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Saudi Arabia is strengthening its leadership role in the Middle East

September 26, 2023 at 3:19 pm

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022 [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency]

The rise of Saudi Arabia in various Gulf, Arab, regional and international issues cannot be overlooked. The Kingdom has imposed itself as an influential player in regional reconciliations, and in the transition from confrontations and cold wars, especially with Iran and its proxies from Yemen to Iraq and from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Stability and sustainable development are the priority to achieve the aims of Riyadh’s Vision 2030. It is doing this by reducing dependence on petrochemical revenues, diversifying sources of income and transforming Saudi Arabia into a centre for finance and investment, as well as religious, cultural and sports tourism. It has targeted sport and entertainment stars and hosts major sporting events; the ambition is to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

READ: Saudi crown prince: I do not care about ‘sportswashing’ claims

What helps the Saudis to do all of this is having the largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa, which has exceeded $1 trillion for the first time. It has the biggest budget as the world’s largest oil exporting country, and is a member of the G20 that includes the world’s largest economies. Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Egypt, has joined the BRICS group of the largest emerging economies, which provides a convincing and attractive alternative led by China and Russia that challenges the influence of the West and its financial and economic institutions.

Bin Salman conducted the interview entirely in English… so that the message would get through… that the future ruling generation in Saudi Arabia is openminded and informed

When Fox News, the most followed American channel with right-wing tendencies that are close to the Republican Party, interviewed de facto Saudi head of state Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman a few days ago, it was a unique and important event given the interviewer’s boldness and coverage of many important issues. The interview received widespread coverage and analysis, internationally and regionally, despite the fact that it was not broadcast live. Bin Salman conducted the interview entirely in English for the first time, so that the message would get through to the US and Western public that the future ruling generation in Saudi Arabia is openminded and informed. This is the image of Saudi Arabia and its new path.

The radical shift in Saudi Arabia’s approaches to resolving problems and overcoming regional crises began in January 2021, with its leadership of the Gulf reconciliation which ended the blockade of Qatar by the Kingdom, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. It was followed by a truce in Yemen and reconciliation with Iran brokered by China. The crown prince’s wish is to transform the Middle East into a stable region to achieve sustainable development.

READ: Timeline: Arab rift with Qatar

When China announced the restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year, it brought an end to seven years of confrontation and cold war. This sent a clear message to the US that Saudi Arabia has other options and alternative allies. It also prompted Riyadh to demand that, as conditions for normalisation with Israel, Washington must include a defence agreement with Saudi Arabia that is binding on the US, as well as US support for a peaceful nuclear programme and extensive Israeli concessions for the Palestinians.

Over the past two weeks, leaks and comments have confirmed this. US President Joe Biden has more or less said as much, as has US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that, “I believe we’re on the cusp of a more dramatic breakthrough: A historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” He added his belief that Israel can achieve peace with Saudi Arabia “with the leadership of President Biden.” Likewise, Bin Salman told Fox News, “Every day we get closer to normalising relations with Israel.” This, he said, will be the “biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.” The Palestinians will get a “decent life.”

OPINION: Saudi-Israel normalisation seeks the complete surrender of the Palestinians

All of this is going ahead with the support and blessing of the Biden administration. It was Saudi Arabia, remember, which authored the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League at its summit in Beirut. There will still be major and complex challenges, though.

Saudi Arabia has established its position by hosting Gulf, Arab and international summits; returning Syria to its seat in the Arab League at the summit in Jeddah in May; hosting the Chinese president in Riyadh; recent Gulf summits from Al-Ula to Riyadh and Jeddah; and breaking the stalemate with Turkiye. Moreover, Biden visited the Kingdom in the summer last year, despite vowing after the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state. Biden also met Bin Salman on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India recently.

Saudi Arabia has — unofficially — succeeded in marathon negotiations to stop the war in Yemen, agreeing with the Houthis a truce since last October. A major breakthrough was to host a Houthi delegation in Riyadh for negotiations about a permanent ceasefire. This was the first time such a meeting had taken place since the Saudi intervention in Yemen in March 2015.

OPINION: Saudi Arabia does not care about Palestine of Jerusalem; it cares about Israel

The Saudis remain a major balancing player in energy security and share with Russia the leadership of the OPEC+ group, made up of 23 countries, including OPEC members and 10 non-OPEC countries led by Russia. In defiance of the West and the demands of the Biden administration last autumn to increase oil production, the group refused. Instead, it did the opposite. By reducing oil production by 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, Saudi Arabia and Russia forced the US, Brazil and Iran to increase their oil production. There remains high demand for energy in China and continued growth in the US economy, which led to an increase in oil prices by about 40 per cent, reaching around $95 per barrel since June 2023 to balance the energy markets.

Taken together, all of these factors establish and strengthen the role and position of Saudi Arabia as an influential player and leader in the Middle East region.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 24 September 2023

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