Saudi Arabia calls for de-escalation of Middle East tension


Saudi Arabia wants a de-escalation of the situation between the United States and Iran as it feels vulnerable to Iranian missile strikes, while at the same time, Riyadh is unsure of the reliability of President Donald Trump’s commitment to his Gulf allies.

Saudi Arabian deputy defence minister Prince Khalid bin Salman has been dispatched to Washington and London this week to convey personally his government’s wishes.

He held meetings this week with Trump and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in Washington and then in London with the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence senior adviser for the Middle East, Sir John Lorimer, and the prime minister’s foreign policy adviser, David Quarrey. He also met with senior figures in the Foreign Office.

The White House, in a break with protocol, only confirmed the meeting with Trump after the Saudi side had tweeted pictures of the meeting.

The meetings, and de-escalation message, echoed by other oil rich Gulf States such as the United Arab Emirates, came at the point of maximum concern that the Iran-US stand-off could turn into a full scale conflagration.

Analysts said the message from Riyadh will have been that it would not want its territory to be in the front line of any assault on Iran – even if it knew it could not avoid involvement if the conflict developed.

In the critical days after the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, many Iranian commanders warned the Gulf states of the consequences if its territory became a launch pad for strikes on Tehran. Dubai would be the first city targeted, one said.

Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability to Iran had been exposed in September by the drone and missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. Riyadh was surprised the attack elicited no military response from the Trump administration, even though US intelligence declared Iran was responsible and the US administration described the attack as a declaration of war.

An as yet unpublished UN report is expected shortly to confirm the US assessment indirectly by rejecting the claim by Houthi rebels in Yemen that they had been responsible for the attack. The UN report also finds the attack came from the North, and the weaponry was of a sophistication that rules out the Houthis.

But the publication of the UN report, four months after the attack, will only serve as a reminder to Riyadh of American’s unreliability. Trump was not prepared to strike to defend Saudi oil infrastructure, but was willing to risk wiping out Iraq’s most senior military figure after the US embassy was roughed up in Baghdad.

The episode only confirmed Trump’s argument that Saudi Arabia “would not last more than two weeks” without US military protection.

Even in celebrating the killing of Suleimani on Wednesday, an episode the Saudis instinctively celebrate, Trump underlined he wanted NATO – now dubbed by him as NATO ME – to replace some US troops in the Middle East. He also stressed that America’s umbilical cord to the Middle East – the oil pipeline – was broken. The US was self-sufficient in energy, he said – a half-truth, but one he believes.

This does not leave the Sunni states facing an immediate US pull-out – the actual number of US troops in the region is increasing – but it may require rebuilding some damaged alliances. (Source: The Guardian)