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Riyadh's Syria policy: It's personal

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31 January 2012 10:20

Saudi Arabia, taken by surprise by the early casualties of the Arab Spring, has now adapted and become convinced that regime change can be a good thing, so long as it removes your enemies and not your friends.

Saudi Arabia has adopted the most hawkish of stances against the Assad regime during the crisis in Syria. This is in large part because Riyadh (along with Washington and others) considers bringing down the pro-Iranian Assad regime as one line of operation in a larger regional strategy aimed at targeting Iranian expansionism. Saudi Arabia generally supports the status quo, as it considers stability preferable to the chaos that rapid change can bring. But it has obviously made up its mind that the long-term benefits of bringing down Assad are worth the short-term pain of post-Baathist bloodletting.

But the weakness (or absence) of political institutions in the Arab world also means policy-making is an intensely personal affair. And the way Saudi Arabia has targeted Assad is indicative not just of the fact that King Abdullah has decided that the inevitable chaos of a post-Assad Syria can be managed, but also that an opportunity now presents itself for a bit of old-fashioned payback.

Locked away in King Abdullah's memory is the killing of former Lebanese PM (and Saudi citizen) Rafiq Hariri, and Riyadh's conviction that it could not have occurred without the explicit assistance or implicit approval of Damascus.

King Abdullah would also not have forgotten Bashar Assad's criticism of his fellow Arab leaders (widely believed to have been aimed at King Abdullah himself) as 'half-men' for failing to support Hizbullah's actions against Israel during the 2006 war, nor of the feeling that Saudi Arabia was out-manoeuvred (if not lied to) over Damascus' double coup which saw the pro-Iran Sadrists help Nuri al-Maliki form government in Iraq over the Iyad Allawi cross-sectarian alliance that was Saudi Arabia's preferred option, and which allowed the pro-Hizbullah opposition to topple Riyadh's man in Beirut, Sa'ad Hariri, from the premiership.

If revenge is a dish best served cold, it would appear that King Abdullah has let it be known that Saudi Arabia's policy actions with respect to Syria are delivered frozen.

First, the Saudi-owned media such as al-Arabiyya television and ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper have been the loudest in condemning the Syrian regime's actions. Second, Saudi Arabia withdrew its observers from the Arab League mission, which precipitated the withdrawal of observers by the other GCC states.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has also met with the opposition Syrian National Council and there are public claims regarding the financial support Riyadh is providing to the Syrian opposition (although claims that Riyadh will shortly recognise the Council as the legal representative of the Syrian people come from the Council itself rather than any Saudi spokesperson).

Having mourned the loss of Hosni Mubarak, Riyadh has splashed money at its own people, shored up its Bahraini neighbour and brought fellow Sunni monarchies closer together. Having seen Muammar Qadhafi fall ignominiously, Riyadh has now turned its attention to Damascus, where it sees both a chance to strategically dislocate its rival Iran and to remove someone they believe has too often thumbed his nose at Riyadh.

Photo by Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo.

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