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memri
February 1, 2007 No.
319

The Middle East on a Collision Course (2): The Saudi Position

By: Yigal Carmon and Y. Yehoshua and H. Varulkar and Yossi Mansharof*

The Sunni/Saudi-Shi'ite/Iranian conflict, which has grown more acute in recent months and has spilled over into a U.S.-Russian conflict, is focused on two primary fault lines, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf [1] - each of which has its own zero hour.

The Lebanese front was expected to become active in December, immediately following the Islamic and Christian holidays. This explosion was delayed by various mediation efforts, including the failed initiative of Arab League Secretary-General 'Amr Moussa.

An additional initiative, proposed January 16-22 by Saudi Arabia, was foiled by Syria. [2] Violence initiated by the Lebanese opposition lasted for two days, and according to reports in the Arab press was stopped on orders from Iran. [3] However, the Lebanese opposition continues to threaten the March 14 Forces with a resumption of the civil unrest, though without setting a specific date. It may be assumed that this date will be one that suits Syria and Iran and will be coordinated with them.

The fault line with Iran is expected to explode at some point between early February and March 21. In early February, the Iranian regime will celebrate the 10 days of Fajr, which commemorate the days leading up to Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran from France in 1979 and the victory of the Islamic Revolution. On the occasion of this holiday, which Iranian President Ahmadinejad has dubbed "the Nuclear Festival," Ahmadinejad plans to announce - and perhaps also display - new Iranian achievements in its nuclear program, which "will gladden all Muslims." Another "propitious" date that has been mentioned in connection with this announcement is the Iranian New Year (Norouz), which falls on March 21. It is believed that such a development will leave the West with no choice but to act.

MEMRI will be publishing, following up on our January 26, 2007 report, "Recent Saudi-Iranian Contacts to Resolve the Lebanon Crisis," [4] a series of analyses tracking developments that might lead to the outbreak of a regional war in February-March 2007. These reports will deal with the Russian-American dimension in the conflict; with the Iranian position, which shows signs of acute domestic division; and also with the positions of Syria and Hizbullah.

The report presented here deals with the Saudi position, as reflected in two documents. The first is a sharply-worded interview given by King 'Abdullah following the failed talks between Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, who is in charge of Iran's nuclear dossier, and Saudi National Security Council Secretary-General Prince Bandar bin Sultan. It should be noted that the Iranian regime has refrained from answering at the same political level (head of state) and with the same degree of acerbity, apparently fearing escalation. What went unsaid in the interview was the fact that the main thrust of the Saudi strategy is to strike at Iran through its economy by lowering oil prices, a strategy which has already caused Iran severe damage.

The second document is a frontal attack on Iran by the Saudi editor of the liberal Elaph website Othman Al-Omeir, who is close to Prince Khaled bin Faisal, a key figure in the Saudi royal family.

The following are excerpts of these two documents:

King 'Abdullah Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz in Interview with the Saudi Daily Al-Riyadh

In a January 27, 2007 interview, Saudi King 'Abdullah Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz did not mince words and warned the Iranian regime and its "lackeys" against attempting to interfere in the affairs of the Arab world. He also stressed that the Iranian attempts to spread Shi'ism were bound to fail: [5]

*"Any Country that Carries Out Unwise Actions Will Be Held Accountable for Them by the Countries of the Region"

Q: "Your Majesty, there are those who accuse Saudi Arabia of employing a policy of 'axes [of influence]', of interfering in the domestic affairs of [other] countries in the [Gulf] region and of making their affairs a subject of negotiations with foreign powers."

A: "This is idle talk and nonsense. Mr. Ali Larijani came to me from Iran and I gave him good counsel, which he probably relayed to his government. I told him how to deal with the international community. The Saudi leaders are experienced and prudent in their dealings with the international community. Their policy, and especially their foreign policy, has [always] been marked by wisdom and success because they know their limits in dealing with [other] countries - both in the East and in the West - and because they do not overstep [these limits]. I made known to Mr. Larijani the very essence of the Saudi experience and I advised him to relay it to his government and to its lackeys. [6] ... [Prudence is necessary] if we want our policy to succeed in the region, and [if we want] to establish agreeable foreign relations for the Gulf region - because what befalls [any country in the Gulf region] affects all of us."

*"We Advised the [Iranians] Not to Expose the Gulf Region to Dangers"

"I also told [Larijani]: You [Iranians] hint in various ways in your media and by means of your [foreign] supporters that Saudi Arabia is forming alliances against you. This is absolutely untrue. It is not our policy to behave in this manner and to interfere in the affairs of others. We are now intensively occupied with [our] domestic affairs - with developing our country, our people, and our economy. We have advised [the Iranians] not to expose the Gulf region to dangers that may affect this or that country... Any country that will carry out unwise actions will be held accountable for them by the countries of the region.

"Iran is a Muslim neighbor. I explained to [Larijani] that the Saudi policy is not to interfere in anyone's affairs, and not to assist anyone who behaves in a hostile manner... - be it Iran or any other country... Saudi Arabia does not want anyone to display hostility towards it, towards its brethren in the [Gulf] Cooperation Council, or towards the [other] countries of the Arab world that have mutual defense agreements with it..."

*"We See Internal Discord in Palestine, Destructive Discord in Lebanon and Lethal Discord in Iraq; May Allah... Direct Us to the Right Path"

Q: "Your Majesty, how do you see the situation in the Arab world - because as a journalist, I would like to understand what is happening and to know what direction we are headed."

A: "The situation is unsatisfactory. We need a coordinated [Arab] position, a unified decision, and unified action, at least with respect to the major issues. We should not let other countries interfere in our affairs, nor should we seek the help of others in solving Arab problems... We do not want anyone to exploit our problems in order to reinforce his own positions in his international conflicts. The Palestinian problem must be solved by the Arabs and by nobody else... There are, however, those, who attempt to exploit it and to use it as a pretext for interfering in our affairs.

"The situation is not as it should be, yet I have not lost hope. This nation must come to life again, and nobody will be able to stop it from reaching a unified decision... We do not want this disunity... If we act in the international arena with one decision, we will act with strength... We see internal discord in Palestine, destructive discord in Lebanon, and lethal discord in Iraq. May Allah guide us and direct us to the right path."

*The Campaign to Spread Shi'ism Will Never Succeed; It Will Not Impinge Upon the Historical Authority of Sunni Islam

Q: "Your Majesty... [we are now witnessing] all sorts of partisanship, politicking, and sectarian disunity. Where will this dangerous trend lead us?"

A: "...If you ask me about [the attempts] to exploit the religion and to fan the sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi'ites - we regard this as a warning [signal], not as a danger. If we know how to respond to this warning, then... there will be no danger. If we fail to take precautions, then perhaps there will be danger..."

Q: "Your Majesty... there is now a campaign to spread Shi'ism in Sunni countries. This has been exposed and is [now] well known. What is Saudi Arabia's position on this...?"

A: "We are following this matter, and we are fully informed about the extent of this campaign to spread Shi'ism... However, we maintain that this campaign will never achieve its goal, because the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, will never turn away from their creed... Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of the majority of Muslims [i.e. the Sunnis], and other Islamic sects are unable to impinge upon their historical authority..."

*"Terrorists Can No Longer Find Shelter, Now that Our Citizens Have Become Convinced that [Terrorism] Is Not the Right Way to Spread Islam"

Q: "Your Majesty, in the past, you have raised the motto of wasatiyya ['the middle road']. Have you managed, in this way, to stop terrorism in your country?"

A: "The Saudi people responded to this message... It was only natural that we should promote the [principle of] wasatiyya, since it is indeed the very essence of the Islamic message. With this motto, we wanted to distance our society from extremism, terrorism and from the ideology of takfir [accusing others of heresy]. These [phenomena] have flooded the region, ostensibly in the name of pure Islamic faith, [though the true faith] is, in fact, far removed from them and has never sanctioned them... We have gone through a difficult period... Praise Allah, our call for wasatiyya was successful, and was well-received. Those who wanted to push society into twisted ways that are not in accordance [with the true faith] have failed to do so. The terrorist actions have stopped. Our security forces have succeeded in preventing the terrorist acts before they occurred, thanks to the citizens' cooperation and help, and [because the citizens] reported anything out of the ordinary to the security authorities. Terrorists can no longer find shelter, now that our citizens have become convinced that [terrorism] is not the right way to spread Islam."

Saudi Editor of Arab Liberal Website Elaph Othman Al-Omeir Attacks the Iranian Regime:

*"Iran Is Neglecting the 60% of Its People Who Live Below the Poverty Line… For the Sake of the Arms Race"

"The [Saudi] editor-in-chief of the Elaph website, Othman Al-Omeir, aimed fierce criticism at Iranian policy, and warned of the grave consequences for the region if [Iran] continues in its path.

"Al-Omeir emphasized, in statements at a conference held in the office of Dr. 'Ali Al-Tarrah, former head of the Faculty of Social Sciences and prominent activist, that Iran is neglecting the more than 60% of its people who live below the poverty line, for the sake of the arms race into which it is leading the region.

"Al-Omeir condemned what is going on at present in Lebanon and Iraq and Iran's attempt - whether secret or open - to interfere. He pointed out the reservations held by the neighboring countries regarding these attempts, and said that these countries are worried about the goals that Iran is trying to achieve.

"He added that Iran is not currently devoting itself to economic, political, or cultural development, and is not working to save the 60% of its people who suffer from humiliating poverty. [According to Al-Omeir,] it is no secret that [Iran] is suffering from deficiencies in its infrastructure, but nonetheless it is now turning to an arms race in the Gulf region.

"He said that the arms race presents a danger not just to the Gulf countries, but also to the entire region, and mentioned that since the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used in the world, and that deterrence has become the sole use for nuclear weapons.

"He warned Iran against using military force, and emphasized that there are those who will come to restrain its strength and will not allow it to undermine the region's security."

*"Iran is Propagating the Shi'ite Faith Through Its International Apparatuses Solely for Political Ends"

"He said that Saudi Arabia's moderate policy supports the government of [Fuad] Al-Siniora [in Lebanon] and that he does not consider [the Al-Siniora government] to be a Sunni government, given that it [also] includes Druze and Shi'ites. In his words, the Shi'ites in Lebanon are 'hostages' [of Hizbullah], and are not expressing their freedom.

"He emphasized that Saudi Arabia's support for the [Al-Siniora] government derives from the fact that it is composed of many groups, among them Maronites and Orthodox [Christians], and has Catholic, Druze, and Sunni representation. He further emphasized that despite this fact, Saudi Arabia had not closed the door to Hizbullah, but rather had held talks with it, and that this is the answer to those who say that Saudi Arabia took the side of the Sunnis alone.

"Al-Omeir expressed his astonishment at the disregard for a sector as large as that of the Sunnis and at the protection afforded to an unconstitutional president [i.e. Emil Lahoud] and to a parliamentary head who locks the doors of the parliament [i.e. Nabih Berri], whereas the prime minister and head of the majority in parliament [Al-Siniora] is called on to step down and form a government in which one-third of it will rule the [entire] country. He said that this logic is unacceptable to the Arab countries, to foreign countries, and to the U.N.

"He added that Saudi Arabia has a long Islamic history, religious depth in the region, and positions that favor no [particular] group, but rather favor all Muslims regardless of their school [of Islam].

"Al-Omeir refused to acknowledge [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei as patron of all Muslims in the Islamic world. He expressed criticism of the fact that the Iranian government is declaring Khamenei to be the patron of the Muslims, as this arouses the anger of the residents of the region. He said that in Iran, there are 15 million people who belong to a number of sects [aside from Shi'ism], and he demanded that the minorities be respected in accordance with international law.

"He said that Iran is propagating the Shi'ite faith through its international apparatuses solely for political ends."

*"The Arab States Will Not Allow Lebanon to Become a Plaything in the Hands" of Others

"He explained that the latest pronouncements by [Saudi] King 'Abdullah are a response to some of [Iran's] actions, and added that the Arab states will not allow Lebanon to become a plaything in the hands of one [specific] group or in the hands of a foreign force, whether Israel or any other state. He said that one group cannot be permitted to rule over another and violate its rights. He praised the Saudi king's frankness, saying that it was important at this point in time, and demanded to place things on the table and to speak frankly in order to arrive at mutual understanding."

*Iran's Entering Iraq "Would Lead to a Bloodbath"

"Al-Omeir added that he is concerned that Iran might enter into struggles with large countries or might cause [domestic] problems in some Arab states, emphasizing that entering into wars would bring about a deterioration and downturn in the situation in Iran. He called on the Iranians to show good faith, [referring to] their belief that in the event that the Americans leave Iraq, the Iranians will enter it, which would lead to a bloodbath in light of the fact that every country has its own [religious or ethnic] group [in Iraq]. He called on rational individuals in Iran to understand the situation and to live [with its neighbors] in peace." [7]

* Y. Carmon is the President of MEMRI; H. Varulkar is a Research Fellow at MEMRI; Y. Mansharof is a Research Fellow at MEMRI; and Y. Yehoshua is the Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] The internecine fighting in the Palestinian Authority also reflects this same schism, but has limited regional implications.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), January 24, 2007.

[3] 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 29, 2007.

[4] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1441, "Recent Saudi-Iranian Contacts to Resolve the Lebanon Crisis," January 26, 2007, {{nodeurl-}}.

[5] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 28, 2007. The interview was given to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, and appeared on January 27, 2007. http://www.alriyadh.com/2007/01/28/article220393.html.

[6] This is probably a reference to Syria and Hizbullah.

[7] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 29, 2007.