April 19th, 2011
11:30 AM ET

What the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are thinking

Rob Sobhani is the President of Caspian Energy Consulting, a group with interests in energy and infrastructure projects.  He engages extensively with the Kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for work, and wrote the book, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence. He holds a PhD from Georgetown University. I spoke with Dr. Sobhani to get a perspective on what the Saudi and Bahraini leadership are saying and thinking right now.

Amar C. Bakshi: You’ve been in the region and you’ve talked to leaders in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Let’s start with Saudi Arabia. What are the Saudi’s main concerns?

Rob Sobhani: The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia first revolves around stability. Next, they desire economic growth because Saudi Arabia’s population is young.  Third, the Saudis want to ensure that the region doesn’t fall into the grips of a sectarian divide - of Shia versus Sunni.

What is the leadership of Bahrain thinking right now?

The leadership of Bahrain acknowledges that there are grievances, that there are political and civil issues that need to be resolved and that there needs to be a dialogue with the opposition.  However, having said this, the leadership also believes that this dialogue has to be mutual and cannot be hijacked by extremists.

So the King, the Crown Prince, and the leadership in Bahrain are willing to sit across the table, shake the hands of the opposition and work together on reforming the system. However, they would like to do it in an atmosphere of calm.

I’ve met with the King of Bahrain on numerous occasions. This is a man who wants reform. This is a man who graduated from the Fort Leavenworth Army War College. He knows the American mindset. He knows the American system. This is not a man who makes decisions in isolation.

When he talks about reform, he really means it.

Doesn’t the introduction of Saudi troops into Bahrain galvanize the very sectarian divide that you say the leadership is trying to tamp down?

There’s no doubt that in the short run the sectarian divide has widened as a result of the events that have unfolded since February 14th in Bahrain. However, we have to view this in the broader context of what I call a Saudi-Iranian Cold War. There is no doubt that there is tension between Riyadh and Tehran. Bahrain has now become the flash point. Bahrain has now become the red line. As far as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council are concerned, they cannot afford Bahrain to fall. They think that would be a geopolitical catastrophe that would benefit Iran.

On the other side of the ledger, the fundamental premise of Shia ideology is victimhood. That is how the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. That is how the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is portrayed on the streets of Lebanon and in the Palestinian Territories. So in the event that Iran plays up the notion of injustice and victimhood in Bahrain, it fits the Shia narrative like a glove. And that is why the Bahraini King and its U.S. officials are scrambling to try to come up with practical, logical solutions that address the more immediate issues of discrimination, job creation, and better services.

What is the root of the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

It boils down to two fundamentally different worldviews. The Iranian worldview since the Revolution of ’79 has been that the U.S. and Israel are dominant factors in the international scene and should be opposed and challenged.  In the case of Israel, the Iranians believe the challenge should be met with guns and blood. The Saudi position has been that the world and the region should work together through dialogue.  Conflict should be resolved within the framework of stability and calm. For example, oil should not be a tool in this process. Tehran maintains the opposite perspective

What is the status of the Saudi-U.S. relationship?

I think the concern in Riyadh is that the United States - while it should stand up for its universal rights - cannot just abandon friends overnight. The Mubarak example is the most vivid. The policymakers in Riyadh understand that we have certain universal values, but at the same time they also understand that the U.S. has friends and there should be a premium on having friends and allies. So I think this renewed tension between Riyadh and Washington revolves around how we deal with longtime friends, whether it’s in Yemen, Bahrain or Egypt.

Nevertheless, I think the overall contours of the relationship remain strong. The Saudis are about to embark on a $60 billion arms sale purchase agreement. The King has been quietly providing a lot of philanthropy to major organizations in the United States. I can give you one example: the Urban Alliance, which is a program that provides internships for lower-income black kids, has been the recipient of the King’s generosity without fanfare.

So despite what we see in the headlines, the overall contours of the relationship remain strong resting on energy, military and diplomatic foundations. So to the extent that the contours of the relationship remain strong, I don’t see any reason why this short-term difference between Riyadh and Washington is going to derail the overall relationship.

Is there a fundamental difference between how the U.S. would like to see Egypt and Tunisia to develop and how Saudi Arabia would like to see these countries grow?

I think the fundamental difference goes back to difference in the cultures of the two countries. We in the United States would like to see things done quicker.  We would like to see things more direct. We have less patience.

The Saudis like to see reform but done gradually. They like to do things with patience. One of the most notable hallmarks of King Abdullah’s reign has been patience.

Do you ever see Saudi Arabia becoming a constitutional monarchy?

I see over time the Saudi monarchy evolving. It is in the national security interest of the United States to foster dialogue with the second generation of Saudi leaders.

What one experience from your travels stands out?

The most interesting event was a personal conversation that I had with the daughter of the King (of Saudi Arabia). I asked her, “What your father’s favorite music?” And she told me, “The sound of rain.” She didn’t miss a beat and followed up by saying my father is an environmentalist by heart.  The reason why rain is his favorite music is because - living in the desert - when the rain would come it would bring music to his ears.

I think this highlights a whole new opportunity for cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia on global warming, carbon sequestration and saving the environment. The Saudi perspective on global warming is religious: God has given us this earth; we need to take care of it.  I think a new chapter in U.S.-Saudi relations could be saving the earth.

This would involve gradually moving away from oil to alternative energy. The King is an environmentalist.  If I was President Obama, I would say, “King Abdullah, let’s partner together on the environment.”

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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Loic

    since when fair and unbiased news means interviewing a shill for the petroleum industry about his opinions on how his biggest clients stand on the social grievances of his fiefdom. CNN sure has changed

    April 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    It is this "zero-sum-game" mentality in the Middle East that poses a problem to conflict resolution. Consensus or compromise may be deemed a weakness, hence the two – Shia and Sunni – parties, each stands its ground. If they don't change their mindset, there will be no peace. No wonder the Americans are at the Saudis bidding, first the dependance on their oil, then their goodwill to spend 60 billions on American arms. James Baker's pragmatic realism is defintely the right strategy to deal with Saudi Arabia.

    April 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  3. Louis XII

    Mr Sobhani, what about the 31 people killed in the protests, what about the four people killed in prison, what about 15 year old Ahmed killed while playing football with his friends, what about the 800 human rights activists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, workers in Bahrain's prisons? what about the 4 pregnant women in Bahrain's torture cells?

    April 19, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  4. Apache Son

    Soon none of this will matter.
    The Quickening is here.
    There will be a shift in human consiousness.
    Nature will take back what is hers.
    Its a good thing.

    April 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • Mark Clem

      Yes, it is true and AGAIN the human race is behind the curve.

      April 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  5. Maryam Aljafen

    Sobhani is merely a business partner of Saudi Arabia. Why would the average reader want to hear from him? Sobhani goes into great lengths in trying to depict the Saudi King as some reformer and goes so far as to call him an environmentalist! How can you call an absolute monarchy, which has the world's largest oil reserves, which has some of the largest gas guzzling vehicles purchased from failing US companies, an environmentalist?! What Sobhani will not tell you is that Saudi Arabia is without a doubt one of the world's most repressive societies and no form of political dissent is tolerated. One only needs to read the U.S. State Department's annual reports on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to learn how undemocratic and authoritarian their monarchies truly are. As much as the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would like the West to believe that the protests in Bahrain were about Shiite v. Sunni, they were not. The protests were always about democracy and demanding representation in government. The Kings have used the boogyman Iran as a pre-text to crush pro-democracy protesters. The Kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are nothing more than dictators ruling their countries and the U.S. is keeping quiet because our country has still not figured out a way to stop depending on Middle East oil.

    April 19, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • Maryam Aljafen

      This is another Maryam Aljafen. I would like to disagree with what the first Maryam said. Saudi Arabia is not a repressive government. The fact that Saudi Arabia does not implement a westernized political system does not mean that you should categorize it as repressive. More importantly, core societal values in the West differ from the Middle East which is what many outsiders fail to see and realize. Saudi Arabia was not built on subjugation and oppression. Do not make accusations about Saudi Arabia if you haven't lived there.

      March 11, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply
  6. david

    this "inteview" is a joke right?

    April 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  7. waiting 2be arrested

    I do not know how creditable is a poet saying good things about a king paying him is??? yes a man of reform, good joke while I wake up today of 10 mosques of SHITTE have been demolished in one village only -what a reform- intermediate girls school are being attacked by riot police just because students refuse to kiss the photo of the so called KING and song in his love while their parents have been dismissed from work and their brothers and sisters are in torture prisons -what a reform-

    April 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  8. ALi Fadel

    This is rediculous and innacurate. I keep hearing about the Shii Sunni divide, but the only Shii nation in the world is Iran and everytime the shii show strength in the Arab world they get kicked down and the rest of the world legitimizes it. To this day as we see in Iraq... they are accused of being iranian agents and arab traitors. The Kalipha family has had plenty of opportunity to give rights the Shii, but they continue to crackdown privately and then open bars publicly to show they are progressive. Bahrain is the perfect nation for a democracy that can thrive. They are small, educated and were cohesive. I don't understand how cracking down on the Bahrainis is going to create calm and an environment for disscussion. CNN needs to report more on the violations in Bahrain and less on the Iran fear mongering. THere is a legitimate question whether bahrain being a shia nation will have a relationship with Iran, but calling them agents is rediculous. The GCC and the US need to think forward. Not backwards.

    April 19, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  9. Hammad

    What are they thinking?- from where to hire more mercenaries to kill more people.

    April 20, 2011 at 1:46 am | Reply
  10. NMM

    Disgraceful article.

    April 20, 2011 at 6:49 am | Reply
  11. C. Cantu

    Muslim monarchs and leaders -as opposed to European monarchs- have absolute power over their people. They own 100% of their countries' oil and natural resources. Caliphs, sultans, emirs can have hundreds of concubines while they only allow a maximum of 4 concubines to their subjects. Islam grants them "divine rights" to have always the last word on any kind of decision or dispute. Also, they can free or incarcerate their people at will without any one questioning their actions. Since prophet Mohammed, all these leaders have accumulated power and wealth, they've been throwing away scrap food from their table to their people in order to keep them calm and happy.

    April 20, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • mukaziz

      soo much lies, paucity of facts, hatred, ignominy all could be smelt from ur post

      April 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  12. joe

    What a joke . This is the first time I have ever written in anywhere. What a joke... Democracy for Libya, and Egypt, Syria, WHAT ABOUT BAHRAIN.... The Saudi and Bahrani security forces were attacking and arresting protesters in hostpitals, where is the human rights now, where is america and europe, what a joke.. they are being victimized because of their religion being Shia muslim , what a joke... where is CNN .. minute by minute , coverage ???
    Anderson put CNN on the ridiculous list - hypocrites

    April 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  13. MCR

    Bahrian and the Saudi's are playing the "Iran card" again. The "Pimp of Bahrain, doesn't want reform, if he did the would have started it a long time ago. Hopefully he will get what he deserves. Mr Sohnai is a "tool".

    April 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • Hyder Hussein

      I am originally from Iraq with an American citisenship; I am shitte, being a shitte Iraqi should be a passport to have unfavorable feelings toward Saudi Arabia just like you do. And if I didn't work and live in Saudi Arabia, I probably would've had the same opinion as you do, and I would have exonerated Iran from what's going on in the Gulf countries including in my counry Iraq. but the truth is Iran is behind all what's going in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because it is the Farisi long living greed in the Arabic countried to revive the old Persian Empire through using and abusing shitte Arabs. Who are you kidding to say Iran has nothing to do with it when their army general just a couple of days ago claimed that all gulf counries belong to Iran?!!! Give me a break!!!

      May 9, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Reply
      • Maryam Aljafen

        Hyder, if that is truly your name, you clearly have swallowed the propaganda of Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of people in Bahrain took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. The overwhelming numbers were protesting for more direct participation in government and society along the same lines of Tunisia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia, being one of the last absolute monarchies on the face of this planet, felt threatened that this was happening in their own backyard so they decided to crush the popular uprising in Bahrain. Your nonsense about this being an "Iranian plot" is laughable. Every autocratic regime in the Middle East has blamed a " foreign outsider" when popular sentiment grows. Hyder, do you not think it is possible that the people of Bahrain want to have a voice and say in their own government?

        May 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  14. Hyder Hussein

    Reading the comments made by readers, it is amazing how hard people work on believing what they want to believe. I
    lived worked and lived in Saudi Arabia for 27 years, and I can honestly say that unless you have gone through the same experience as I have, you have absolutley no right to critisize what you haven't lived or seen with your own eyes.
    I think the propoganda launched against Saudi Araiba has provided good materials for Saudi haters to feed their hatered toward this land of the most hospitable and wonderful country and people.

    May 9, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • Maryam Aljafen

      Everyone on the face of this planet has a right to criticize Saudi Arabia because there is mountains and mountains of evidence of Saudi Arabia's human rights violations and crimes. Saudi Arabia does not allow for any political dissent. Political assemblies are banned. Prisoners and dissidents are regularly tortured. Religious tolerance is nonexistent. There are hundreds of thousands of expats working in Saudi Arabia but yet no places of worship other than strict government sanctioned mosques are allowed to be built. Women rights are something of the middle ages. Women cannot even drive. How dare you right such an ignorant comment chastising others for criticizing a country that was built on subjugation and oppression.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Reply
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  16. infidelbob

    Not surprised CNN is selling PR as news. Just disappointed they used Fareed to do it through. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/04/cnn-business-state-sponsored-news

    September 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
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    September 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply

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