Saudi Arabia Seeks to Shore Up Dominance After Mideast Conflict

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Saudi Arabia is doing its best to maintain its elevated niche in the Arab and Islamic world while continuing to enjoy its prosperous economic ties to the West, and specifically the United States, say Mideast policy analysts.

But with the Hezbollah terror group gaining acceptance among many Middle Easterners, Saudi Arabia's Western links could hamper its continuing dominance in the region, the analysts warn.

The month of fighting along the Israel-Lebanon border and bombing campaigns on both sides left a heavy toll of lost human lives and destroyed investment. The battle between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon also put Saudi Arabia in a difficult spot as it negotiated a cease-fire, partly because of its strong ties with the United States and partly because of its domestic politics.

"Clearly, this crisis has everybody's attention, especially the Saudis," said Theodore Karasik, a senior political scientist for the RAND Corp. who was visiting the Persian Gulf region when fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah on July 12.

"The Saudis want to be the leaders of the Arab world on this issue. They see it as they have immense stake in Lebanon that goes back through time. ... They need a stable Lebanon. It's part of the regional mosaic," Karasik said.

A Difficult Spot in the Regional Dynamic

The Saudis have a fine line to walk between the United States, with its unflinching support for Israel, and the Muslim nations that have close ties to Saudi Arabia and want to see Israel disappear.

Having a leading voice in the region is imperative to the Saudis, said Eric Hooglund, a professor of Muslim politics at Bates College in Maine. He said Saudis fear Hezbollah's growing acceptance among Arabs could diminish its moral authority over its centuries-old regional rival Iran.

Hezbollah's identity as a Shiite group ties it closely with Iran, a country that Hooglund says is as important to Shiites as the Vatican is to Catholics. Iran is credited with starting Hezbollah in the early 1980s on the pretense of fighting Israel's occupation of Lebanon.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia's royal family and most of its citizens are members of the conservative Wahhabi subgroup of Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran's relations remain tense, with centuries of aggression between the two and religious oppression of Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Hooglund said.

So when it comes to Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia's position will remain simple, said Nawaf Obaid, a security consultant to the Saudi government and adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Iranian domination of Lebanon — through Hezbollah or otherwise — will be unacceptable, and Saudi Arabia will do anything it can to make sure that doesn't happen.

Shortly after the outset of fighting, Saudi Arabia rebuked Hezbollah in the government-controlled press. It has pledged about $600 million in grants to support the humanitarian aid and rebuilding efforts in Lebanon.

The Saudi government also infused the Lebanese banking system with $1 billion in an effort to stabilize the country's monetary system, and has been intimately involved in the diplomatic efforts to try to bring a cease-fire between the warring neighbors. That's on top of its pre-existing position as the fourth largest trading partner with Lebanon.

But Iran supports Hezbollah financially, with recent reports estimating the Islamic Republic pays $100 million annually for Hezbollah recruitment, training and weapons. After the fighting, Hezbollah said it would pay $12,000 -- money from Iran -- to every Lebanese family whose home had been damaged in the fighting.

With these challenges, Saudi Arabia is now trying to diminish the impact of Hezbollah while not wanting to be seen as anti-Hezbollah because of its growing likeability in the Arab world.

The Arab Street "seems to be seeing Hezbollah in a much more favorable fashion," Hooglund said of general Arabic sentiment, adding that Israel's shelling of mixed religious communities in Lebanon further fueled sympathy for Hezbollah.

Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor for the Financial Times, said she also believes Hezbollah has gained clout because of its leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's ability to unite Arabs of differing religions by its fight against Israel.

"There is still in Saudi Arabia, for instance, some difference [of opinion over Hezbollah], if you watch the Web sites, there are some new radicals on the Web Sites that are still critical of Hezbollah. But I think in general Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has been able to reach out to both Sunnis and Shiites in the Arab world," she said.

"You saw for instance that [Ayman Al] Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader, issued a statement saying, 'We have to help Lebanon.'" A demonstration was also held in Iraq in support of Hezbollah, indicating its vast support, Khalaf said.

Balance of Power

Saudi Arabia's place in the Muslim world will never totally be diminished, however. About 95 percent of Lebanese people are Arabs, according to the State Department and Congressional Research Service. They are divided by sects -- 40 percent of the Lebanese populace is Shiite, 20 percent is Sunni. Saudi Arabia, which is 90 percent Arab and up to 90 percent Sunni, is home to the two symbolic centers for the majority of the Muslim world, Mecca and Medina, making it a critical outpost for Muslims of all orders.

But Obaid said the Saudis have had to carefully navigate its relation with the U.S., oil and Arabs. When Arab allies asked Saudis to use oil as a tool to get leverage against the United States in hopes of pressuring Israel to leave Lebanon, the Saudis balked, and instead issued a statement saying they would not mix oil policy with policy on the conflict.

RAND's Karasik explained the Saudi logic this way: "You don't want [the fighting] to spread. ... If it begins to spread, then it starts to consume all the interests of all the neighbors."

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and the United States share a mutual sworn enemy -- Al Qaeda.

Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, terror attackers were Saudi nationals. But Al Qaeda has also attacked the Saudi kingdom in recent years. Since 2001, at least 110 Saudis, Americans and other nationals have been killed in a string of terrorist attacks there. Clashes between Saudi security forces and suspected terror groups continue with regularity.

Patrick Ryan, a former military intelligence officer who edits a Web site that tracks U.S.-Saudi relations, said the business ties between the two nations remain strong.

"Right now is a great time to do business there," Ryan said citing the fact that recent oil price hikes have brought even greater wealth to Saudi Arabia. As a result, the country is in position for major domestic investment from desalinization plants to privatization of government industries and other non-oil-related businesses.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have also developed greater openness through a strategic dialogue that began after a 2005 visit by Abdullah to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Ryan said. The strategic dialogue consist of working groups between U.S. and Saudi officials who meet every six months to discuss counterterror activities, military affairs, energy policy, business, consular and society issues.

Ryan said he did not see the recent efforts to shore up Saudi Arabia's image in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Mideast as eroding ties between the kingdom and the United States.

"I think the Lebanese crisis will not affect the fundamentals of the relationship in the long-term, and in some way, it shows that the United States and Saudi Arabia are on the same sheet of music regarding Hezbollah and its threat to Lebanon, and Iran's hegemony and its threat to the region," Ryan said.

On the other hand, Obaid said that while the fighting didn't weaken the relationship between the two friends, "it's causing unnecessary tension ... . It's embarrassing both sides."

The peak of that embarrassment came following a July 23 meeting in Washington, D.C., between top Saudi officials, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Saudis were seeking an immediate cease-fire, but the United States would not alter its position that a cease-fire can't be put in place until assurances are made that Hezbollah won't rearm.

It was an anxious 22 days before a U.N.-approved cease-fire took hold on Aug. 14. From the point of view of the Arab world, Obaid said, it looked as though the United States either ignored the Saudis or America was unable or unwilling to get Israel to halt its military missions. Neither view was favorable.

"The best thing for Saudi Arabia would have been for Hezbollah to have been defeated in the first few days" of the conflict, Hooglund said.