February 26, 2016

A new Saudi ball game?

The Middle East is changing before our eyes. As a World War II correspondent once noted, history looks strange when we are living it. And so it does.
Amid the shifting sand dunes and other great changes affecting the Middle East is the new image of Saudi Arabia as a country that is no longer beholden to the good old ways.
Gone are the days when the Saudis would dish out wads of cash, hand out Rolex watches and otherwise compensate those who said good things about them, including gifts of expensive auto­mobiles. Today, the Saudi mindset is very different.
The new generation asks ques­tions. They want to know what they are paying for. Lip service previously paid to legions of self-appointed middlemen, who came armed with promises of of­fering the kingdom better public relations, is also something of the past. There is a new generation of better educated, better travelled and more aware Saudis.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is a prime example. He is not from the royal family, nev­ertheless he has been entrusted with one of the most important positions in the kingdom.
The involvement of the Saudis in the Syrian war has contributed much to this change. The Saudi in­volvement was discreet at first but as the war expanded so did the Saudi role. From financing rebel groups and occasionally providing military hardware, Saudi Arabia now finds itself engaged in a fully fledged war in which its long-time nemesis — Iran — is on the other side. The Saudis have long regarded Iran to be their prime threat — be it under the shah or the current theocracy.
The new mindset of Saudi lead­ers and businessmen no longer trusts blindly, as it had done in the past, the legions of Western so-called experts and their promises of public relations miracles.
Today, the Saudis are asking questions. The new generation wants to know where their money is going, who is it going to and why.
They feel let down by their long-time ally, the United States, upon which they felt they could depend for their security. They realise they can only count on themselves — and, of course, their proxies.
An example of the new Saudi mindset can be seen in Lebanon where the kingdom had been sup­plying the military with billions of dollars of aid but recently stopped the funding. The general feeling among Saudis is that the kingdom was getting nothing in return for its support to Lebanon, except insults heaped on it regularly by Hezbollah.
Delivery of funds previously going to the Lebanese Army and police forces have come to a halt. The Lebanese Army was not perceived by the Saudis anymore as the neutral actor they thought it could be.
As one observer familiar with Saudi thinking and with this strange diplomatic ballet put it recently: “The Lebanese Army it­self is perceived as having become a sort of proxy to the proxy: It is backing up Hezbollah’s moves in Lebanon and the region and not guarding Lebanon’s national or regional security interests.”
After some 30 years and billions of dollars of Saudi assistance to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s political allies in Lebanon are seen as sit­ting on the fence while Hezbollah is the elephant in the room.
Hezbollah maximised the as­sistance it receives from Iran to promote Tehran’s objectives in Lebanon and the region.
It would like to impose a new balance in Lebanon, includ­ing the creation of the post of a vice-president representing the Shias to further control Lebanon’s decision-making process. Its encroachment, as reflected by the resignation of Lebanon’s Justice minister, is also breeding frustra­tion.
For better or for worse, Saudi Arabia is no more willing to play the game by the old rules. Many more surprising developments should be expected.

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