In a fractious region, Saudi Arabia seeks foreign policy reset

The new Saudi Crown Prince takes office with a foreign policy brief that considers the Arab uprisings, difficult times for allies and unrest on the Arabian Peninsula.

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Jamal Khashoggi

'The riskiest 48 hours in Egypt's history" was the front-page screamer in the Egyptian daily Al Ahram last week.

The banner headline alarmed Egyptians as they waited for the elections results that eventually decided Mohammed Morsi was president. It also perturbed Saudis who were focused on restructuring the ruling House of Saud after the sudden death of Crown Prince Nayef. That showed that Egypt's most precarious days are Saudi Arabia's as well.

News of Crown Prince Nayef's demise shocked Saudis, especially at this critical juncture. The Saudi establishment, while mourning Prince Nayef, also moved on to tackle the pending workload.

Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Prince Nayef's successor as Crown Prince, is also a foreign policy specialist. There has been a lot of discussion about Saudi foreign policy lately, suggesting that its institutions require a reset to overhaul the rules of engagement under the old Arab order, which continues to cave in at a pace that sometimes takes us by surprise.

Many Saudis hope Crown Prince Salman will speed up the reset. That Al Ahram headline tells the story. If Egypt has a disheartening confrontation between the well-entrenched military and the emerging forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tahrir youths, then no matter who is at fault, the chaos in Egypt will affect Saudi Arabia's strategic security. The fact is that Egypt keeps Saudi Arabia's western flank safe.

To the north-east is Pakistan, where the Supreme Court just disqualified former prime minister Yousuf Reza Gilani from office, raising the prospect of early elections. Pakistani commentators called the ruling a "silent coup", as if to recall the "soft coup" attributed to Egpt's military.

So Saudi Arabia seems to be burdened by two coups - one silent, the other soft - on its strategic flanks, as well as massive protests in Arab Spring-aspirant Sudan, its neighbour across the Red Sea. Add a Syrian cauldron that could open the gates of hell, and a regional face-off involving Turkey and Iran.

There are also disquieting developments closer to home.

Kuwait is facing a constitutional crisis. Bahrain has yet to overcome its troubles. Yemen is fraught with the perils of Al Qaeda, of the heirs of its former president and of poverty that poses a strategic menace to Saudi Arabia.

Are there other hot spots in the kingdom's vicinity that I failed to mention, other than Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia?

Crown Prince Salman will surely spend long hours pondering all these files. I have been privileged to meet the Crown Prince on several occasions. But our most important conversation was in a phone call about two years ago. I had just appeared on Alhurra satellite TV, as the guest of my colleague Suleiman Al Hattlan on his weekly talk show Hadeeth Al Khaleej, or Gulf Talks.

One thing I said on the programme was that the kingdom does not need to apologise for anything it did in Afghanistan, in regards to Saudi Arabia's staunch support for the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union.

On the show, I remarked: "The kingdom did the right thing in accordance with its religious beliefs, ethics and strategic interests."

Prince Salman rang me up and I am honoured to recall that he commended my observation. To paraphrase, he said this:

Ÿ Critics of the Saudi role, some Saudis included, need to take a long look at the map as it stood in 1979, when the Soviets invaded a desolate country. They would acknowledge that hostile and unfriendly forces were surrounding the kingdom from all sides.

Ÿ The Soviets were chasing the Russian tsars' dream of warm-water ports. If the Soviets had had their way, they would have overrun Pakistan, a Saudi ally. At the minimum, they could have seized Balochistan to reach the Arabian Sea.

Ÿ Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not the kingdom's friend then. And we didn't trust Hafez Assad's Syria. Both were trending to the left. Southward, the situation was more ominous. We had Marxist Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula sharing a 1,000-kilometre border with us. Mengistu Haile Mariam and his Communist partners had seized power in Ethiopia. Somalia was breaking up.

Ÿ And above all, we had an Islamic and moral duty to lend a hand to fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. Had the critics been aware of all this, they would have understood why we intervened so forcefully.

When he told me this, Prince Salman headed the popular committee mandated to raise donations for Afghan mujahideen and refugees. He was not only on a relief mission but also on the warpath, with others, to defend the kingdom, its security and its stability. Al Qaeda and its offshoots were not a by-product of that war, but the outcome of its own failed and tyrannical policies that ended in the spring of 2011.

Today, those wishing to see the kingdom cocooning, concentrating on its internal affairs, need to fetch a map of the Middle East and a red marker to tick the hot spots surrounding a stable Saudi Arabia. The end result would look scary, would it not?

We look forward to Crown Prince Salman's energy, creativity and engrossment in the affairs and institutions of Saudi foreign policy.

Jamal Khashoggi is editor-in-chief of the planned Alarab news channel

On Twitter: @JKhashoggi