Opinion: US dealing with new Saudi Arabia

    WORLD  10 June 2023 - 19:00

    Newsweek has published an opinion piece about the relations between the current Saudi leadership and the US. Caliber.Az reprints this article. 

    Nearly five years ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was in a world of hurt. The premeditated killing of Saudi journalist and former royal court insider Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, as deceptive as it was brutal, turned the oil-rich kingdom into an outcast in much of the West. Riyadh's attempt to cover up the crime did it no favours; while nothing was worse than the crime, Riyadh's reassurance to the world that nothing malicious happened in its Istanbul consulate quickly unravelled after the Turkish police leaked audio snippets of the killing.

    Fast-forward to today and MBS has emerged from the biggest crisis of his career relatively intact, minus a few bruises to his prestige. He has done this by making his country indispensable to some and useful to others. President Joe Biden, who not long ago vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state for its despicable human rights record, has essentially forgotten he even uttered those words. The US-Saudi relationship is back to business as usual and has been for quite some time—just this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to the kingdom for a meeting with MBS.

    Even MBS' critics have to hand it to him: He has played his cards well. The prince has accomplished this magic act in part by learning from his mistakes (albeit late), diversifying Saudi Arabia's foreign relationships, and gradually defrosting regional rivalries that were getting out of hand. Riyadh's reconciliation campaign with Iran, which culminated in the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers agreeing to re-establish normal diplomatic relations after a seven-year freeze (Tehran announced the re-opening of its embassy in Riyadh this week) is by far the most newsworthy of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic initiatives. But Riyadh's effective normalization with Syria's Bashar al-Assad was perhaps even more significant—it directly challenged Washington's long-established policy of isolating Damascus politically and economically until the Syrian government agreed to a political transition.

    On Syria, the Saudis have called Washington's bluff and gone their own way despite whatever concerns the Biden administration and members of Congress have. Icing Assad out, the Saudis argue, has only deepened Iranian entrenchment in the country and sped up the flow of illegal narcotics (like captagon) into the Saudi market. The US doesn't buy the argument, but the Saudis don't appear to care.

    MBS is also turning the kingdom into a diplomatic heavyweight (or more accurately, trying to). This includes dabbling in extra-regional diplomacy. Last May, the Saudis invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyto speak at the Arab League summit to provide his perspective on the state of the war. Three days later, the Saudis extended an invitation to Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, who is sanctioned by the US, UK, and the European Union.

    Last September, the Saudis helped facilitate a prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow and apparently had a hand in getting WNBA star Brittney Griner out of a Russian prison cell in December. While prisoner swaps can't be equated to peace negotiations, the Saudis are doing what they can to stay in the conversation, maintain productive relations with all sides, and demonstrate to the US that it can still be a valuable player.

    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leaders' Informal Dialogue with Guests event during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok on Nov. 18, 2022.

    The days when the US can count on Saudi Arabia to be its eyes and ears in the region are over. While there have always been difficulties in the US-Saudi relationship, there has also been an understanding in the minds of Saudi officials that Washington is an irreplaceable partner. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the immediate predecessor (and half-brother) of the current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, certainly had his problems with the US on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran (leaked US diplomatic cables even reported that King Abdullah urged the US to strike Iran's nuclear program in 2008), there was also a mutual respect that tended to override the issues that existed.

    One can't say the same thing about the present Saudi leadership, which prizes its independence, isn't afraid to throw its weight around, and doesn't believe it owes the US anything. Whereas previous Saudi royals may have leaned toward deference, MBS views deference as a sign of weakness. There are no favours anymore; if Washington wants assistance from Saudi Arabia, then the Saudis are going to use it as a leverage point to extract US concessions in return.

    The Biden administration's push for a Saudi-Israel normalization agreement is a case in point. Senior US national security officials not only view such an accord as a major diplomatic accomplishment, but a major foreign policy victory Biden could use as he gears up for a brutal 2024 re-election campaign. In the words of National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, "Ultimately getting to full normalization is a declared national security interest of the United States, we have been clear about that." The White House is aiming to achieve an accord between the Israelis and Saudis over the next six to seven months.

    MBS has expressed an interest in the move as well. The Saudis have made preliminary moves toward eventual normalisation; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have had a secret meeting with MBS in November 2020 (the Saudis denied a meeting took place), and in July 2022, the kingdom allowed Israeli civilian aircraft to fly through Saudi airspace en route to their destinations.

    The Saudis, however, also know that the Americans want a normalization accord more than they do, so Riyadh is conditioning its cooperation on US concessions such as security assurances and support for an indigenous Saudi uranium enrichment program. The message being sent: pay up.

    From Washington's vantage point, all of this is concerning. Maybe so. But it's a new reality the US needs to get used to.

    Caliber.Az

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