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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