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Is Saudi Arabia foreign policy finally emerging out of the American mantle?

June 15, 2023 at 8:08 am

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R), US President Joe Biden (L) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022 [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency]

When Joe Biden was campaigning for president, he took every opportunity to rebuke Saudi Arabia for its human rights record. At one time, he even said that he would make the Kingdom a “pariah” if elected president. Before that, he said that, as president, he would “cancel the blank check” given to the Saudis by former President Donald Trump.

Once he became President, he tried to deliver on his pledges by first declassifying a US intelligence report implicating Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Three months after taking office, Mr. Biden imposed some visa restrictions on some Saudi officials wishing to visit the United States. He also suspended the sale of offensive arms to the Kingdom for its role in the war in Yemen—a war that was initially supported by the US.

2 years after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder MBS has nothing to be worried about – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Khashoggi’s murder was at the centre of unusual public fuss between the two old allies, before morphing into other political issues. The late journalist was murdered by Saudi agents in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, 2018.

However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Saudi Arabia became, again, an important US ally, as it has always been, because of its oil production among other factors. However, Riyadh is no longer the “yes” capital it used to be whenever Washington needs its help.

The Ukrainian war forced Mr. Biden to bow to the reality of politics and not only move to “rehabilitate” Saudi Arabia but also visit the oil rich Kingdom in August 2022. During the visit, the US President wanted to, first: shore up Saudi support for Ukraine against Russia and, two, force the Saudis to pump more oil to stabilise prices for US consumers in the wake of price hikes after the Russian invasion. He also campaigned, on behalf of Israel, by encouraging the Saudis and other Arab countries to join the Abraham Accords that normalised ties between apartheid Israel and four Arab countries. None of that worked, and he left the Kingdom empty-handed.

In October, the Saudis supported OPEC + decision to reduce oil production, instead of increasing it as the US wanted. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, reacted by saying that such a decision “would increase Russian revenues”, thus helping Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine, implicitly accusing Riyadh of supporting Moscow against Ukraine instead of supporting Kyiv, as Washington wished.

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Rejecting the US demand to increased oil production was seen as the first Saudi indication that Riyadh is seeking a more independent foreign policy, away from Washington. Usually the latter’s wishes and requests are granted without much debate, but not this time. Maybe the rebuff was the first ever public embarrassment for the US by one of its strongest and oldest allies in the Middle East.

Then, in March this year came another stronger indication that the Saudis and, indeed, the entire region, is no longer Washington’s backyard in which the US policy is not only accommodated but supported, for good or bad: Beijing, a US foe and increasingly regional competitor, brokered an agreement between Tehran and Riyadh to normalise ties, after years of animosity. The White House National Security spokesman, John Kirby, claimed that the White House was regularly updated about the Beijing negotiations. He said Washington supports any “effort to de-escalate tensions in the region”, before adding that it is in the US’s interests to have Tehran and Riyadh restoring ties. Unashamedly, Mr. Kirby went on to claim that the US administration “worked” through its own “effective combination of deterrence and diplomacy” to help Iran and Saudi restore relations. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as Mr. Kirby seemed to have forgotten that his President, in August 2022, was in Saudi Arabia pushing the Saudis and others to form some kind of anti-Iran coalition.

In May, this year, in an unusual Saudi regional diplomatic surge, Saudi diplomacy led other Arab countries, to convince the Arab League to reinstate Syria into its seat in the grouping. Not only that, but on 19 of the same month, Saudi Crown Prince, Bin Salman, warmly welcomed President Bashar Al-Assad in Jeddah to attend the Arab League summit for the first time in over a decade.

Washington disapproved any normalising between Syria and the Arab countries. Mr. Blinken said the US “does not support” other countries “normalising” with Syria as long as the US itself does not do so! This Saudi diplomatic manoeuvre might not have surprised some capitals, including Washington, but it certainly is a strong sign that the Saudis are no longer an American satellite when it comes to certain issues.

In yet another departure from the usual smooth, behind-the-scenes Saudi-US discussions, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, at an 8 June press conference in Riyadh, openly disagreed with Secretary Blinken, while sitting next to him, over normalisation with Israel. Responding to his comments that normalisation with Israel would benefit the entire region, the Prince said that normalisation “without achieving a two-state solution will only bring limited benefits”.

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This is the first time a Saudi position is clarified over the normalisation issue. Since the Abraham Accords were signed in the summer of 2020, the Saudis have either avoided the topic or dodged any questions about it, keeping observers guessing about what Riyadh will do.

Crown Prince Bin Salman’s drive to modernise the Kingdom seems to include charting a new, more independent foreign policy in which national interests of the State take priority over old ties built in a different age and completely different world. While oil will always be a dominant factor in Saudi foreign policy, using it as a weapon is now an important consideration for Riyadh.

Steering Saudi Arabia towards new more active foreign policy, however, will require redefining its national and regional priorities based on evolving new world realities. No one is expecting Riyadh to break its old bonds with Washington, but Riyadh is likely to be more independent. The Saudis are certainly taking steps to emerge from the shadows of the US, at least regionally. This is likely to take time, but the process has already been started.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.