No One in the Middle East Will Sleep

What the Saudis make of the nuclear deal with Iran
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Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh. (Jason Reed/Reuters) 

So, how are the Saudis reacting?

That’s the question on many people’s lips now that world powers have arrived at a nuclear deal with Iran. The simple answer is that they are probably as confused as the rest of us as they work out what the parties have agreed to and what they have conceded. But when you’re sitting across the Persian Gulf from Iran—a divide that mirrors the division between Sunni and Shiite Islam in the region—things look different than when you’re discussing the talks around a coffee machine here in the United States. The Saudis see the negotiations as power politics played as a zero-sum game. A perceived victory for Iran, even a reprieve from tougher action, is to the disadvantage of the kingdom.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is likely exasperated by the agreement and the Obama administration’s celebrations of it. How do I know? Because the king left Riyadh on Monday for the desert oasis of Rawdhat Khuraim. It’s the place he goes when he needs to relax. At 90 years old, he tires easily but has spent the last couple of weeks lobbying everyone who visits him—including the interim president of Egypt and the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar—on the dangers posed by Iran, which will, in his mind, become intolerable if it achieves even the perception of being a nuclear power, as such a distinction will bequeath hegemonic status on Tehran not only in the Gulf but also across the Middle East. Earlier this month, after the collapse of the first round of Geneva talks with Iran, the king gave Secretary of State John Kerry an ear-bashing that by some accounts went on for two hours.

The official Saudi line on the nuclear deal emerged on Monday when the Saudi Council of Ministers, the kingdom’s cabinet, held its weekly meeting. A report on the proceedings, released by the Saudi Press Agency, was written in the news outlet's usual anodyne prose, noting that “the Cabinet reviewed a number of reports on the development of the situations at regional and international arenas” before continuing: “The Kingdom viewed the agreement as a primary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program. As far as good intentions are provided and as long as it concludes to a Middle East and Gulf region free of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Hoping that such a step will be followed by more important steps leading to guarantee the right for all countries in the region to peacefully use nuclear energy.”

The translation is awkward, but the operative phrase is “as far as good intentions are provided.” The problem for King Abdullah and the other members of the House of Saud, as well as most Saudis, is that they don’t trust Iran in the diplomatic sphere and they don’t trust Shiites religiously.

The Saudis are sufficiently sensitive to Western good manners to avoid making anti-Shiite remarks in English (in public, at least). But fearing the worst from the Geneva talks, Saudi officials have spent the past several days whipping up concern in New York, Washington, and London.

Holding forth in The Wall Street Journal’s premier “Weekend Interview” slot on November 23, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz said his country was putting “maximum pressure now on the United States not to succumb to the president of Iran's soft talk.” The billionaire businessman, who is not normally given license by Riyadh to talk about political issues, pleaded, “The U.S. has to have a foreign policy. Well-defined, well-structured. You don’t have it right now, unfortunately. It’s just completely chaos. confusion. No policy. I mean, we feel it. We sense it, you know.” 

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Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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