More than two months since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and the international pressure on the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salam (MBS) continues. The revelation that the operation was executed by a team with close ties to MBS has increased the questions on his political future and concerns on Saudi Arabia’s relations with USA and the rest of the world. Khashoggi’s case adds to Saudi Arabia’s inability to resolve the war in Yemen, its failure to isolate Qatar adding to the increasing influence of Iran and Turkey in the region. Will the King and the crown prince change their foreign policy priorities in the coming year? How will they mitigate the continuous challenges in almost all Middle Eastern countries?
KSA Foreign Policy Failures
The Saudi leadership is currently facing many challenges in the region. In Yemen, despite the military progress made by the Saudi-Emirati alliance in Hodeidah and other regions, the Houthis are still able to continue to threaten the Saudi land by launching ballistic missiles, hitting targets within Saudi Arabia, as well as forming a border threat to the Kingdom. The Zaydi militia is no closer to surrender than they were in 2015. Houthis were transformed into a new “Hezbollah” although they have not yet acquired the same capabilities as the Lebanese militia. In Lebanon, the Saudi influence declined after the parliamentary elections with the significant decrease in the Future Movement bloc led by Riyadh’s ally Saad al-Hariri. The parliamentarian losses came after Hariri’s resignation in a speech from Riyadh apparently under heavy pressure from the Saudis. Hezbollah benefited from the new proportional parliamentary law and supported an anti-Hariri Sunni parliamentary bloc. Based on the electoral results, the Shiite party pushed Hariri to admit the political presence of his Sunni rivals in Lebanon. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia has tried to reestablish its ties with various Shiite forces, such as the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Despite Riyadh’s success in restoring their relations with the Shiite forces, nevertheless the results of the parliamentary elections demonstrated again the strong Iranian influence in its neighboring country. On the military front, Iran has been able to legitimize and strengthen the state within the state represented by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) with its various Shiite militias. In Syria, KSA’s influence has decreased with the defeat of the opposition militias. Most of the militias in Idlib fall under the Turkish influence and have better relations with it and without any significant relation with the Kingdom. As for the areas under the Kurdish influence in northeastern Syria, reports indicated the Saudi and Emirati’s attempts to boost their power encouraged by the US. However, the US withdrawal from this region and the eagerness of Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Assad regime to benefit from any void left in this region, will limit a future Saudi role.
While the administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump has not signaled a break in the strongly personal ties it has forged with MBS, a resolution passed by the US Senate “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi” and “calls for the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure appropriate accountability for all those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.” The Senate resolution appears supported by the assessment leaked from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pointing to MBS as the likely responsible for the Saudi Consulate’s operation. Furthermore, U.S congress also started challenging some of the policies MBS has championed, particularly the war in Yemen. A joint resolution passed by the Senate directs the President to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen within 30 days unless Congress authorizes a later withdrawal date, issues a declaration of war, or specifically authorizes the use of the Armed Forces. The resolution prohibited activities including providing in-flight fueling for non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions as part of the conflict in Yemen. Although Trump is keen to keep his relations with KSA and MBS strong, the organized PR campaigns post Khashoggi’s killing had negatively affected the US-Saudi alliance and his relation with MBS. Even senior Republican Senators had started to raise concerns on MBS behavior, and Senator Graham stated that MBS “got to go”.
Positive signs by the Saudi leadership emerged after Khashoggi’s killing for a possible reconciliation with Qatar. However, Doha was able to overcome the Quartet siege and to strengthen its relations with both Turkey and Iran. In addition, the anti-Qatar quartet failed in its mission of forcing Qatar to accept its 13 demands, which included shutting down Al Jazeera and other media outlets said to be funded by Doha, and to cease support for various regional Islamist groups, ostensibly both Sunni and Shiite. Although KSA is aiming to unite the GCC under its political leadership, the developments in the region showed a serious division in the council. Kuwait and Oman made sure to maintain their foreign policy independence from KSA’s strategic vision regarding Iran, Yemeni war and the Qatari siege.
Saudi Arabia’s external challenges will surely affect the domestic situation in case the crown prince does not alter his policies. However, it is difficult to predict the Prince’s policies for the coming year, despite the clarity of the Kingdom’s challenges. His previous decisions and actions were unpredictable and unexpected to many policy makers.
Mutual initiatives between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates may be seen as a prelude to a future direct relation between the Sunni Kingdom and the Jewish state. Also, reports indicated that Mr. Saud Qahtani, as media adviser to Mohammad Bin Salman, issued directives to the Saudi press to help soften Israel’s image in the kingdom. Factors such as the United States leading from behind policy in the Middle East, the deteriorated relations between KSA and Turkey, adding Iran’s increasing military and political influence may push Riyadh and Tel Aviv to an open and direct relations. For MBS, Saudi Arabia needs a strong and a reliable ally with decisive actions toward its opponents. Saudi leaders share the Jewish state’s anti-Iranian and negative view on political Islam in the region. Additionally, Israel is the only country with a consistent record of standing up to its enemies using all the means including invading and militarily striking other neighboring states disregarding the international condemnation. Therefore, MBS can rely on the Israel military power to diminish the Iranian presence though its militias in Syria. The two countries can help each other in meeting their military challenges in Yemen and Syria and to reach an agreement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This relation can develop into a future economic partnership (trade and tourism) if leaders have the courage to take decisive steps in this direction. A surprising direct and open contacts between the two states will not be foreseen without Netanyahu’s victory in the coming Israeli parliamentary elections and in the absence of unpredictable leaders such as Mohammad Bin Salman and Donald Trump. Perhaps in the future, Bin Salman will publicly endorse the yet-to-be-published U.S. plan for Israel-Palestinian peace, and the world will witness a meeting between MBS and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. A Saudi step towards Israel will potentially help in improving its image to the West as a peace-seeking state building direct ties with “the only democratic state” in the Middle East and re-establish its relation with USA. However, Riyadh will deliver a precious gift to Tehran and Ankara in letting them solely champion the Palestinian cause, which is so dear to the heart of the people across Arab and Muslims worlds.
Reestablishing the Relation with Assad
After having its membership in the Arab League suspended in 2011 over its violent response to opposition dissent, Syria might be welcomed back among the Arab world’s leaders. Earlier in December, the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, became the first Arab leader to visit Syria in eight years, a visit widely interpreted as a gesture of friendship on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has shored up ties with Khartoum in recent years. Moreover, United Arab Emirates (UAE) reconstructed and reopened its embassy in Damascus recently. Also, the visit of Ali Mamlouk, head of the National Security apparatus in Syria and the strong man in Assad’s regime to Cairo in December, and his meeting there with the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, Major General Abbas Kamel, confirmed a clear openness to Bachar El Assad in the near future. Information revealed by Al Araby Al Jadeed newspaper indicated that Kamel transferred a Saudi letter to Bashar al-Assad on some arrangements for the next phase. Besides, a mysterious tweet by the US President stating that Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the money needed to help rebuild Syria instead of the United States opened the question of Riyadh’s future role in Syrian and its relations with Assad. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, re-embracing Syria is a new strategy aimed at pulling Assad away from Tehran’s sphere of influence, by normalizing trade relations, reconstruction money in addition to political and diplomatic openness toward Syria. This strategy will meet the Saudi-UAE developed relations with Russia- the main ally to Assad- as the dominant actor in Syria. In the eyes of the Gulf States, a positive relation with Moscow and reconsidering their stance toward Assad might diminish both the Iranian and the Islamists power in Syria.
The coming year will be crucial for Saudi Arabia to reactivate its role and change its negative image in the world. A sudden step in normalizing its relation with Israel could ease the Western pressure on the Kingdom and help it to balance power with Iran. However, this move poses risks to the kingdom’s image as a historical supporter for the Palestinian cause, which will negatively disturb its image in the Arab and Islamic world and affect its political relevance in Palestinian politics. In Syria, it is far-fetched to believe that Russia will be able to diminish the Iranian presence. Iran’s investment in Syria is way beyond simple political influence, it is a strategic ideologically driven endeavor that reversing or letting go of is a far-fetched illusion. Tehran was successfully able to infiltrate the military and political base of the Syria regime and practically controls most strategic actions of the regime leaving the details and the implementation for others. Even re-establishing relation between Saudi Arabia (and the Arab countries) and Assad will not be enough to sideline Iranian power. Saudi Arabia’s bet on a relation with Assad seems similar to the post-Taef agreement era in Lebanon and is not very realistic. Iran and Hezbollah became the main players in both Syria and Lebanon contrary to the years between 1990 and 2006 where the Syrian regime was the dominant actor in both countries.
A Change in Behavior
Therefore, it will be beneficial for Saudi Arabia to rethink of its previous policies and apply new ones for the coming year.
Firstly, KSA should benefit from the US willingness in keeping its military presence in Iraq. Strengthening its relation with Shia political actors in Iraq such as Muqtada El Sadr, Ammar El Hakim, Haidar El Abadi and the newly appointed Prime Minister is essential. In addition, the Saudis economic and financial support to Iraq can help the US efforts to lessen Baghdad’s dependence on Iran. Riyadh can play a role in the reconstruction of the Sunni regions, and support the Iraqi security forces.
Secondly, by increasing its humanitarian support to Yemen, Riyadh can change the US and the international players’ negative perception on its military intervention. Including Yemen in the Gulf Council will project its positive image toward the wellbeing of the Yemeni people.
Thirdly, keeping its stance toward Qatar and its superiority policies toward Kuwait and Oman are dividing more the GCC and enhancing the Iranian and Turkish influence in the Gulf. An inclusive strategy toward its neighboring countries will improve Riyadh’s role, and diminish the Iranian-Turkish influence in the Gulf.
Finally, a change in MBS’s approach domestically, regionally and internationally is a need for the success of KSA’s foreign policy. In the past years, the crown prince has successfully consolidated power in his own hands in a way that is unprecedented in recent Saudi history. Major decisions became much faster without waiting the slow consensus among the family’s leading members. Therefore, a change in MBS’ behavior as the sole decision maker will potentially improve the deteriorated relations with US, EU, GCC and the Middle Eastern countries. By taking actions such as releasing opposition prisoners, including senior royal family members in the decision making process (even for consultation), a positive approach toward Canada and finally a re-evaluation of the effectiveness of the Saudi PR team in the West are essential movements in this regard.
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