Trouble with Abdullah

Posted by Cutler on March 30, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia

In several recent posts (here, here, and here), I have been speculating about growing tensions between King Abdullah and the Bush administration.  At times, I thought I was going pretty far out on a limb.  Turns out… not very far at all.

King Abdullah made big news at the Arab Summit meeting in Riyadh this week with a blast at US policy in Iraq.

“In beloved Iraq, blood is being shed among brothers in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and ugly sectarianism threatens civil war,” Abdullah said.

The King’s remark was also, implicitly, a swipe at the US-backed, Shiite-led Iraqi government.  Needless to say, this did not escape the attention of Iraqi officials:

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari on Thursday rejected remarks by Saudi Arabia that the US occupation of Iraq was illegal.

“We don’t think there is an illegal occupation because these forces are present and working according to international resolutions, and are accepted by a representative elected Iraqi government,” Zebari said on the sidelines of the Arab summit being held in Riyadh.

At issue, among other things, is the legitimacy of the new balance of power in Iraq that swept the Sunni Arab minority from power.

Arab League foreign ministers at a side meeting of the summit adopted a resolution that seeks to redress the perceived imbalance in the Iraqi security services and the political establishment.

Again, Iraqi government officials seemed miffed.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, called the League’s decision to call for changes in the Iraqi constitution that would tend to favor Sunni Muslims an “Arab diktat.”

All of this appears to fit well with the idea–suggested in an earlier post–that Abdullah represents a position that is relatively soft on Iran but hard on Iraqi Shiite rule.

It looks like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice knows that Abdullah, if not the entire “Faisal” branch of the Saudi royal family, are all but lost to the US.

In an article on the Arab Summit, Helene Cooper of the New York Times doesn’t make any mention of factionalism within the Saudi royal family, but does report that Rice bypassed Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal, turning instead to Adel al-Jubeir, a figure traditionally thought to be closer to Prince Bandar.

“We were a little surprised to see those remarks,” R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, told a Senate hearing, referring to the statement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the opening of an Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh on Wednesday. “We disagree with them.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled a telephone call with Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, who was traveling to Riyadh, an administration official said.

The official said the State Department had resisted going straight to Ms. Rice’s counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, so as to try to lower the temperature of the rhetoric. He said Ms. Rice planned to question Mr. Jubeir about the Saudi monarch’s remarks.

Cooper seems to be overlooking some of the factionalism that runs through all of this.  Consider, for example, Cooper’s depiction of King Abdullah’s relations with Cheney:

In fact, King Abdullah has warned American officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, that Saudi Arabia might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq’s Shiites if the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq.

Last fall, as a growing chorus in Washington advocated a draw-down of American troops in Iraq, coupled with a diplomatic outreach to the largely Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leader of the Sunni Arab world, argued strenuously against an American pullout from Iraq, citing fears that Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab population would be massacred.

Mention of the “warning” about backing Iraqi Sunnis almost certainly refers to a now-famous Washington Post Op-Ed piece by Nawaf Obaid, “Stepping Into Iraq.”

In a previous post on Nawaf Obaid (and again, here), however, I argued that Obaid was almost certainly not representing King Abdullah or his faction within the Saudi royal family.  Indeed, I think a strong case could be made that Obaid was speaking for Prince Bandar, if not Bandar’s father, Saudi Defense Minister Crown Prince Sultan.

If I am correct about the nature of the factional split, the Bandar crowd represents something like the opposite of the Abdullah position: they are hawkish on Iran and potentially reconciled to the prospect of Sistani-led Shiite rule in Iraq.  They are Cheney’s Saudis.

All of which means that at least some in the US may not only be increasingly uncomfortable with Saudi King Abdullah but may also have strong preferences for Crown Prince Sultan.

To borrow a map of Saudi factionalism from Cheney’s Middle East guru, David Wurmser, Crown Prince Sultan allegedly represents something like the “King Fahd” branch of the Saudi family.  Meanwhile, King Abdullah and his allies–Foreign Minister Faisal and former Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki–appear to represent something like the “Faisal” branch of the family.

According to Wurmser, all the trouble stems from the “Faisal” branch of the family.

In the 1970s, there was a previous Saudi King from the “Faisal” branch.  In 1975, he was assassinated, under murky circumstances, by a nephew recently returned from the United States.

1 Comment to Trouble with Abdullah

  • Prof. Cutler, thanks for your insights into Saudi factionalism.
    I’d be interested in knowing your views on the meetings that Rice has been having with Prince Bandar and the heads of Jordanian and Egyptian security. Strange in themselves, adding possible Abdullah/Bandar conflicts into the mix makes it very murky indeed.
    Also, I don’t know how closely you’ve been following the N. Korea talks, and the seeming breakdown due to sabotage by neo-cons in the Treasury, but it seems to be one more example of the absence of a decider.

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