States' policies change when their leaders change or when their circumstances change or when their policies reach a dead end. All of this has happened to the Saudi foreign policy. Therefore, it is only logical to expect some change along this front. However, the question is where, how and when?
The road leading to a dead end in the collapsing Arab east was not entered by Saudi policy alone. It was also ventured through by the US foreign policy. Therefore, it would seem futile to talk about differences between the two countries on how to deal with events in the region. Yet, we have not seen or heard last Tuesday's disagreements when US President Barak Obama arrived in Riyadh on top of a high level delegation that was not confined to his cabinet members. Obama brought with him all the friends and Saudi Arabia as well as his Republican foes on an extraordinary mission to offer condolences for the death of the late Saudi monarch King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz and to reinvigorate the close strategic ties on the eve of a new era under the authority of the country's new monarch King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz. The president held a long working session with the leading officials of the new Saudi leadership, which brought together, for the first time, three generations: the generation of the founders (the King), the generation of the transitional period (Crown Prince Migrin) and the future generation (the Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif).
It is clear that Obama together with the rest of the world deals with Saudi Arabia as a constant in changing, and even collapsing, world. However, this is the only reality agreed upon and then it becomes misty when the following question is raised: How do we arrest the collapse of the Arab East?
This question must have been present during the meeting of the two leaders. However, we do not know what is the first measure with which the process of arresting the collapse will begin. Will it be the war on ISIL? Or will it be stopping the war in Syria? Or will it be something in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's backyard? The arguments about these issues, as well as other issues, should conclude with an obvious fact, namely that the previous policies, whether Saudi or American, have failed to stop the collapse. There are in the meantime other Arab countries that are about to join the list of failing states. This necessitates searching for and developing a new policy. Yet, this cannot be achieved without acknowledging that the cooperation and coordination among the three states capable of arresting this collapse has not been good. At times it was not even existent. At times there was some repulsion and dissension among them. These states are Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States of America. The latter, although not a regional power, it is powerfully present by virtue of its military bases, its fleets, its influence, its concerns and its interests. The lack of communication among these states led to a tension in their relations, all of them. For instance, the Saudi – US mutual understanding was not at its best when it came to interpreting the Arab Spring and its repercussions. The same would apply to that between Riyadh and Ankara as well as to that between Ankara and Washington. The outcome has been what we all see and are all living through.
Saudi Arabia should return to the policy of inclusivity that distinguished it during past decades and through which it succeeded in resolving more than just one crisis. The best illustration of this policy is the Taif Agreement of 1989, which ended the Lebanese civil war. What happened actually is that Saudi calm diplomacy brought together all the Lebanese factions, including its own friends and the friends of others. Even those who had abused Saudi Arabia were invited. They were all left to negotiate freely in that mountain resort city known for its temperate climate. The minister of foreign affairs Prince Saud Al-Faysal and the head of intelligence at the time Prince Turki Al-Faysal only intervened when necessary to remove hurdles and propose middle ground solutions away from the watch of the media. Eventually, they succeeded in accomplishing peace and Lebanon continues to live in its shade despite the war in Syria and the encroachment by Hezbollah.
As for the United States, it needs to restore the Arab east to its list of priorities. What actually led to the expansion of ISIL and its transformation from a mere terrorist organisation into a state has been the US reluctance to intervene in Syria and to bring down a regime it has more than once described as having lost it legitimacy as well as its hasty withdrawal from Iraq leaving it under the mercy of a sectarian prime minister who managed to shred it while Iran continues to roam freely throughout the country. Obama has gone too far in his policy of retreat from the "Bush wars" initiated by his predecessor. Consequently, Obama withdrew his troops from Iraq and Afghanistan without putting in place alternative plans and has pledged not to get embroiled in any new conflicts. However, he is today required, even internationally, to go back there. The threat of terrorism has intensified and has surpassed the Arab east to Europe and the rest of the world. The old rule states that ignoring a problem will not resolve it but will make it worse.
Turkey needs to view its strategic relations with Saudi Arabia as being more important than merely standing by the Muslim Brotherhood current. The collapse is much bigger than a mere loss of a party that is aligned with the power to be; it is the collapse of neighbouring states. It is no longer a secret that the deluge of this collapse is already crossing into Turkey itself in the form of violence and internal dissent.
If, as stated by Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faysal in the Security and Peace Conference in Paris last September, the war on ISIL will take ten years, how long will rebuilding the collapsing Arab world take? Perhaps ten more years? Or perhaps even longer? There are no good news out there. Even the recent, globally celebrated, victories achieved by the Iraqi army and the "popular mobilisation" militias as well as the Yazidi militias in Dyali and Sinjar in the fight against ISIL were marred by extreme violence and liquidations exacted against Sunni civilians and saw the rape of women. This a vicious cycle of violence and hatred that is not confined only to ISIL. It is a cancerous growth that has been spreading and may take many years to eradicate and could lead to the fragmentation of Iraq.
How will the war in Syria end after all those involved have hit a brick wall at a dead end? Yemen is important by virtue of its proximity to Saudi Arabia and is about to slide into the hell of a devastating civil war. The same is with Libya that is already embroiled in a civil war. Even Egypt is in a mess and there seems to be no good news from their either. In fact, shielding the Egyptian regime from criticism and accountability has given it a free hand to encroach on liberties. The fall of scores of Egyptians who are slain on daily basis on the streets of Cairo and other cities under the pretext of maintaining law and order has become routine. This has definitely deepened the division and the polarisation and has made the aspired national reconciliation more difficult and more distant. This is certainly not what Saudi Arabia wishes nor what the United States of America desires for the future of this important country.
There is no magic solution to any of these issues. We should even expect the worst and expect that they will be with us, with all their complexities and pains, for many decades to come. We need an inclusive rather than an exclusive policy. We need to uphold the values of human rights and encourage participation. An arms embargo imposed on all parties would be a good idea. And finally, we need a joint Saudi – US – Turkish operations room whose main task would be to extinguish fires and seek reconciliation as well as all the other above mentioned desired outcomes.
Jamal Khashogji is a Saudi journalist and writer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.