In recent weeks Saudi Arabia has taken on an uncharacteristically aggressive role in trying to stabilize the Middle East. While the interests of the United States and the Kingdom, as friends and foes call the regime in Riyadh, may not always coincide, the United States would do well to watch these moves with interest and perhaps quietly encourage them.
Last week the Saudis played host in Mecca to the leaders of the two feuding Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, and by the end of the week spokesmen for the two organizations announced publicly that an agreement that should lead to a unity government was in place. Saudi Arabia has also stepped up its involvement in Iraq, and has been supporting the existing government in Lebanon, which is facing large-scale demonstrations by Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia, the dominant producer of petroleum and the home of the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, usually prefers to work behind the scenes, often sweetening its requests or advice with petrodollars. But the Kingdom, ruled by Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, cannot help but have noticed that Iran, ruled by Shia Muslims who are Persian rather than Arab, has achieved some strategic success and is plainly seeking to become the dominant regional power and perhaps the leading power in the Muslim world. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have been natural adversaries for decades, although both have avoided open clashes.
Saudi Arabia thinks of itself as keeper of the holy cities, as the natural leader of the Islamic world, and it prefers stability to instability, which is bad for business.
The Saudis, who have generally aligned themselves with U.S. interests in the region, can’t help but have noticed that the U.S. incursion into Iraq, while perhaps well-intentioned, has not exactly improved stability in the region, and it might behoove the Saudis to pick up the pieces.
The United States would like few things better than to see a coalition of Sunni Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and perhaps a Fatah-led Palestine — effectively countering Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, and perhaps pulling Syria, an Arab country, out of the orbit of Iranian influence.
U.S. and Saudi interests don’t always coincide. The United States is backing the Shia-dominated government in Iraq while the Saudis are more concerned that the Sunni minority is not overrun. The Saudis are working with Hamas, while the United States still views it as a terrorist organization with which it refuses to have dealings.
The Saudis probably see more hope than the Americans do of pulling Syria out from under Iran’s influence. The United States refuses to talk with Iran while Saudi Arabia has held talks at various levels with its longtime adversary.
Although it has instituted some reforms, Saudi Arabia is hardly a democratic, progressive country with a tender concern for the human rights of all residents. But at this stage both Saudi Arabia and the United States have a shared interest in reducing violence and tamping down sectarian aggressiveness in the Middle East. Americans might be wise to hold their noses, hold their breath, and hope for and encourage Saudi success.