Mideast upheavals open doors for Saudi strategies

By Brian Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 27, 2007 file photo, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, right, talks with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa after his arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Arab Summit. Saudi Arabia is getting bolder in its strategy for dealing with the Middle East's uprisings. No longer waiting for Washington's cue, the kingdom is aggressively trying to influence the region's turmoil and boost its two goals: protect fellow royal houses and isolate its rival Iran.

Nasser Nasser, File, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia is getting bolder in its strategy for dealing with the Middle East's uprisings. No longer waiting for Washington's cue, the kingdom is aggressively trying to influence the regional turmoil and boost its two goals — protect fellow royal houses and isolate its rival, Iran.

The more decisive policies by King Abdullah were on full display this week as he took the lead among Arab nations by yanking his ambassador from Syria and demanding an "end to the killing machine" of President Bashar Assad's regime in a startlingly strong condemnation of Damascus' bloody suppression of protesters.

It was the first time the predominantly Sunni kingdom has weighed in publicly on Syria's upheaval — and demonstrated the Saudis' willingness to shift gears dramatically as needed.

Saudi Arabia has tried to snuff out or buy off dissent at home and around the Gulf, most notably sending troops to Bahrain to help its Sunni monarch crush a Shiite protest movement in a deadly crackdown.

"It's a big move for Saudi Arabia," said Christopher Davidson, who studies Gulf affairs at Durham University in Britain. "Before, Saudi was seen as the main anti-Arab Spring power and interested mostly in preserving the status quo in the region. Now, you have the Saudis actively and openly against the Syrian regime."

"The reason, of course, is Iran," he added.

For the Saudis, the revolt in Syria is a chance to strike at one of the pillars of Iran's influence.

Assad's ruling clique is dominated by his Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot that comprises about 11 percent of the country and maintains close ties with Shiite power Iran. It's unclear how much further the Iranian influence reaches in Syria, but the country's Sunni majority looks more toward Western-allied neighbors in Lebanon and Turkey.

"Saudi sees this as a golden opportunity to further chip away at Iran's influence in the Arab Middle East and also ... to change the strategic map," said Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "This is going to make your foreign policy more robust and aggressive."

But that doesn't come without some potential complications for OPEC's No. 1 producer.

Stronger Saudi policies open the risks of friction with Washington, which is Saudi Arabia's main arms supplier and had counted on Saudi support to push U.S. interests in the Arab world. There is virtually no chance of a serious rift, and U.S. and Saudi officials are on the same page on other pivotal showdowns, such as efforts to get Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after months of protest and bloodshed. Saleh is recovering in Saudi Arabia after being badly injured in a June attack on his palace compound.

But even small rough patches between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia take on heightened significance in the tense Mideast climate.

The Saudi statement on Syria followed White House urging for the Saudis and their Arab allies to take a sharper stance on Assad's government. Days later, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Syria, and presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that Syria "would be a much better place" without Assad in charge.

In March, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Bahrain was on the "wrong track" to allow Saudi-led forces to help crush protests in the island kingdom — which is home to the Pentagon's main military force in the region, the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Rights groups also have called on U.S. officials to take a sharper stance against Saudi Arabia's crackdowns on internal dissent, including a proposed law that Amnesty International said would allow authorities to prosecute peaceful protests as a terrorist act.

In Iraq, Saudi officials are deeply wary of the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who owes his power to Iranian-allied political groups.

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