Assertive Saudi King Salman visits Washington

King Salman is visiting Washington for the first time since ascending the Saudi throne. DW‘s US correspondent Spencer Kimball reports that the US faces a kingdom that has become very assertive in its foreign policy.

For decades, a simple quid-pro-quo formed the basis of US-Saudi relations. Riyadh provided the oil, Washington provided the security.

“It’s become infinitely more complicated than that,” James B. Smith, the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009-2013, told DW.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama welcomes Saudi King Salman to Washington for the first time. Salman, 79, ascended the throne last January after his half-brother Abdullah passed away.

When the two leaders meet, President Obama will represent a nation that’s become increasingly self-reliant in energy production, while King Salman will represent a nation that’s become increasingly self-assertive in its foreign policy.

Last March, Riyadh launched a military intervention in neighboring Yemen after Houthi rebels drove the US-Saudi backed government from power. Though the US has provided intelligence and logistical support, Washington is largely on the sidelines, according to Smith. For the first time, Saudi Arabia is clearly in the driver’s seat.

“Traditionally they’ve operated in the shadows, using money or influence,” Smith, now president of C&M International, said of the Saudis. “The Yemen campaign indicates a much more muscular foreign policy. I don’t know if this is an aberration or a trend, it’s too early to tell.”

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US-Saudi alliance stays strong after Iran nuclear deal

Will the Iran nuclear deal strain ties between Saudi Arabia and the US? Hardly. The alliance between the world’s largest absolute monarchy and its oldest constitutional republic remains strong, Spencer Kimball reports.

One is an officially Islamic nation ruled by the same family for 83 years, where religion dictates who drives (men) and what women may wear (abayas, or full-body cloaks); the other is a mostly, but not officially, Christian country where voters pick their leaders and often even enact local laws.

Enemies and interests may be the only two things Saudi Arabia and the United States do have in common, and these have proved the basis for a long and largely loyal strategic partnership.

“It has survived every possible provocation that might have brought it down, including [US President] Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948,” Thomas Lippman, a former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post, told DW.

Lippman believes that the relationship will also survive its latest test: the deal world powers signed in July to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for international monitoring of the country’s nuclear program.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry left for Qatar, part of his first trip to the Middle East since he and fellow negotiators reached the historic agreement with Saudi Arabia’s main rival for regional influence.

Before and after the deal, Kerry repeatedly reaffirmed the US’s commitment to the security of its Gulf partners. Just last week, the State Department approved the sale of 600 Patriot missiles, worth $5.4 billion (4.9 billion euros), to Riyadh.

The Patriots will help counter Iran’s missile program, Lippman said, though he doesn’t believe that the sale is necessarily related to the nuclear deal.

“I have no doubt that the Saudis despise Shiites and are nervous about the Iranians and are unhappy about Iran’s activity around the region – that’s no secret,” Lippman said.

“They also understand perfectly which side their bread is buttered on, and that’s the US side,” he continued. “Nobody else is going to sell them 600 patriot missiles.”

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Iraq powder keg could ignite broader conflict

(By Deutsche Welle) Sitting at the heart of the Middle East, Iraq shares a border with virtually every major power in the region. The rapid advance of Sunni Islamist militants in Iraq could spark a broader regional conflict.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned a meeting of Arab and Muslim leaders in Jeddah on Wednesday that “this grave situation that is storming Iraq carries with it the signs of civil war whose implications for the region we cannot fathom.”

Al-Faisal called on Iraq’s Shiite-led government to address the grievances of the country’s Sunni community. He also warned against “foreign interference” in Iraq, a veiled jibe at Saudi Arabia’s archrival, Iran.

Tehran has said that it would intervene on behalf of Iraq, if Baghdad asked for assistance in its fight against the Sunni extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Wall Street Journal has reported that Iranian units have already been deployed to protect Shia holy sites in Karbala and Najaf and to stabilize the situation in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the former UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has drawn a connection between the current crisis in Iraq and the civil war in neighboring Syria. Brahimi said that the international community had “unfortunately neglected the Syrian problem and did not help resolve it,” which has fanned the flames of sectarianism in Iraq.

“The jihadists’ action in Iraq is taking place against a backdrop of a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis,” Brahimi told the AFP news agency last weekend.

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Bleak prospects for no-fly zone over Syria

(Deutsche Welle) With the UN peace plan in tatters, regional battle lines are being drawn in Syria. Calls for a no-fly zone have grown, but the West remains reluctant to intervene during an election year and an economic crisis.

As Syria enters its 18th month of bloodshed, the conflict there has increasingly become a regional proxy war, with the United States and its allies – particularly Turkey – facing the difficult question of how to proceed in the wake of the failure of diplomacy to end the violence.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Istanbul over the weekend, where she met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss what she called ways to “hasten the end of the bloodshed and [President Bashar] Assad’s regime.”

When asked by a reporter whether establishing safety or no-fly zones was under consideration,she indicated that both Washington and Istanbul were actively weighing the pros and cons of a military intervention.

“It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions,” Clinton told a press conference after her meeting with the Turkish foreign minister on Saturday. “But you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning. And we share not only the frustration, but the anger and outrage of the Syrian people at what this regime continues to do.”

As the civil war in Syria has escalated, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated and increasingly strained the resources of neighboring countries, particularly Turkey. The UN refugee agency reports that almost 150,000 Syrians have fled their homeland since the uprising began, with at least 50,000 taking refuge in Turkey alone.

According to the UN, the widespread and indiscriminate use of warplanes and helicopter gunships by the government against rebel forces in the city of Aleppo has led to a spike in the stream of refugees. Meanwhile, Western nations have expressed concern that the Assad regime could use its alleged chemical weapons in an act of desperation, or simply lose control of them as Syria slides toward collapse.

“The range of contingencies people are discussing is very much larger and there’s going to be a broader debate about responses, including a no-fly zone,” Ian Lesser, director of the Transatlantic Center with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told DW.

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Anatomy of Arab revolutions shows trend toward democracy

(By Deutsche Welle) Although the Arab world has traditionally lagged behind the global trend toward greater democracy, a liberal revolution that began in Tunisia has put monarchies and dictators throughout the region on the defensive.

For decades, the Arab world stagnated under authoritarianism despite a global expansion of democracy beyond its historic core in North America and Western Europe. According to the US think tank Freedom House, the number of democracies in the world more than doubled by the new millennium, as communism collapsed and strongmen from Latin America to Southeast Asia were forced from power.

Although the Middle East appeared immune to this liberalizing trend, popular uprisings now referred to as the “Arab Spring” have successfully forced authoritarian regimes from power in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrating that even political heavyweights like former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak are ultimately accountable to the people.

“We’re seeing in a sense the global spread of the aspirations for democracy finally coming to the surface in the Arab world,” Jack Goldstone, an expert on revolutions with George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, told Deutsche Welle.

But turning an uprising against an authoritarian leader into a broader revolution that brings true political change is more difficult. Although the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have been successfully ousted, the future is uncertain. And in Libya, Syria and Yemen, peaceful calls for civil rights have descended into violence.

“Whether this results in revolutions or not depends on the local regimes,” Goldstone said.

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