Back off, Saudi king warns Obama

SAUDI Arabia has warned Barack Obama not to push for swift regime change in Egypt, vowing to bankroll President Hosni Mubarak if the White House cuts aid to Cairo.

In a testy telephone call on January 29, King Abdullah told the US President not to humiliate Mr Mubarak and said the Egyptian leader should be allowed to stay on to oversee the transition towards democracy and then to leave with dignity, The Times of London reported yesterday.

King Abdullah threatened to step in with funding for Egypt if the US withdrew its $US1.5 billion ($1.47bn) a year aid program.

“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 Egyptians 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, according to The Times. It said the tough line from Riyadh was driven by concern that Western governments were too eager to shove aside Mr Mubarak, 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.

Riyadh’s intervention seriously undermines the US leverage in the Egyptian crisis.

The White House declined to comment on the revelations by The Times yesterday, but warned Egypt’s leaders to expect unrelenting protests unless they began real reforms and a transition to a freer society. Government concessions offered so far did not meet even the minimum threshold of what the people wanted, the White House said.

Obama administration officials were increasingly blunt in describing the limits of their leverage. The US was not seeking to dictate events in Egypt – and could not. “We’re not going to be able to force them to do anything,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. Mr Gibbs and other officials called on Egypt’s leaders to end the harassment of activists, to broaden negotiations with opposition leaders, to lift a repressive emergency law, and to take up a series of other moves the Obama government has requested for days.

Mr Obama reinforced that message yesterday. In a phone conversation with the Saudi king, he emphasised the need for “immediate steps towards an orderly transition that is meaningful, lasting, legitimate and responsive”, the White House said.

Thousands of state workers joined strikes and protests around the country yesterday, despite warnings from Vice-President Omar Suleiman that they won’t be tolerated much longer.

Calling on labour unions to join it, Egypt’s opposition movement extended its protest to new ground outside parliament, blocking the street and access to other government buildings and forcing cabinet ministers to move a meeting ahead of a mass protest tonight.

Mr Gibbs suggested that some Egyptian leaders thought they could wait out the protesters by offering up some concessions and assuming “life will return to normal” after years of repression.

“I think that’s largely been answered by a greater number of people, representing a greater cross-section of Egyptian society, who have come out,” he said.

“Those are not likely to dissipate until the government takes some genuine steps.”

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