[Letters] The kingdom betrayed?

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[Letters] The kingdom betrayed?

The old saying “lonely is the head that wears the crown” has taken on a new meaning for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Not only has he witnessed the ousting of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, both close regional allies, but fellow crowned heads in Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan have also felt their thrones quake from public protest.

Now the Kingdom’s longtime protector, the United States, which let down Abdullah by (reluctantly) embracing the Arab Spring, is poised to pull its troops out of neighboring Iraq. Who, Abdullah wonders, will keep the Iranian wolf from the Kingdom’s door?

According to a security agreement reached with Iraq’s government, the U.S. is to withdraw its forces by the end of this year. Saudi Arabia, along with its Sunni-ruled Gulf neighbors, is anxious that some U.S. troops remain in Iraq to help keep a resurgent Iran at bay. The U.S. government does not need to be convinced about that, but the American people - and ordinary Iraqis - want to see the troops go home.

Although the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies share a fear of Iran, much else about Iraq and the region is now in dispute. Saudi Arabia still loathes the idea of a democratic Iraq under a majority Shia rule. The Shia, considered apostates by the Kingdom’s Wahhabi establishment, are viewed as a threat to the Saudi state’s legitimacy and existence, not only because of Iran’s power, but also because of the Kingdom’s large, indigenous Shia population, which is concentrated around the country’s oil fields.

Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. has urged Saudi Arabia to invest politically and economically in Iraq. Instead, Saudi authorities treated Iraq’s leaders with contempt and closed their eyes to Wahhabi fatwas that encouraged jihadi volunteers to fight against the Shia “apostates.” By shunning Shia-dominated Iraq, Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states have virtually no influence in Baghdad, thus leaving the field open to Iran. Saudi Arabia fears that Iraq will regain its oil-output quota within OPEC, which the country couldn’t meet, owing to poor security and infrastructure constraints. The Saudis suspect that rising oil prices will revive Iraq’s economy, and that of Iran, thus boosting their regional clout. This explains the Kingdom’s eagerness to increase oil production, which would weaken its competitors’ economies (and please the West).

So the Saudi and Sunni Gulf rulers want to keep U.S. military forces in Iraq partly in order to keep the country down. Indeed, Kuwait refuses to forgive Iraq’s Saddam-era debts, and is building a port at Mubarak al-Kabir, which Iraqis view as a naked attempt to suffocate Iraq’s already limited access to the Persian Gulf. And Bahrain has responded to Iraqi criticism of its political repression by halting its national airline’s flights to Baghdad, Beirut and Teheran, all perceived to be Shia demons. The majority of Iraqis deeply resent Saudi Arabia - and with good reason. Saudi jihadis were at the heart of the mayhem that killed hundreds of thousands in the years immediately following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Saudis even spent billions of dollars to build a security wall along its vast border with Iraq, in order to contain the violence that it was exporting there.

The departure of U.S. troops would represent a sweeping victory for Iran, which has no military presence in Iraq, but is the strongest player there. No other country allied to the U.S., not even Turkey, could equal Iranian influence in the country. But that is entirely because the Saudis have behaved since 2003 as if they feared Iraq’s Shia - and their own - much more than they do the Iranian regime.

Mai Yamani, author, broadcaster and lecturer in Saudi Arabia.
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