Buried in the back pages of newspapers across the U.S. is an Associated Press story bearing the headlines, “U.S. presence in Iraq ‘Illegitimate,’ Saudi king says.” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia proclaimed at the Arab summit in Riyadh, “In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brother, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war.” Reigning over Saudi Arabia since the 2005 death of his half brother King Fahd, Abdullah has had influence on Saudi foreign policy for a long time.
The Bush administration did not expect Abdullah’s remarks. The Under-Secretary of State Political Affairs Nicholas Burns remarked that the U.S. was “a little surprised.” State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said, “We certainly had not seen that particular phrase before coming out, talking about illegal occupation. I think it only stands to reason that we are interested in understanding better what exactly King Abdullah meant by that phrase.”
Abdullah criticized the U.S. blockade of Palestine and Israeli treatment of Palestinians, saying that “In wounded Palestine, the mighty people suffer from oppression and occupation.” During King Fahd’s reign, Abdullah was seen as someone who would put the close relationship with the U.S. in jeopardy because of American support for Israel. Prince Sultan reportedly informed Prince Bandar in 1997 that he had told Abdullah “not to be so confrontational with the U.S.”
Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf expressed concerns that tensions in the Gulf Region could affect the world. “Tensions in the Gulf region are shaping an ominous confrontation that could have incalculable consequences globally, regionally and among the Muslim umma [faithful].”
Abdullah’s tenuous hold
Abdullah is walking a political tightrope, striving to keep the Saud royal family’s hold intact, and keep the proverbial lid on sectarian violence. The al-Saud family has ruled since 1932 when King Abd-al-Aziz united the country under his rule. The royal family practices a strict form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Sunni Muslims are the majority in Saudi Arabia, but 10-15% of Saudis are Shiites. The majority of Shiites live in Qatif and al-Hasa in the Eastern Province where most oil Saudi oil reserves are located. According to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, “sectarian tensions are high in the (Eastern) province.” The Saudi oil reserves make up 25% of the world’s reserves, and are capable of pumping out over 10 million barrels a day.
The sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites could spill over into Saudi Arabia. Attacks on Iran by the U.S. could also escalate tensions. A senior State Department official in the Clinton administration, Martin Indyk, said the “Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.” Indyk is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.