Special Report: Saudi-US Friction Over Palestine at the UN

Published: September 19, 2011

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Patrick W. Ryan | SUSRIS

Over 120 world leaders will be at the United Nations this week for the opening of the 66th session of the General Assembly and the Palestinian bid for statehood to break the peacemaking stalemate will be a highlight of the diplomatic drama in New York. On Friday President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would seek UN membership for Palestine at the Security Council, which will set the stage for an expected United States veto.

No matter how the diplomatic moves play out in New York it promises to be a rough ride for all of the players. The high risk bid will no doubt bring unexpected and unintended outcomes for the Palestinians, as examined by VOANews in a comprehensive overview of the UN action, “There are many political, diplomatic and legal consequences for the Palestinians, Israel and the U.S. if Palestinians go ahead with their ambitious bid. In addition to U.S. opposition at the United Nations, Israel is considering a nullification of the Oslo Accords if the Palestinians embark on what Israel sees as a unilateral move.”

A United States veto in the Security Council will result in significant diplomatic blowback for Washington, including damage to its standing in the Arab world in general and potentially its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former diplomat and intelligence chief, has been an outspoken champion among Saudis for Palestinian rights and the tenor of his words, especially warnings to Washington have become more intense.

Last November when SUSRIS talked with him about friction in the relationship with the U.S. he said, “I don’t think it is tension. But there are differences of opinion as to how we can go about accomplishing what both of us agree are common aims.. ..We have a lot in common on where we want to go, specifically on issues like the Middle East both of us agree on a two-state solution. Both of us agree on the rights of the Palestinians to a nation with defined, contiguous borders, one that is viable, which allows Israel to live in peace and security with the community of the Arab world. Those are the aims of where America and Saudi Arabia are going. How to achieve those aims is another matter and there has been disagreement on that.”

In June, as prospects for a UN showdown emerged ["Is There a Showdown at the UN Looming for Saudi-US Relations?"], Prince Turki added detail to his views on “differences” on Palestine as a nation in an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled “Palestinian rights won’t be denied by the United States and Israel.” He warned of potentially “disastrous consequences for US-Saudi relations,” saying:

“In September, the kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition. American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.” The game of favoritism toward Israel has not proven wise for Washington, and soon it will be shown to be an even greater folly. There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.”

Last week Prince Turki ratcheted up his rhetoric ["Could UN Palestine Vote Alterd US-Saudi Relations?"] in a New York Times op-ed, titled, “Veto a State, Lose an Ally,” in which he said American-Saudi ties, in the aftermath of a UNSC veto “would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.” He added, “American support for Palestinian statehood is therefore crucial, and a veto will have profound negative consequences. In addition to causing substantial damage to American-Saudi relations and provoking uproar among Muslims worldwide, the United States would further undermine its relations with the Muslim world, empower Iran and threaten regional stability.” Turki outlined what the consequences of a veto, from Riyadh’s perspective, could entail:

“Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so. The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.”

Are Prince Turki’s remarks reflective of official Saudi positions? On September 15 Jamal Khashoggi, his former advisor when Turki served as Ambassador to the United States and currently director of Al Arab News Channel, offered insight to a panel interview on “Inside Story,” an AlJazeera broadcast news magazine.

“I feel even though Prince Turki is not officially in government, I don’t think that anyone is far away from his position. This was indicated by the previous meetings between the Saudi leadership and the Qatari leadership. There were rumors that the Qataris were suggesting a loop, or a way out from the confrontation at the UN. And the Saudis contradicted their effort and tried to bring the Qataris along with the Saudis and the rest of the Arabs, on one unified position for the Palestinian position.. ..those meetings .. indicate that all the Arabs and the Saudis are going in that direction to support Mahmoud Abbas in whatever he chooses.”

Click for video report.

Khashoggi also commented on the passion of Saudi historic support for Palestine and reminded us of the 2001 letter from King Abdullah, then Crown Prince, to President Bush which challenged Washington for perceived indifference to the Middle East Peace Process. Abdullah, who exercised defacto leadership of the government due to King Fahd’s illness, was said to warn that Saudi Arabia and the United States would have to go “separate ways” as a result of the lack of progress on Palestine.

Former US State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley in the same “Inside Story” panel said, “The dilemma [regarding Palestine statehood] is how to get from where we are today to where we need to go.”  On U.S. concerns about the specific warnings from Prince Turki last week he added:

“I think the larger point, that certainly given the dynamic that is happening in the region, public opinion is going to inform policies and positions of a variety of countries in a much more profound way going forward. So, this is something that the United States will need to take into account and certainly this is one of the reasons why there is this great concern about the veto and not only the policy implications but the public opinion implications in the Islamic and Arab world. So it is a genuine dilemma going forward. Saying that, relations between countries are driven first and foremost by interests, and notwithstanding the position stated by Prince Turki there are still a number of policy areas that are necessary and advantageous for Saudi Arabia and the United States, not the least of which is the situation with respect to Iran and its trajectory of its nuclear program. It is also in Saudi Arabia’s interest as it is for the United States to seek stability in Yemen. Certainly there are strains in the current relationship between the Untied States and Saudi Arabia, differences of view over how the Mubarak regime ended, and these are strains that are there and will have to be managed by both sides going forward.”

There has been little official reaction to Prince Turki’s warnings about consequences of a US veto at the Security Council. Last week in a pro forma press release addressing the Saudi National Day celebration on September 23rd, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel Al-Jubeir remarked, “Our relationship with the United States has been a strong, historic and strategic relationship for more than seven decades.” He added, “As a consequence of wise, rational and long-term policies, the two countries were able to build on the relationship and strengthen and broaden it and deepen it to where today, I believe the relationship is in an outstanding position.”

The most insightful commentary on the strength of ties between the partners came from U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon in a wide-ranging talk carried in a C-Span broadcast at the Economic Council of Washington on Friday. Council President David Rubenstein asked him about ties with Riyadh. Donilon said:

“There were disagreements .. with other countries in the region.. ..It is fair to say and I’ve said this publicly before, that our conversations with the Saudis were scratchy.. ..I’ve talked directly with the leadership in Saudi Arabia, as you know, and I think that the relationship is in very good shape. Why? I think because it is based in shared strategic interests. You get past things like happened at the beginning of this year. There is recognition that these were inexorable forces.. ..You reflect on the fact that – and these are the conversations like I would have with my Saudi counterparts. That we’ve had a relationship for 70 years. It is based on a set of shared strategic interests that include the following: not having a nation or some other group get a dominant role in the region, we have a shared interest in counter terrorism efforts, we have a shared interest in global growth, economic growth, we have a shared interest in secure and stable energy supplies, among others. David, I guess being perfectly square with you, that yes, there were some issues at the beginning of the year. They have been worked through. King Abdullah and President Obama have a very good relationship and we really have through this we have focused on and reminded ourselves anew of the strategic foundations and shared interests. As you know in international relations it is those shared interests and those historical ties that at the end of the day are critical. Countries don’t engage with each other if it’s not in their interests.”

Click for video report.

Donilon also addressed Washington’s relations with Riyadh in July with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. In the wake of his April visit to Riyadh and the early months of the so-called “Arab Spring,” he said, “I would be less than candid with you if I didn’t say that we didn’t have some points of friction or disagreements with some of our partners in the region. But I think this, and based on my direct conversations with the leadership of Saudi Arabia about the kinds of common strategic interests that we have.. ..I think that our relationship is in pretty good shape.”

Click for video report.

In May President Obama gave a major policy speech on the Middle East, taking up the questions about the “Arab Spring” and the long simmering Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. But Dr. Jean Francois Seznec, Gulf specialist and scholar, told SUSRIS that, “The Saudis are still extremely upset that there is no progress on Palestine and I don’t think they saw President Obama’s speech .. as positive in that regard. The Saudis must feel the U.S. was too weak on Bahrain while the U.S. thought the Saudis were too strong. Riyadh probably feels we’re being manipulated by Iran, as they’re very worried about Iran. They probably feel that there is a weakness in U.S. Middle East policy right now..”

Meanwhile U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was in Saudi Arabia last week and met King Abdullah in Jeddah on Wednesday. A statement from the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, reported by Al Arabiya, noted that Burns “reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.” It added that Burns “reaffirmed to Saudi leaders the United States’ firm and enduring commitment to Gulf security, including our commitment to countering the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” No notice to Prince Turki’s UN veto warnings was provided in the statement about the meeting.

So we begin the week that will be at the United Nations with provocative public warnings ringing in our ears and diplomatic tea leaves to be deciphered, and perhaps the assurance of National Security Advisor Donilon’s exhortation that, “Countries don’t engage with each other if it’s not in their interests.”

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