Shifting ground in the Middle East

The Middle East is churning, traditional allies aren’t so traditional, and we “ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Robert Jordan, Diplomat-in-Residence at SMU’s John G. Tower Center for Political Studies.

The former U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003 spoke Tuesday, April 17, at the Meadows Museum as part of the Godbey Lecture Series. He launched his discussion on “Strange New Bedfellows in the Middle East” by describing a world of change since 9/11, including:

“Saddam is gone. American forces have been out of Saudi Arabia since 2003. King Fahd has passed on, and Crown Prince Abdullah is now king. Yasser Arafat is gone, and so is the former progressive prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri. The president of Syria, Bashar Assad, stands accused of Hariri’s murder. Egypt no longer commands attention as the dominant Arab political force. Iraq, sadly, has descended into chaos and sectarian conflict. Iran is moving forward to develop nuclear capability and to pursue designs on becoming the next superpower.”

Here are other highlights of his talk.

What role is China playing in the new Middle East?

The end of the Cold War was bound to thaw chilly relations between the Saudis and the Evil Empire of China and Russia. China, not the United States, is the customer of the future. When Abdullah became king of Saudi Arabia in 2005, where did he visit first? Not Crawford, but India, China and Malaysia.

The growing trade and business corridor between the Middle East and Asia is being called a new silk road. Trade and investment between these regions has quadrupled in the last 10 years and is predicted to rise dramatically in the next 15. The rapid economic growth of Asia, combined with high oil prices, is a match made in commerce. By 2025, China will import three times as much oil from the Persian Gulf as the United States.

 And while the United States is putting out fires, our Asian competitors are making deals, big deals.

What we have done in Iraq?

When we toppled Saddam Hussein, we removed the main counter in the region to the new neighborhood bully, the Islamic Republic of Iran. This, as the Saudis told me at the time, was their worst nightmare. Now they find themselves threatened with a Shiite crescent extending from Tehran to Damascus -- not a happy occasion. The 10 percent of Saudis who are Shiites are located in the oil-rich provinces of Saudi Arabia, and they are none too happy with Wahhabi dominance.

So the Saudis are juggling a few eggs. King Abdullah was photographed at the recent Arab summit holding hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Make no mistake about it; these guys are not bedfellows. It brings to mind the old saying “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.”

What is Israel’s relationship with the Arab world?

In the “believe it or not” category, we now see a flickering possibility of an improvement of Arab relationships with Israel. There have been reliable reports of a secret meeting in Jordan between Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar. We know there have been many such secret meetings in the past.

The sense of urgency of countering Iran’s influence in the region, as well as years of frustration over the lack of American leadership in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have converged at maybe the right time. Experts have noted that the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War. If that’s true, greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran much less leverage in the region, and the Saudis seem to have convinced the Bush administration that over the long run Iran is the greater threat than the Sunni radicals.

What do we do in Iraq?

I was talking with John McCain, and he said that if the surge doesn’t work, there is no Plan B. We’ve always had a Plan B; there are people who get paid lots of money to come up with Plans B and C, but apparently we don’t have one.

So in Iraq, if the surge doesn’t work -- and it may take several more months to know -- we will have to conclude that they’re going to have to fight it out among themselves. I think the president will come to that view, McCain will come to that view, and we may see some closure, some pullback. There may have to be a hot civil war before there’s any resolution.

There will be a great danger, if that occurs, of the Iranians working in a much more aggressive way on the Shiite side and the Arab states participating in a much more aggressive way on the Sunni side.

The glimmer of hope is this: We’re starting to see a split between the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iranian-dominated Shiites who are the militants. Al-Maliki is realizing he has no hope if he caves in to the Iranian Shiites.

Learn more about the Tower Center for Political Studies and the Godbey Lecture Series

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