Wall Street Journal: Saudi Arabia is rallying Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran, in a move some U.S. officials worry could draw other troubled nations into the sectarian tensions gripping the Arab world.
The Wall Street Journal
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG, JAY SOLOMON and MARGARET COKER
Saudi Arabia is rallying Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran, in a move some U.S. officials worry could draw other troubled nations into the sectarian tensions gripping the Arab world.
Saudi officials have approached Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central Asian states to lend diplomatic support—and potentially military assistance in some cases—to help stifle a majority Shiite revolt in Sunni-led Bahrain, a conflict that has become a symbol of Arab defiance against Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s efforts, though against a common enemy, signal increasing friction with the Obama administration. Its invitation to Pakistan in particular could complicate U.S. security goals in South Asia. The push also complicates U.S. efforts to guide popular uprisings in the Middle East toward a peaceful and democratic conclusion.
The chief of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, asked Pakistan’s powerful generals in March to lend support for the operation in Bahrain, according to Pakistani, U.S. and Saudi officials briefed on the meetings.
Prince Bandar—who was the Saudi ambassador to Washington for more than two decades—told the Pakistani generals that the U.S. shouldn’t be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East or protect Pakistan’s interests in South Asia, these officials say.
U.S. officials working with Saudi Arabia acknowledged in recent days Riyadh’s frustration with Washington’s policies but believe the relationship can be stabilized. “They are not happy with us, and are really nervous about Iran,” said an American official. “But I don’t think they are going to go too far.”
Saudi officials said their campaign was broad. “There are many elements of this initiative,” said a Saudi official. “All the major Muslim states are willing to commit to this issue if need be and asked by Saudi leadership.”
The official said any potential Pakistani troops could be integrated into the 4,000-man force of mostly Saudi soldiers that deployed to Bahrain in March to defend the ruling Khalifa family against the popular domestic uprising against its rule. But Saudi officials said the current force is adequate, and no formal request for troops has yet been made.
The military intervention was invited by Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, which accused Iran of driving the protest movement. Tehran denied the charge, while volubly defending the rights of the protesters and demanding a withdrawal of the foreign troops.
Security forces from other Gulf Cooperation Council members joined Saudi troops in stifling the revolt, in what Saudi Arabia said was a message to Iran not to meddle in other nations’ affairs. The GCC includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia has sought to expand the GCC to include Jordan and Morocco.
The U.S. opposed the violent crackdown. American officials have objected to the use of force by Arab regimes against protesters, and say they fear violence could drive Bahrain’s Shiite protesters into the arms of Iran, a Shiite theocracy that has long vied with the Saudis for influence in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East.
Saudi diplomats said that after the GCC force entered Bahrain in March, Riyadh dispatched senior officials to Europe and Asia to explain the operation and try to galvanize support. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal traveled to Europe while Prince Bandar traveled to Asia.
Prince Bandar’s stops included India, China, Pakistan and Malaysia. Prince Bandar, who has no spokesman, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Malaysia, which is also Sunni-dominated, said this month it was willing to send troops to Bahrain, during a visit to Riyadh by Prime Minister Najib Razak. “Malaysia fully backs all sovereign decisions taken by Saudi Arabia and GCC states to safeguard the stability and security of the region in these trying times,” Mr. Najib said in a statement.
Bahraini officials said Thursday that they desire diplomatic support but don’t need military assistance at this stage, and haven’t made requests to either Pakistan or Malaysia.
A civilian Pakistani official said its military was weighing what it could do to help the Saudis. A senior Pakistani military officer said Pakistan has no immediate plans to send soldiers for “operational purposes.”
The officer said a Pakistani battalion has been in Bahrain since before the unrest began to help train Bahraini forces, but hasn’t taken part in the crackdown. Bahrain’s police force includes a substantial contingent of Pakistani recruits.
Military ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia go back decades. Pakistan receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year in Saudi aid, much of it in the form of subsidized oil.
The Saudi overture in Pakistan is a sign of how diplomatic friction in two distinct regions—the Middle East on one hand and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the other—could make it harder for the U.S. to pursue its goals of ending the conflict in Afghanistan, stabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, limiting Iran’s power and keeping a lid on violent turmoil in the Mideast.
Pakistani and U.S. relations were already souring in March before the U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, which Pakistan viewed as a violation of national sovereignty.
But Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, relies heavily on the U.S. The U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s closest strategic partner. Last year Riyadh and Washington announced a planned $60 billion arms sale, the largest in U.S. history.
The U.S. provides Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region with an air and naval shield against possible attacks by Iran, with military bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the U.A.E.
Still, U.S.-Saudi relations have soured over the past decade. Saudi Arabia was opposed to the toppling of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein because of his role as a bulwark against Iranian power. And Riyadh has been skeptical of the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Iran diplomatically, among other disagreements.
Riyadh upset officials in Washington in another nominal proxy fight with Iran, in late 2009, when Saudi forces entered Yemen to clear rebels from their shared border. Yemen accused Iran of aiding the insurgents; Tehran denied the charge. The U.S. says it has seen no evidence of Iranian involvement in the uprising.
Saudis blame the U.S. in large part for abetting the push to topple Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The Saudis saw him as the last strong Sunni hedge against Iranian influence and fear Egypt’s new government will be too friendly with Tehran.
A senior Saudi official said relations with Washington are strong, and denied that Prince Bandar had spoken ill of the U.S.
The Saudis and Iranians have cobbled together loosely allied camps across the Mideast. Iran holds sway in Syria, and with the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, parties opposed to the West and deeply hostile to Israel.
The Saudi sphere, which is more pro-Western, includes the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah.