Asia and a Post-American Middle East

Ambassador Corbin bids farewell to Secretary Kerry
US Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the United Arab Emirates. Photo: U.S. Department of State/flickr.

KUWAIT CITY – When the consequences of the United States-led invasion of Iraq ten years ago are fully assessed, the importance of the subsequent rise of political Islam there – and throughout the wider Middle East – may well pale in comparison to that of a geostrategic shift that no one foresaw at the time. That shift, however, has now come into view. With America approaching energy self-sufficiency, a US strategic disengagement from the region may become a reality.

The Middle East, of course, has experienced the withdrawal of a great power, or powers, many times before: the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I; the fraying of the French and British imperial mandates after World War II; and, most recently, the nearly complete disappearance of Russian influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Each time, monumental changes in the region’s politics, particularly its alliances, quickly followed. If America attempts to wash its hands of the Middle East in the coming years, will a similar rupture be inevitable?

Saudi Arabia Moves Closer to A New Generation of Leaders

The death Saturday (June 16) of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz is likely to have little short-term impact on the economic or political life of the kingdom or on its international relations. But it does accelerate the inevitable transition to a new generation of rulers who may have very different ideas about how the al-Saud should rule their people, deal with their neighbors and manage the critical relationship with the United States.

Nayef was born in 1933 or 1934, before the discovery of oil, in an era when Saudi Arabia was an impoverished backwater important to outsiders only because of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. He had no formal education, but with his brothers and half-brothers, he managed the kingdom’s transformation into a computerized, air-conditioned modern state that is a powerful force in the global economy.

There is no way to know what kind of king Nayef would have been. Before being designated heir apparent, he was the country’s no-nonsense top cop, who controlled the police and border security forces and the secret tribunals that have prosecuted thousands of suspected al-Qaeda members and sympathizers over the past decade.

A Saudi Perspective on Yemen

A minaret in Sana'a
A minaret in Sana'a Photo: Ai@ce/flickr

On 3 June – only days after he vowed not to step down or make further concessions – Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was seriously wounded in an attack on the presidential palace and flown to Riyadh for medical treatment. If he does not return by early August, the constitution provides for fresh elections to be held. To a considerable extent, therefore, Yemen’s fate now lies in the hands of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council, have tried to broker a transition plan in Yemen before – to no avail. With Saleh now under Saudi authority and no longer on the political scene, their room for maneuver behind the scenes has greatly increased. Sure — cutting a deal between an increasingly fragmented opposition and an embattled administration remains extremely difficult. But Saudi Arabia has every reason to throw its weight behind negotiations for a peaceful power transition.

How United Is the Arab Front?

Arab stone design, courtesy of Eusebius@Commons/flickr

The Arab community has always publicly supported its Muslim counterparts. As a result there is an alliance among these states in opposition to Israel and the occupation of Palestine. However, it appears that behind the facade of Arab unity lies a game of dirty politics, where each state acts in self-interest often in contrast to the projected image of unity and loyalty.

A recent article by The Times publicized Saudi Arabia’s green light to Israel to use its air space to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  This is surprising as it pits Muslim states against each other openly and brings the reality of Arab loyalty into question.

In order to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, Israel has the choice of three routes. The northern route involves passing the Syrian-Turkish border. The central route goes over Jordan and Iraq, while the third southern route goes through Saudi Arabia and Iraq or Kuwait. So let’s assess where these Middle Eastern states stand.


The ISN Quiz: Saudi Arabia

Hopefully you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to finish this week’s ISN Quiz on Saudi Arabia, the topic of our Special Report.