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.