Global Politics

What Wikileaks reveals about Saudi Arabia

When Wikileaks released a huge tranche of US diplomatic cables recently, the behind-the scenes machinations of one country in particular caused some headlines. That's Saudi Arabia. But, long-term Saudi watchers caution against reading the cables on their own. The World's Alex Gallafent reports.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

When Wikileaks released a huge tranche of US diplomatic cables recently, the behind-the-scenes machinations of one country in particular caused some headlines.

That's Saudi Arabia.

If you read only the attention-grabbing cables mentioning Saudi Arabia, you might be left with some pretty shocking conclusions.

In 2008, for instance, US diplomats wrote that the Saudi foreign minister was calling for the creation of an Arab Force, a security operation to be deployed in and around Beirut, Lebanon.

The same year, another Saudi told Americans that King Abdullah wanted the United States to cut off the head of the snake � meaning take action against Iran and its nuclear program. Another Saudi also warned that the Kingdom � and others in the Middle East � would likely seek nuclear capabilities were Iran not stopped.

Heady stuff.

�You can't just read the cables and just make conclusions based on those limited conversations,� said Thomas Lippman, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He doesn't believe the Saudis were really inviting the US to take military action against Iran, or really laying out their policy on nuclear weapons. Lippman said the Saudis know that both would destabilize the region.

�What the cables show is a pattern in which Abdullah was ratcheting up the rhetoric in order to try and light a fire under the Americans about something that he needed to be dealt with with greater urgency,� Lippman said. �And other officials in the kingdom are shown in the cables to have taken much more cautious and pragmatic approaches.�

Working the angles in secret, prodding the American partners here, persuading them there � that kind of diplomatic method is exactly what Lippman expected to see.

�That's always been the Saudis' way,� Lippman said. �The Saudis preferred weapons have always been cash and diplomacy and cajolery.�

In recent years those diplomatic weapons have been trained on one principal problem: Iran.

�When they look around the region they see Iranians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Yemen,� said Rachel Bronson, vice president, programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. �Everywhere around their border they see Iran and they're very concerned about it.�

That explains the Arab Force idea, too � the Saudis wanted to disrupt the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But Bronson says the leaked cables show that Saudi Arabia's real diplomacy regarding Iran isn't to be found in fanciful notions about pan-Arab military intervention. You'll find the true action where it's always been in the Kingdom: in its vast reserves of oil.

Oil gives Saudi Arabia leverage � and it's now being used to persuade another player besides the United States to put pressure on Iran. That's China.

In recent years the Chinese have relied heavily on oil from Iran, making them unlikely to, for instance, support sanctions against the country. Bronson said the leaked cables show Saudi Arabia attempting to change that equation.

�As the Saudis build up their exports to China, they can go to the Chinese and say don't worry about the Iranians cutting off oil,� she said. �We can make that up. They need to build up a strong enough relationship that the Chinese will believe them.�

It amounts to a quid pro quo � we guarantee your supply of oil, you help us rein in Iran. A simple idea � and according to a series of leaked cables from last year � an American one.

Thomas Lippman at the Council on Foreign Relations adds that if the Saudis sell some more oil its good business for them too.

�They've financed the construction of refineries in China to process the sour crude oil that other refiners don't want and they need to sell,� he said. �They're happy to give guaranteed supply contracts to China because they see China as the future of their only commodity.�

Rachel Bronson said the Saudis and the Iranians are engaged in a battle over market share for direct political objectives. She calculates that the Saudis need only $75 per barrel of oil to be profitable � maybe a little less even. Iran needs $90 per barrel. The space between is where Saudi Arabia is playing its geopolitical game.

�They're very comfortable with $75,� Bronson said. �If they keep it at $75 and they can keep it below $90 the Iranians hurt.�

That would likely be just fine by the United States.