Syria causes ‘major shift’ in Saudi-US relations

Prince Saud al-Faisal yesterday arrived in London for a meeting of the 'London 11' collective of foreign ministers. Picture: Getty
Prince Saud al-Faisal yesterday arrived in London for a meeting of the 'London 11' collective of foreign ministers. Picture: Getty
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Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief has said the kingdom will make a “major shift” in relations with America in protest at its perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan has told European diplomats that Washington had failed to act effectively on the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when that state crushed an anti-government ­revolt in 2011, a Saudi government source said.

“The shift away from the US is a major one,” the source said. “Saudi doesn’t want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent.”

It was not immediately clear if Prince Bandar’s reported statements had the full backing of King Abdullah.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies since the modern kingdom was established in 1932, giving Riyadh a powerful military protector and Washington secure oil supplies.

The prince’s initiative follows a surprise Saudi decision last Friday to reject a coveted two-year term on the United Nations Security Council in protest against “double standards” at the UN.

Prince Bandar, who was Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years, is seen as a foreign policy hawk, especially on Iran. The Sunni Muslim kingdom’s rivalry with Shiite Iran, an ally of Syria, has amplified sectarian tensions across the Middle East.

A son of the late defence minister and crown prince, Prince Sultan, and a protégé of the late King Fahd, he fell from favour with King Abdullah after clashing on foreign policy in 2005.

But he was called in from the cold last year with a mandate to bring down president Bashar al-Assad, diplomats in the Gulf said. Over the past year he has led Saudi efforts to bring arms and other aid to Syrian rebels while his cousin, foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, worked the diplomatic corridors.

“Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the US,” the source continued. “This happens after the US failed to take any effective action on Syria and Palestine. Relations with the US have been deteriorating for a while.”

The source declined to provide more details of Prince Bandar’s talks with the diplomats, which took place in the past few days, but suggested the move would have wide-ranging consequences, including on arms purchases and oil sales.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, ploughs much of its earnings back into US assets. Most of the Saudi central bank’s net foreign assets, equivalent to about £425 billion, are thought to be denominated in dollars, much of them in US Treasury bonds.

Only last Friday, the Pentagon formally notified Congress of planned new arms sales worth $6.8bn (£4.2bn) to Riyadh.

The Saudi source said that there would be no further co-ordination with the US over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed and financed rebel groups fighting Mr Assad.

The kingdom has informed the US of its actions in Syria, and diplomats said it has respected US requests not to supply the groups with advanced weaponry that the West fears could fall into the hands of al Qaeda-aligned groups.

Saudi anger boiled over after Washington refrained from military strikes in response to a poison gas attack in Damascus in August when Mr Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned about signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, something Riyadh fears may lead to a “grand bargain” on the Iranian nuclear programme that would leave it at a disadvantage.

The UN Security Council has been paralysed over the 31-month-old Syria conflict, with permanent members Russia and China repeatedly blocking measures to condemn Mr Assad.

Saudi Arabia backs Mr Assad’s mostly Sunni rebel opponents. The Syrian leader – whose ­ruling Alawite sect is derived from ­Shiite Islam – currently has ­support from Iran and the armed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.