Amidst the great uncertainty that prevails in the Middle East today there is at least one thing that is certain: we are living through a great shift in the region's politics and alliances, the repercussions of which are yet to be fully felt. Indeed, future generations will look back at the events of today as the catalyst that started to bring about these changes. What the outcome of these winds of change will bring -- a better or a bitter life -- for the peoples of the region remains to be seen. Now however, it is a tumultuous time.
The changes so far, a new president in Tunisia, two new presidents in Egypt, a new government in Libya, etc., are only the very beginning of what is going to turn into an important chapter in the region's history. The effect and impact of the changes and the political upheaval brought about by the Arab Spring of 2011 are only now starting to be felt. For better or for worse the genie has been allowed out of the bottle and the changes are unstoppable. For the Arab leaderships still resisting change, the intelligent thing to do would be to embrace the momentum, to usher in these changes and make good use of then. As was the case in several former Soviet republics; Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan comes to mind. Change is inevitable and resisting it, as the Syrians are trying to do, is futile.
Not least of those changes is the tectonic shift in U.S.-Saudi relations brought about as a result of growing divergences between Washington and Riyadh, mostly over the civil war in Syria and how it should be handled.
The rock solid alliance that existed between the two countries that began with a meeting by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi Arabian King Abdelaziz Ibn Saoud at the close of World War II continued until just a few weeks ago. The historic meeting had set the tone of relations between the U.S. and Saudi for decades to come,; the gist of the agreement provided the U.S. with cheap oil in exchange for the US offering protection to the Desert Kingdom. That now seems as though it may be a fading memory.
At the center of the dispute is a divergence of views between the Obama administration and the Saudi royal family over how to handle Syria and its president, Bashar Assad. The Saudis, who have invested much political equity in the Syrian conflict, had high hopes that the expected US military intervention following the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces on rebel held areas in Damascus would deliver the coup de grace to the Assad regime. Syrian troops loyal to President Assad, the majority of whom are Alawites, have been fighting against a Sunni alliance made up of a variety of groups that includes salafists and pro-al-Qaeda elements.
The Saudis had high hopes that a U.S. military intervention would tilt the balance in their favor, but things did not pan out as expected or as hoped by the Saudis, who were already upset by the inability of the Obama administration to come up with a coherent policy regarding Syria. The first public visible sign or Saudi irritation at the United States came when Riyadh turned down a rotating seat on the prestigious UN Security Council, one of ten non-permanent seats.
The rift between Washington and Riyadh has deteriorated to the point where the Saudi head of intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, was touring European capitals trying to drum up support for his views of how the war in Syria should be fought. The Saudis are willing to contribute all the petro dollars it takes to unseat President Bashar Assad of Syria but so far there has been no talk of deploying Saudi troops. Nor is their likely to be any time soon.
This cooling of relations between Washington and Riyadh is not without danger. Not only will it affect the two countries concerned, but it will also impact the region and beyond. Saudi Arabia carries much influence across the Gulf and the Middle East and as such it will try to use that influence to get other countries in the region to shift away from Washington.
But who are the powers that can wield enough clout to replace Washington in the Middle East? If Riyadh is looking at Brussels (i.e.: Paris, London, Berlin) it is ignoring the realities the way things are today. Much as they dislike the Americans today, they seem stuck with them for better or for worse.
The Europeans are in no way capable of replacing the Americans in taking the lead on major issues such as the war in Syria. Or on any other major issues for that matter.
The one power still strong enough and perhaps foolish enough to take the challenge would be Russia. First, it no doubt would give the Russians great satisfaction to take over a relationship as important as that of Saudi Arabia and in the process stick it to the Americans (in retaliation to the US succeeding in drawing Georgia, Poland, Armenia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Romania, and other former Soviet space counties away from Moscow).
The Americans are today less dependent on Saudi oil than they used to be and perhaps that would be the needed push to convince the Americans to develop their own oil fields in the West and Mid-West United States. And of course there are the new oil fields coming to productivity in the former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Or perhaps China would jump in the game as Beijing is forever eager to acquire new sources to fill its ever-increasing appetite for oil? The bottom line is that in moving away from Washington Saudi Arabia could be letting yet another genie out of the bottle.
Claude Salhani is senior editor of the English language service of Trend News Agency in Baku. He tweets @claudesalhani. His latest book, Inauguration Day, is available exclusively on-line at amazon.com.