Saudi Arabia has threatened to prop up President Mubarak if the White House tries to force a swift change of regime in Egypt.
In a testy personal telephone call on January 29, King Abdullah told President Obama not to humiliate Mr Mubarak and warned that he would step in to bankroll Egypt if the US withdrew its aid programme, worth $1.5 billion annually.
America’s closest ally in the Gulf made clear that the Egyptian President must be allowed to stay on to oversee the transition towards peaceful democracy and then leave with dignity.
“Mubarak and King Abdullah are not just allies, they are close friends, and the King is not about to see his friend cast aside and humiliated,” a senior source in the Saudi capital told The Times.
Two sources confirmed details of the King’s call, made four days after the people of Egypt took to the streets. The revelation of Saudi concerns sheds new light on America’s apparent diplomatic paralysis and lays bare the biggest rift between the nations since the oil price shock of 1973.
The tough line from Riyadh is driven by concern that Western governments were too eager to shove aside Mr Mubarak when the uprising began, without proper consideration of what should follow him.
“With Egypt in chaos, the kingdom is Washington’s only major ally left in the Arab world and the Saudis want the Americans to remember that,” said a source in Riyadh.
Egypt is the fourth-highest recipient of American aid after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, with most of the money going to the Armed Forces. Slashing this was seen as a key weapon in Washington’s armoury should it wish to force Mr Mubarak from office, but Riyadh’s intervention seriously undermines America’s leverage.
The White House declined to comment yesterday, saying that the Administration did not divulge what other leaders said to Mr Obama. The King is in Morocco, recuperating from surgery on his back late last year in New York. Behind the scenes, however, the octogenarian monarch has been sticking his neck out for his longstanding friend in Cairo — the pair are believed to be speaking daily.
Immediately after his phone call with Mr Obama, the King issued a statement of support for Mr Mubarak, blaming “intruders” for meddling in Egypt’s security “in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred”.
Riyadh is feeling increasingly hemmed in by Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. The expulsion of the Mubarak regime would not only remove a key Saudi and American ally in the region but a major bulwark against Iranian expansionism. “[The uprising] is a very dangerous phenomenon. If we encourage it, anything could happen. Iran or al-Qaeda might take advantage,” said a Saudi official.
The inconsistent messages from American politicians since the crisis in Egypt began have also irritated the kingdom. “There is certainly quite strong disagreement with the Americans on the messaging. They can understand why Western countries have taken the positions they have, but they are not convinced it’s been thought through. They see the Americans as abandoning long-term allies,” said a Western analyst in Riyadh.
Behind the scenes, the Saudi leadership has been urging Mr Mubarak for some time to begin the process of reform and was dismayed that last year’s parliamentary elections were so blatantly rigged. Many Saudi citizens express private admiration for the courage of the protesters in Tahrir Square.
In the interests of stability, however, the kingdom has insisted that Washington should deal with Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian Vice-President, and not undermine him. The signs are that Washington has heeded the appeals for caution from Riyadh and elsewhere. The Administration, which appeared ready last week to sever America’s 30-year alliance with Mr Mubarak, is now placing greater emphasis on stability in its public statements, while keeping up pressure on Mr Suleiman to push ahead with reforms.
The White House expressed frustration last night with the “lack of steps” Cairo has taken to meet protesters’ demands. “It is clear that what the Government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt,” said Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s spokesman.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, accused the US of “imposing on a great country like Egypt”, and brushed aside American calls for more freedom as “unhelpful”.
1902 The al-Saud family returns from exile and takes control of Riyadh
1938 After oil is discovered, production begins under the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco)
1960 Saudi Arabia becomes a founding member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec)
1973 War between Israel and its Arab neighbours leads Saudi Arabia to organise an oil boycott that destabilises the American economy
1980 Saudi Arabia seizes full control of Aramco
1990-91 Iraq invades Kuwait. The US is allowed to mount a counterattack from the peninsula and troops remain in Saudi Arabia afterwards
2001 Al-Qaeda terrorists, including 15 from Saudi Arabia, carry out the 9/11 attacks
2003 The US announces its military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia
2003-05 There are several suicide attacks on residential compounds for Westerners
2010 The US announces a $60bn (£37bn) arms deal with Saudi Arabia
Source: BBC, Times research
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