All of America39s mistakes seen from Saudi Arabia

All of America's mistakes, seen from Saudi Arabia

Are the Houthis “poor victims of abuse”? Until recently, many people in the West described them this way. Saudi Arabia, which tried in vain to subdue them when it captured Yemen's capital, has been inundated with criticism from America and Europe. Now the Saudis are adding this to a long list of Western mistakes that is making them increasingly skeptical of our reliability. So much so that they are forced to “go somewhere else.”

On the first leg of my long journey to the Gulf and Red Sea region, I listened to an Arab perspective on the current crisis in Riyadh. I am invited to speak at Saudi Arabia's premier geopolitical think tank, the Gulf Research Center, headed by Abdulaziz Sager, one of Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MbS) most influential foreign policy advisers. The European House of Representatives – Ambrosetti – introduced me. My role as a speaker is to talk about Saudi Arabia from the perspective of others (America, Europe, China). The audience is almost entirely Saudi Arabian and includes numerous government officials, academic experts, entrepreneurs and journalists: they are the ones who counter me and give me their version of the facts. Without discounts. Sometimes with open resentment. Long live sincerity.

In the Saudi version, the main defendant is America. In her opinion, the Middle East has done a lot of things wrong: almost always, almost everything. A loyal and often betrayed ally, especially in relationships with them. They don't direct their criticism at America because they have a better opinion of Europe. On the other hand. They simply judge Europe as almost irrelevant, inconsistent or too often submissive and in line with Washington's positions. What follows is therefore a summary of the Arab view of the current crisis and its background, as I heard it in the lively debate with my interlocutors in Riyadh. I present to you their theses, which are all too often ignored or misunderstood in the West; That doesn't mean I agree with them, in some cases I've even directly challenged them. However, their reconstruction of the events deserves some attention, also because we have underestimated or completely forgotten some of these events.

Our about-face against the Houthis is the most recent in chronological order. First, we defended them – politically and on humanitarian grounds – by putting pressure on the Saudis and their allies. Perhaps part of Western public opinion has mistakenly considered the Houthis to be an oppressed ethnic minority: no, the Houthi name is that of their leader; it is a violent militia that now controls Yemen more than its official government; Thanks to Iran, it has highly developed armaments. She stands as the protector of the Palestinian cause because this is a classic of all despotic Islamic regimes that are unable to provide economic and social progress to the population. Joe Biden removed the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations to be sanctioned shortly after his election. Today, a small U.S.-led Western army is bombing its bases after missiles fired from Yemen hit ships belonging to more than fifty nations, endangering the security of shipping and global trade. Biden has reversed his 2021 gesture: he has just decided to put the Houthis back on the list of terrorist groups. Europe also appears here as an extra, following America like a shadow: First, it put pressure on the Arab coalition (Saudi, Emirates, Bahrain), which led to an embargo on arms deliveries to protect the Houthis. Today, Europe is the first victim of the Red Sea crisis and its warships are supporting the American attacks. There isn't much evidence of clarity or coherence.

Arab criticism goes back much further. Without repeating the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian question from its beginnings, my interlocutors will focus on the last three American presidencies. In their opinion, Barack Obama's campaign was a real disaster; I must admit that even in the United States, foreign policy during the period 2009-2016 was subjected to severe scrutiny, which was generally followed by a merciless “downgrade.” Some of the errors were recognized by Obama himself after the fact in his books (but not enough). Others are part of a critical view that is also widespread among American experts on these issues. Hearing them performed in Riyadh still makes a certain impression because it puts this kingdom and the decisions made by Prince MbS in a different light.

The NATO war in Libya in 2011 marked the beginning of Obama's catastrophic mistakes. In this case, the President allowed himself to be carried away by Sarkozy and Cameron, but without him France and the United Kingdom would not have had the strength to intervene. This mistake arose in the context of a general misunderstanding about the Arab Spring that erupted that same year. Obama may have had the illusion that his inaugural address on Islam, delivered at Cairo University in 2009, had contributed to these upheavals. With his speech to Egyptian students, he sought to mark a departure from George W. Bush's two mandates during which the “War on Terror” took place and was accused of fueling a “clash of civilizations” under the banner of Islamophobia. In the Arab Spring, Obama, imbued with techno-optimism and positively impressed by the role of social media, saw the beginning of a turn towards democracy. The decision to overthrow Gaddafi was consistent with the decision to abandon Mubarak in Egypt and turn his back on an old ally. We know what followed: The post-Gaddafi era was not characterized by democracy, but by cruel anarchy and tribal wars that destabilized the entire Mediterranean region (see, among other things, the migrant issue). In Egypt, the post-Mubarak era saw the triumph of Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalism. The Western enthusiasm for street revolts is heavily criticized by the Saudi monarchy: it is convinced that “the streets” often prove to be more reactionary, obscurantist and intolerant than certain enlightened autocrats. It is a story repeating itself from the great misunderstanding of 1979, when much of the West cheered the Khomeinist revolution in Iran, only to realize that it would have forced the country into a terrible retreat even compared to the Shah.

The list of Obama's mistakes, for which we are still paying today, continues. In Syria, he gave the Assad regime an ultimatum, announcing that the red line that must not be crossed was the use of chemical weapons against civilians; Assad used it and Obama did nothing. Loss of credibility that would be repeated under Joe Biden with the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 (right decision, made disastrously).

What stands out above all – from a Saudi perspective – is the abhorrent Iranian nuclear deal. “Obama's America negotiated it behind our backs and cut us off,” say my Saudi interlocutors. Obama advocated rebuilding diplomatic relations with the unreliable theocracy of the Ayatollahs, sacrificing the historic alliance with the Saudi monarchy. Perhaps he had the illusion of going down in history by bridging the great divide between America and Iran in 1979. A betrayal like the one experienced by the Saudis, who had major reservations about this agreement from the start. In addition, the agreement with Iran (whose signatories included the European Union, Russia and China) was considered weak even within the United States, and not just in the Republican camp. Too limited time, insufficient guarantees and no coverage of Tehran's missile activities and its support for terrorist militias. In Iran's growing aggressiveness these days, with missile launches in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, one can also see a sign of weakness, desperation or isolation; Perhaps it is instead more realistic to compare the escalation in Iran with the behavior of Kim Jong-Un: the belief in impunity that is typical of those who now feel themselves to be a nuclear power or almost a nuclear power and therefore have absolute deterrence.

The Saudis are cracking down on Obama, but are not sparing Donald Trump. In many ways, her relationship with Trump was much better. I have a personal memory of this: I was on Air Force One on the historic state visit that Trump made here in Riyadh in 2017. Great harmony, billion-dollar arms contracts, lavish parties at the Ritz-Carlton, crowned by the famous “saber dance”. However, Trump disappointed them too. In 2019, the Houthis, with support from Iran, managed to deliver deadly blows against some of Saudi Arabia's key oil infrastructure. It was a spectacular attack that was successful and resulted in severe damage to the energy facilities. Trump's America has done nothing.

Here one could argue that with their defense spending, the Saudis should be able to defend their most strategically important infrastructure on their own. Obviously, the level of military spending does not always translate into effectiveness and efficiency. Seen from Riyadh, the historic American ally's inaction at this point was a terrible disappointment. Some of my Saudi interlocutors attribute to this event the beginning of a new phase in Riyadh's foreign policy, much more open to relations with Russia and China.

The U-turn by Biden and Europe on the Houthis is the latest episode in a series of mistakes and inconsistencies. First, the Saudis came under international pressure for fighting the Houthis; Today someone is accusing him of staying out of the US-led military coalition in the Red Sea. The lack of military involvement by Saudi Arabia is significant: after all, the Anglo-American attacks are intended to defend shipping security in the Red Sea, where Saudi Arabia's main port, Jeddah, is located and where there are also important Aramco (the Saudi Arabian) terminals Energy companies) there) for supertankers. However, the Houthis have so far attacked ships from 50 nations, and none of them were Saudi Arabia (or China). After many disappointments from the West, MbS began his own realpolitik towards the Houthis and negotiated with them about forms of de-escalation in the bilateral conflict. In fact, Saudi Arabia has placed itself in an even more isolated position. It may be that the Houthis' non-hostility toward him is precarious or temporary. While it continues, for MbS it is further evidence that foreign policy should be managed autonomously rather than aligned with the West.

Regarding what the United States is doing today, one of its advisers reminds me of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's historic line: “We can be sure that America will always make the right choice after it has made all the wrong choices.”