has been repeated so many times it has lost its real meaning. Afghanis are very proud fierce fighters, very independently-minded, and very experienced at the business of survival. NATO forces thus far have been ineffective; Taliban has acquired wider freedom of movement in about 72% of the country. Karzai's authority in Kabul is very limited. Corruption is widespread. The opium trade is providing every side with enough funds to erode any authority. Bringing in more troops may place them as vulnerable targets, unless an overwhelming surge is planned. Otherwise, perhaps an arrangement would be fixed with "moderate elements in the Taliban." An October meeting attended by President Karzai and some Taliban figures could be followed up, just in case a fruitful outcome could be reached. In brief, Saudi Arabia was "helpful" before over Afghanistan (and Pakistan). It would be available to do more if mutually agreed plans were jointly drawn.

    Incidentally, what are the plans of the new administration? Are they carved in stone? Could we discuss? As to oil production and price per barrel, it would be, of course, an integral part of a joint review, if and when agreed.