- MbS sends reminder to US on who is calling the shots in the region
- Mbs a player Washington can neither ignore nor disavow
- It forges bonds with other powers, reshapes relations with enemies
- It reaffirms Saudi’s place as an energy giant in an oil-dependent world
May 24 (Reuters) – Once branded a pariah, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took center stage as master of ceremonies last week when Arab states readmitted Syria to the Arab League, signaling to Washington who calls the regional hits.
His effusive greeting of President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab summit with kissed cheeks and a warm embrace defied US disapproval of Syria’s return to the fold and capped a reversal of the prince’s fortunes spurred by geopolitical realities .
The prince, known as MbS, is seeking to reassert Saudi Arabia as a regional power by using his place atop an energy giant in a world dependent on oil consumed by war in Ukraine.
Shunned by Western states after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi squad, the prince has now become an actor that Washington can neither ignore nor disavow, but must deal with on a transactional basis.
Skeptical of US promises on Saudi security and tired of his reprimanding tone, MbS instead builds ties with other world powers and, regardless of Washington’s dismay, rebuilds relations with their common enemies.
His playful confidence on the world stage was not only visible in his reception of Assad. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy came to the Jeddah meeting and MbS offered to mediate between Kyiv and fellow oil producer Moscow.
Admittedly, Saudi Arabia is still militarily dependent on the United States, which saved it from a possible invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, monitors Iranian military activity in the Gulf and provides Riyadh with most of his weapons.
Yet with Washington seemingly less engaged in the Middle East and less receptive to Riyadh’s concerns, MbS pursues its own regional policy with less apparent deference to the views of its most powerful ally.
“It’s a strong signal to America that ‘we are reshaping and reshaping our relationship without you,'” Abdulaziz al-Sager, president of the Gulf Research Center, said of the summit.
“He doesn’t get what he wants from the other side,” Sager added, saying Saudi Arabia’s deals with regional enemies were based on Riyadh’s approach to regional security.
MbS’s position was strengthened last year when Western economies looked to Saudi Arabia to help tame an oil market destabilized by war in Ukraine. This created the opportunity for MbS to launch a diplomatic offensive that included high profile appearances at the top.
This effort was aided when Washington declared MbS immune from prosecution for Khashoggi’s murder, despite being directly implicated in it by US intelligence.
A visit by US President Joe Biden last July had already demonstrated the return of Riyadh’s influence: the US leader left empty-handed while the prince enjoyed a public display of US commitment to Saudi security.
The Saudi pivot of reliance on the United States was meanwhile evident when China brokered a settlement between Riyadh and its regional foe Iran this year, after years of hostility.
The deal was not struck from a position of Saudi strength: Iran’s allies had emerged stronger than the kingdom’s in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and held most of the populated territory from Yemen.
Still, it showed Riyadh was able to cut its losses and work with US rivals and enemies to shore up regional interests, such as cooling the war in Yemen where Saudi forces have been bogged down since 2015.
In the meantime, the prince has improved relations with Turkey and ended a boycott of Qatar, a neighbor he planned to invade in 2017 according to diplomats and officials in Doha.
“Over the past three years, the hatchet has been buried and relations have been mended,” Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
A Gulf official says the new, more directly transactional relationship with the United States has replaced the old oil-for-defense model due to what Riyadh saw as a more fragile security umbrella after the 2011 Arab uprisings. .
A senior State Department official said the relationship is “an important eight-decade relationship that spans generations, between the administrations of our own country and between the leaders of Saudi Arabia.”
“We have multiple interests when it comes to our relationship with Saudi Arabia…Our policy and our engagement will be aimed at ensuring that our relationship remains strong and capable of meeting our common challenges in the future.”
Riyadh believed Washington had abandoned old allies during the revolts and might abandon the Al Saud dynasty as well. At the same time, he believed that the United States’ pursuit of a nuclear deal with Tehran had led Washington to ignore growing activity in the region by Iranian proxies seen by Riyadh as a threat.
This impression is reinforced. A Saudi source close to the ruling inner circle pointed to what he saw as lax enforcement of sanctions against Iran and a pullout in Syria, where a small US contingent has denied territory to Iran’s allies.
“I think the countries in the region, accordingly, will do what is best for them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Riyadh was unhappy that the United States withdrew its support for Saudi operations in Yemen, launched after Washington repeatedly urged the kingdom to take responsibility for its own security.
Without direct US intervention or support for its own military efforts, Riyadh had no choice but to strike a deal with Iran even if it irked Washington, the source said.
“It is a consequence of American action,” he added.
Each side has a list of demands the other is unwilling to grant, the Gulf official said.
However, both parties may have no choice but to put aside their grudges.
The kingdom may view the US security umbrella as weakened, but still sees it as crucial to Saudi defense. Western states meanwhile have been reminded that Riyadh’s influence in a volatile oil market is forcing them to banish their scruples and deal with its de facto ruler and future king.
Written by Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Angus McDowall
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