Simon Henderson writes:
It’s hard to imagine a more disastrous year for Saudi foreign policy. In January, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled from riotous mobs to exile in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. Now the new regime in Tunis wants him back to put him on trial. In February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi ally, was forced from office. In the space of days, Washington went from words of support for Mubarak to saying it was time to go. Then in March, after Bahrain looked as if it may concede the principle of a government ruled through the will of the people, Saudi riot-control forces backed by tanks poured across the causeway to the island.
In Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals, princes and sheikhs were left wondering how solid U.S. support would be for them. Last month, they got their answer, when President Barack Obama slammed Bahrain for its handling of demonstrations in his major May 19 foreign-policy address on the Middle East. To emphasize the point, when the island kingdom’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, visited Washington this month, his meeting with Obama was reduced to a “drop-by,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t extend the courtesy of a joint press conference after their meeting.
Even Saudi dominance of international oil markets, by virtue of the country’s leadership within OPEC, is under threat. Last week’s gathering of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna ended in discord, with Saudi representative Ali al-Naimi describing it as “one of the worst meetings we have ever had.” Naimi had, a little late perhaps, been leading a ploy to increase production quotas in order to ease high oil prices, which have been threatening the world’s economic recovery. But Iran led a bloc of OPEC members that disagreed, preferring high revenues. It’s not clear who has whom over a barrel — but the Saudi response is predicted to be a unilateral increase in production. This might help U.S. gas prices, but it means that Saudi Arabia will “go it alone” instead of exhibiting world energy leadership.