Few doubt that had Donald Trump won a second term as US President, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman would have been unlikely to rush to secure a reconciliation with Doha, or open communication channels with Iran via Iraq. The public nature of Joe Biden’s antagonism, in which he promised to treat Mohammed Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state, and declared that Washington would secure justice for the brutally murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, caused panic in Riyadh.
To the dismay of his allies in Abu Dhabi and Cairo, Bin Salman rushed to lift the blockade on Qatar and embarked on an exuberant reconciliation in Al-Ula. The Crown Prince then moved to release imprisoned women’s rights activist Loujain al Hathloul who had been the subject of a high-profile international campaign. Furthermore, rather than resist Biden’s unfavorable policies in Yemen and Iran, Bin Salman opted instead to align with them. Riyadh has cooperated with the new US Envoy to Yemen, who was appointed in February, in order to oversee a political process. He has also opened channels of communication with Tehran via Baghdad to explore the promotion of bilateral ties.
Yet, while the Biden administration has had a significant impact on the impetus and vigor with which Saudi Arabia has altered course on a number of issues, the Saudi shift in foreign policy cannot entirely be attributed to the Biden administration. Such a notion is naïve and denies the significant agency of local dynamics in not only regional events, but also on US policy itself. Rather, the shift in Saudi Arabia’s policy has also been encouraged by a regional environment that today looks very different from that in 2011, a time which evoked a much more aggressive Saudi foreign policy. The fault lines in the region have increasingly moved away from those drawn during the Arab Spring, thereby providing Saudi Arabia with more options and greater room to maneuver.
The shift in Saudi Arabia’s policy has been encouraged by a regional environment that today looks very different from that in 2011.
Qatar has abandoned its grand ambition to deliver its Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in Egypt, and recognized President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government as “the legitimate authority in Egypt.” Qatar’s most powerful media outlet, Al Jazeera, is notably quieter on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as Doha seeks to expand ties with the two countries. Turkish President Receb Tayyeb Erdogan has taken down the figurative banner he raised in 2013 that attracted waves of Arab Spring advocates to Turkey, by suddenly shutting down Istanbul as a space for Egyptian opposition to pursue their activities. The Ennahda party is effectively on the ropes in Tunisia, while the most high-profile symbol of the Arab Spring – the democratically-elected former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – has already passed away in prison.
Adding to the regional shifts, the narrative on Syria has begun to move away from one of “revolution,” as Assad appears to have held onto his position, albeit with his power greatly diminished. Meanwhile, Yemen’s Arab Spring gains have been rendered obsolete as the country appears to be heading towards a US-brokered settlement that will either see the country split between a Houthi North and Separatist South, or an awkward unity government with no real authority.
Thus, where Saudi Arabia had once considered the Arab Spring (and by extension Qatar) an existential threat, this is no longer the case by any stretch of the imagination. In the context of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, this means that its interests with regional states are no longer determined by the Arab Spring dynamics, which now allows greater room for action in restoring old relationships, partnerships, and alliances.
There is no greater example of this in recent times than the visit of Oman’s Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq to Riyadh in early July, and the pronunciation of tensions between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Zayed.
Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq’s visit to Riyadh was the first by a Omani leader in over ten years. While tensions never became public during this extended period, there was an undeniable annoyance from Riyadh over Muscat’s insistence on neutrality in the issues of Yemen and the Qatar blockade. The late Sultan Qaboos refused to be drawn into the regional polarization. Even as Oman’s economy began to feel the impact of low oil prices, and was later ravaged by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, both Sultan Qaboos and his successor Sultan Haitham remained stubborn in upholding Oman’s neutrality. They resisted any external economic aid offered by their neighbors that had political strings attached.
With the Qatar blockade lifted, Doha and Riyadh improved bilateral ties, and a drive towards a political settlement in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is no longer interested in pressuring Oman to take up a partisan stance. Instead, the undercurrents have turned into one of cooperation on issues of mutual interest. To secure a political solution in Yemen, Riyadh needs to communicate effectively with the Houthis. Oman is the only Arab Gulf state capable of doing so by virtue of its consistent neutrality and ties with the group throughout the conflict.
To expand economic opportunities in Saudi Arabia and create an alternative to the volatile Hormuz Strait, Riyadh needs closer ties with Muscat as the inter-state highway that runs through the Empty Quarter is on the verge of completion. The road will cut travel time on land between the two nations by over 16 hours and offers the opportunity for Saudi companies to use Oman’s Duqm port to export to the world (thereby bypassing the Hormuz Strait).
In other words, Sultan Haitham was able to visit Riyadh in the spirit of true bilateral exchange without having to face any of the pressures that have been a hallmark of the Saudi-UAE alliance over the past decade.
Saudi Arabia gave up on the Syrian revolt against the Assad regime back in 2015. At the time, Saudi policy had become badly hampered by the internal strife over succession which saw the Syria file shift hands from Bandar Bin Sultan, then Mitab Bin Abdullah, then Mohamed Bin Nayef, and then finally Mohammed Bin Salman. In fact, Bin Salman is alleged to have U-turned Saudi support for the Syrian revolution, and ultimately invited the Russians to rescue the Assad regime before withdrawing entirely.
With Assad now increasingly assured of his position (though his power has been significantly weakened), Riyadh has begun to pursue a tentative reconciliation process geared towards rehabilitating Damascus back into the Arab fold. Bin Salman has spoken in more ethno-centric terms regarding Iran’s allies, suggesting a long-term vision to drive a wedge between Tehran and its allies by supplanting the sectarian bonds with ethno-centric commonalities, underpinned by financial incentives.
Saudi Arabia is becoming ever more convinced that the chaos in Lebanon cannot be resolved without the cooperation of Damascus.
More importantly, however, Saudi Arabia is becoming ever more convinced that the chaos in Lebanon cannot be resolved without the cooperation of Damascus. Riyadh has become increasingly frustrated at its inability to contain the alliance between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah that prevented Saudi-ally, former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (who stepped down on July 15), from forming a government in Lebanon. Even with the coordinated diplomatic efforts of Washington, Paris, and Riyadh over the last month to deliver Hariri’s government to power, the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance has doggedly dug its heels in.
Syrian officials have always asserted privately that Saudi interests can never be secured until Riyadh learns to work with Damascus. Syrian interests in Lebanon are not necessarily aligned with Iran, thus Riyadh is increasingly mulling the benefits of a reconciliation with Syria, which is currently only being prevented by a hesitant Washington.
Bin Salman is not the first Saudi leader to open talks with Iran. Numerous initiatives under King Abdullah took place, and former Iranian President Ali Rafsanjani was often viewed by Saudi officials as a friend.
However, the dynamics of the current Saudi engagement with Iran this time are very different from those that governed the initiatives of King Abdullah.
President Biden is set on securing a new nuclear deal with Iran regardless of the concerns of US allies in the region. The approach of Washington to the negotiations has been interpreted in the region as an offer by the US to recognize Iran’s foreign policy gains in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. From Riyadh’s perspective, the US has given up on seeking to contain Iran and is now seeking to establish a regional framework of cooperation that can only come at the expense of the other Gulf states.
Despite this, Saudi officials have become very much aware of the growing frustration in Washington at Tehran’s approach to the negotiations. Biden is keen not to be seen to be capitulating to Iran, and has avoided direct talks until he can be sure that public opinion will not see him as overseeing another US “defeat” in the region. Yet Iranian-backed militias continue to flex their military capabilities by targeting US bases, parading their forces publicly in Iraq, and asserting their power and influence over Baghdad.
It is in this context that Bin Salman has inadvertently found himself progressively relevant in Washington. Accordingly, President Biden has tempered the public antagonism of Riyadh. In a further display of warming relations, Bin Salman’s younger brother and Deputy Minister of Defense, Khaled Bin Salman, arrived in Washington in early July to meet senior US officials to discuss the security situation in the region—primarily Iran. Moreover, Biden has permitted an extension of the war in Yemen in order to prevent the Houthis from taking Ma’rib and force them to abandon their bid for autonomy in the North. The Biden administration is reportedly even considering intervening in the court case of former Saudi spymaster Saad al-Jabri, to prevent secrets being spilled. The case has been a source of much headache and concern for the Saudi Crown Prince.
The most important shift in Saudi foreign policy is in its relationship with the UAE. The pillars for the relationship in its current form emerged from the Arab Spring. The mutual desire to crush the Arab Spring, followed by the UAE’s support for Bin Salman’s rise to power, has underpinned the alliance and enabled it to survive any disagreements over policy.
However, with the fault lines in the region moving away from the Arab Spring, the foundations that buttress the alliance are no longer as firm as they once were. Biden is proving to be less antagonistic to Saudi Arabia than expected, while the UAE is beginning to face growing troubles over its lobbying practices in Washington. Hence, Saudi Arabia’s priorities have shifted. In Yemen, Oman’s utility for Saudi Arabia’s aims is increasingly more attractive than the UAE policy, which has undermined Riyadh’s original aim of preventing the Houthis from entrenching themselves in the northern provinces.
The UAE is becoming a greater rival as Riyadh frets over the lack of international appetite of businesses to set up in Saudi Arabia.
On Iran, Qatar and Oman are both primed to facilitate the dialogue that Bin Salman needs in order to navigate Washington’s negotiations with Tehran. On the economic front, the UAE is becoming a greater rival as Riyadh frets over the lack of international appetite of businesses to set up in Saudi Arabia and their preference instead to use Dubai as a base for wider Middle East operations. The UAE’s normalization of ties with Israel also threatens Bin Salman’s bid to render Saudi Arabia the region’s technology hub.
Riyadh is therefore beginning to act unilaterally on issues, which has disturbed UAE policymakers. This does not mean that the alliance is under any immediate threat. Still, there is a growing awareness in Abu Dhabi that there will need to be a re-formulation of the alliance. The latest spat over the OPEC deal laid bare the perceptions in Saudi Arabia that it still sees itself as the leader of the region, and the UAE as a junior partner. This has been emphatically rejected by the UAE which has sought to publicly flex its muscles in recent times to assert its interests at the expense of Riyadh.
However, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed’s visit to Riyadh in mid-July suggests that there are genuine concerns that Saudi Arabia no longer views the alliance with the UAE as integral to its foreign policy as the latter does. This, above all else, is perhaps the most significant development in Saudi foreign policy and has sweeping ramifications for the region.