The Hon­ey­moon’s Over for Bush and the Saudis

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Martin Indyk

What has hap­pened to the love af­fair be­tween Saudi Ara­bia’s King Ab­dul­lah and Pres­i­dent Bush? Two years ago, down on the Texas ranch, they were pho­tographed walk­ing hand in hand. It was the be­gin­ning of a beau­ti­ful re­la­tion­ship: Bush dropped his de­mand for de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion in the pu­ri­tan­i­cal king­dom, and Ab­dul­lah did his best to mod­er­ate oil prices. The dowry was a new U.S. arms deal for the Saudis. A sec­ond hon­ey­moon was sched­uled for this month, when Bush planned to host Ab­dul­lah for his first state visit.

So the White House was might­ily per­plexed when it was in­formed that the king’s sched­ule didn’t al­low for a spring visit to Wash­ing­ton. Then, at an Arab League sum­mit in Riyadh last month, Ab­dul­lah de­nounced the U.S. war in Iraq as an “il­le­git­i­mate oc­cu­pa­tion.” He also used the oc­ca­sion to make up with Bush’s bete noire, Bashar al-As­sad, the brash Syr­ian pres­i­dent who had pre­vi­ously de­nounced the Saudi leader as “a dwarf.”

What was go­ing on? Sim­ply put, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion had been lis­ten­ing to the wrong Saudi. Keen for any signs of hope in the re­gion as Iraq spi­raled down­ward, Bush, Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice and other se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials had grasped at a grandiose re­gional game plan be­ing pushed by Prince Bandar bin Sul­tan, for­merly the Saudi am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton and now Ab­dul­lah’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. But Bandar wasn’t call­ing the shots; Ab­dul­lah was, and he has a very dif­fer­ent way of do­ing busi­ness.

Last sum­mer, Bandar came knock­ing on the White House door, sell­ing a new strat­egy for coun­ter­ing the threat from Iran, which had been made vivid when the rad­i­cal Hezbol­lah mili­tia, Iran’s ally, trig­gered a full-scale war in Le­banon and fought Is­rael to a stand­still. The Arab world’s Sunni lead­ers, Bandar ar­gued, were ready to forge an un­usual al­liance with Is­rael to con­front their com­mon foe: the Shi­ite mul­lahs in Tehran. Work­ing in tacit co­op­er­a­tion, the United States, Saudi Ara­bia and Is­rael would roll back Iran’s re­gional in­flu­ence by tak­ing down the ex­trem­ist Ha­mas Pales­tinian gov­ern­ment in Gaza, con­tain­ing Hezbol­lah’s bid to con­trol Le­banon and desta­bi­liz­ing Iran’s main re­gional ally, Syria.

To kick off his grand anti-Ira­nian de­sign, Bandar en­cour­aged the weak but mod­er­ate Pales­tinian pres­i­dent, Mah­moud Ab­bas, to con­front Ha­mas. But Bandar’s boss, Ab­dul­lah, had an­other idea: In­stead of send­ing Ab­bas the fat aid check that Bandar had promised, Ab­dul­lah in­vited Ha­mas’s lead­ers to Mecca to forge a new Pales­tinian unity gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing the mod­er­ate Ab­bas and his chal­lengers in Ha­mas. Bandar’s plan was in sham­bles. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, which had led a year-long boy­cott of the Ha­mas gov­ern­ment, felt as though it had been sucker punched.

And that was just the first blow. Ab­dul­lah also nixed Bandar’s idea for di­rect en­gage­ment with Is­rael. For years, Is­rael had cov­eted such a re­la­tion­ship with the Saudis, which would have been an enor­mous psy­cho­log­i­cal break­through and a rare Mid­dle East achieve­ment for the Bush team. Bandar promised to open Saudi-Is­raeli talks un­der the um­brella of an Arab League plan, in which all Arab states would of­fer Is­rael full peace if it pulled back to its pre-1967 borders and solved the prob­lem of the Pales­tinian refugees. Rice hoped to con­vene a peace con­fer­ence at which the Saudi for­eign min­is­ter would an­nounce this plan — with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Olmert in at­ten­dance. But Ab­dul­lah wasn’t buy­ing. He be­lieved that he had done his bit for Is­raeliPales­tinian peace­mak­ing by pro­duc­ing a Pales­tinian unity gov­ern­ment; now it was Bush’s job to press Is­rael to ne­go­ti­ate a deal with it. Un­til then, Ab­dul­lah wouldn’t be do­ing Wash­ing­ton any more fa­vors.

The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion was fu­ri­ous about this seem­ing re­ver­sal, but it had largely it­self to blame. It had been taken for a ride by the free­lanc­ing Bandar, and it should have known bet­ter. In Riyadh, at least, the king is still the de­cider. And the king’s world­view dif­fers im­por­tantly from Bandar’s.

Ab­dul­lah agrees with Bandar that their main chal­lenge is the Ira­nian/Shi­ite threat to Sunni dom­i­nance of the Arab world. But where Bandar wants to con­front Iran’s Arab prox­ies, Ab­dul­lah seeks to wean them off their de­pen­dence on Tehran. That dic­tates en­gage­ment, how­ever dis­taste­ful, with Ha­mas in Gaza and As­sad in Da­m­as­cus. It also re­quires dis­tanc­ing Saudi Ara­bia from Bush’s ill-fated Iraq ad­ven­ture, which in Ab­dul­lah’s view is only strength­en­ing a proIra­nian Shi­ite gov­ern­ment at Sunni Arab ex­pense.

If Bush wants to rekin­dle the U.S.-Saudi love af­fair, he needs to deal with the Saudi leader we have, not the one we’d like. That needn’t mean to­tal de­spair on the ArabIs­raeli front. Peace with Is­rael is es­sen­tial to Ab­dul­lah’s anti-Ira­nian game plan be­cause Tehran ex­ploits the con­flict to build its in­flu­ence in the Arab world. But the Saudi king is not go­ing to get into bed with Is­rael for a mere photo op. Ab­dul­lah will be ready to go to Wash­ing­ton — and, even­tu­ally, per­haps even to Jerusalem — when Bush, Rice and Olmert sig­nal that they will ac­cept his terms for a com­pre­hen­sive Arab-Is­raeli set­tle­ment.

His open­ing price is Bush’s ac­com­mo­da­tion of Ha­mas and Syria as play­ers in the peace process, and he’ll settle in the end for Is­rael’s with­drawal from the Golan Heights and the West Bank. If Bush wants that sec­ond hon­ey­moon with Ab­dul­lah, he is go­ing to have to rene­go­ti­ate the terms of en­dear­ment.


Prince Bandar bin Sul­tan, sec­re­tary gen­eral for Saudi na­tional se­cu­rity


» Pres­i­dent Bush and Saudi leader Ab­dul­lah were the best of friends at Bush’s ranch in Craw­ford, Tex., in April 2005.

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