By Na'eem Jeenah
The dramatic news out of Saudi Arabia over the past week, including stories of arrests of members of the royal family, assassinations, purges and torture are not entirely a domestic matter. There is most certainly an international dimension to it, as evidenced by the coerced resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, Saudi threats against Lebanon and Iran, and the Saudi call for its citizens to leave Lebanon. That international dimension, it is becoming clearer, also includes the USA and Israel.
Soon after Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is often referred to), the king’s son and now crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was appointed deputy crown prince, he began ingratiating himself to the US Trump administration – with the assistance of the UAE, and is now close friends with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who was briefed about last weekend’s crackdown a week before when he saw MBS on a ‘personal visit’ to Saudi Arabia. There are numerous reasons why MBS would want the kingdom and the US to strengthen relations that had frayed over the US approach to the 2011 uprisings in North Africa, and particularly, their lack of support – from the Saudi view – for Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. One of those reasons is the common hatred of Iran that both MBS and Trump have. Both administrations are bitterly unhappy about the Iran nuclear deal (which the US signed onto during the Obama administration).
In this, MBS has also made common cause with Israel. And that has led to a developing relationship between the Saudis and Israelis. It was recently reported that the Saudi crown prince visited Israel on a secret but official trip, an unprecedented occurrence. And, less than a day after MBS arrested dozens of potential rivals in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli foreign ministry sent a cable to its foreign missions asking them to piggyback on the Saudi repressive actions in order to ramp up criticism of and action against both Iran and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The classified cable, made public by Israel’s Channel 10 News, also asked Israeli diplomats to express support for the Saudi war against Yemen, which has become a humanitarian nightmare.
Israeli diplomats were told to contact foreign ministries in their host countries, and reiterate the Saudi position on Hariri’s resignation, using it to paint Hizbullah and Iran as “destructive”, and to pressure the host governments to regard Hizbullah as a “danger to the stability of Lebanon and other countries of the region”.
Israel regards Hizbullah as probably its second most dangerous enemy after Iran. It was, after all, Hizbullah which forced Israel to end its occupation of areas in the south of Lebanon, and which withstood a sustained war by Israel in 2006. However, Hizbullah is a legal political party in Lebanon, and is part of the government headed by Hariri.
Not long after the Israeli cable, Saudi Arabia, strangely, announced that Lebanon had declared war on the Saudi kingdom – simply because Lebanon has Hizbullah as a political party. Many Lebanese interpreted that announcement as a Saudi declaration of war, a perception that was strengthened when, on Thursday, the kingdom called on its citizens in Lebanon to evacuate the country. Clearly, the Saudi and Israeli agendas not only dovetailed with each other, but were, in fact feeding off and reinforcing one another.
There is a strong belief among Lebanese people and commentators on Saudi Arabia that the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, was forced by MBS to announce his resignation, and that he is being held prisoner in the kingdom, along with the scores of others arrested last Saturday night. Even Hariri’s own Future Party made similar comments to the media later in the week. Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi TV rather than on his own TV channel, and did so from Riyadh rather from his own country. In an announcement that was scripted for him, Hariri blamed his resignation on interference in Lebanon by Iran, and non-cooperation with Hizbullah.
Trump’s tweets of support for the authoritarian actions of MBS reinforce the common agenda between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. “They know what they are doing,” he said, referring to MBS’ crackdown, which included Saturdays arrests – including those of two sons of the former king, a son of the former crown prince (who was also sacked from his position as head of the powerful National Guard), numerous businesspeople (including Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world), heads of three major media networks, and former ministers. Through these moves, MBS has taken full political control and sidelined all other sections of the Saudi royal family; he now has complete control of all sections of the Saudi security and armed forces; he is able to shape the Saudi narrative as he wants it; and he has prepared the way for his father’s abdication and his ascension to the throne – without any criticism from other Saudis.
That he is in the process of transforming an authoritarian system and power structure into an even more authoritarian absolute monarchy where all power is controlled by one person does not faze Trump or the Israelis. Indeed, as the Israeli cable indicates, such authoritarianism can be useful in the effort to isolate Iran and destroy Hizbullah.
The repercussions of this triumvirate of cooperation can be catastrophic for a Middle East region that is already mired in a number of wars – with large parts of Syria and Yemen completely destroyed, facing humanitarian disasters, and is dealing with more than 13 million displaced people (mainly from Syria and Yemen). While Iran is more than capable of defending itself against all three, Lebanon, more than 20 percent of whose population is refugees from neighbouring Syria and Palestine, is now under psychological, propaganda, diplomatic and military threat from both Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a fragile political system, the country is bracing itself for a possible external attack from Israel, and internal upheaval from Saudi-funded extremists. If such actions begin, Lebanon could be plunged into another civil war that could destroy the country. And it is quite likely that all three countries will bring their battle with Iran onto the African continent as well.
The newly-emerging Saudi-US-Israeli alliance could prove to be disastrous for the Middle region and for Africa.
Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre
* This article was first published in the the Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune in South Africa
In an extremely busy twenty-four hours in Saudi Arabia this past weekend, a series of moves by the palace sought to consolidate the power of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman – who already effectively runs the kingdom, centre all power in his office, and pave the way for his accession to the throne – even before his father, King Salman, dies. In the process, the power grab upends the slower, more consensual decision-making processes in the royal family, and establishes MbS, as the crown prince is known, as a more authoritarian ruler concentrating power in his person rather than in the family that has ruled the country since the 1930s. The moves this weekend (and earlier) achieve four major objectives for Muhammad: granting him control over a vast pool of assets around the world; putting him in charge of the Saudi voice outside the country through media networks owned by Saudis he has arrested; consolidating his power over the three main branches of Saudi military and security services; and removing (if temporarily) any voices of dissent to his father’s abdication and his becoming king.
The past weekend saw Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announcing his resignation in Riyadh, at the instruction of MbS; the arrests of eleven members of the royal family (including two sons of the former king, Abdullah – Mut'ib and Turki), four ministers and dozens of former ministers, government officials and businesspeople, the disappearance of Abdulaziz bin Fahd (the son of another former king; while some reports say he was killed while trying to escape arrest, others suggest he was renditioned to Abu Dhabi where he is incarcerated and tortured); the death in suspicious circumstances of Mansour bin Muqrin (the son of a former crown prince, who perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni border); the warning that assets of hundreds of other Saudis will soon be seized; and the dramatic ramping up of rhetoric against Iran and Lebanon. All of this threatens serious long-term consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally.
The arrests and freezing of assets of the detainees were conducted ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive under the auspices of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee (headed by MbS), but it is clear that the reasons are much more comprehensive, and the move was planned before the committee was even inaugurated.
The arrests are part of an MbS pattern, with Salman’s acquiescence, of consolidating control over the levers of the country’s power, particularly the political, security, economic and media sectors. He has already centralised political power in his office – despite concern among many royals. Indeed, some sources claim that Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in the helicopter crash on Saturday night, had sent a letter to some 1 000 princes urging them not to support MbS’s accession to the throne. These same sources also claim that Mansour’s helicopter was deliberately targeted by state forces under instruction from MbS.
With the latest arrests, the crown prince has now taken over the military and security structures of the kingdom. In June, then-crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was also interior minister, was fired (and has been under house arrest since), and a month later the interior ministry was stripped of many powers, which were given to a new homeland security agency headed by the king, thus giving MbS control of the country’s internal security and large amounts of security personnel and military materiel. As defence minister, MbS also controls the country’s defence forces. With this weekend’s arrest of Mut'ib bin Abdullah, MbS now also controls the third important security-military department, the National Guard. The Guard is an important arm of the Shammar branch of the royal family, and is a conglomeration of the tribal forces in the kingdom; the Shammar effectively control the various tribes through their control of the National Guard. By removing Mut'ib, MbS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, he also is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations. The influence of the National Guard is indicated by the fact that it was responsible for coercingKing Saud to hand over power to his brother Faisal in 1964, following a power struggle between the brothers over the division of political power. By surrounding Saud’s palace in early 1964, the Guard rendered it impossible for Saud to rule.
The arrests of the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Rotana Media and ART – Walid bin al-Ibrahim, Walid bin Talal and Salih Kaamil respectively – gives the Saudi regime effective control of Saudi media that broadcast outside the kingdom. (The palace already tightly controls the media internally.) This will ensure a common narrative on issues such as foreign policy, MbS’s accession to the throne, and the demonisation of dissent.
Furthermore, dozens of clerics, scholars and academics, who might have been opposed to or critical of Salman’s abdication in favour of his son, were jailed in September for no apparent reason. This move also signalled to the clerical establishment, whose influence MbS wants to curtail, that only supportive voices from its ranks will be tolerated. The clergy will be a concern for MbS, who has been talking of Saudi Arabia as a ‘secular’ state, and about diminishing the role of religion and the clergy, which would upset a compact between the royal family and the clergy about them supporting each other. Like the National Guard, the clergy too had a hand in the abdication of Saud in 1964. It took only twelve senior clerics’ support, including that of the grand mufti, to legitimise Saud’s ouster.
The latest arrests also help shore up MbS’s economic control in the kingdom, and are, at least in part, related to the need for him to mobilise funds to drive his ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to move the country away from its dependence on oil, and improve an economy that is worse than it has been in decades. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit stands at ten per cent of GDP; unemployment has increased to twelve per cent; and popular discontent has forced him to drop plans to reduce state subsidies (which he hoped would free up funds for Vision 2030). The need for extra funding is exacerbated by his plan to construct a 500 billion dollar megacity (dubbed Neom), which has attracted substantial interest from Israeli businesses. Moreover, the Yemeni war, ongoing for two years and with no end in sight, is draining the kingdom’s coffers by between 100 and 500 million dollars daily. It has been estimated that the seizing of the wealth of the businesspeople arrested thus far will add around 33 billion dollars (half the 2017-18 budget deficit) to Saudi state coffers, a substantial contribution to the 2030 and Neom projects. With hundreds more people on the list for their assets to be seized, that figure could increase dramatically. Furthermore, MbS’s plan to list the oil company Aramco on the New York Stick exchange was not universally supported in Saudi Arabia; nor were his plans for Neom. The dissenting voices on these matters have now largely been neutralised through their detention.
It is suspected by many that Hariri’s forced resignation is partly also part of the effort to bolster Saudi state finances. Hariri’s assets are worth more than a billion dollars, and his business interests are mainly based in Saudi Arabia. Since the economic downturn that hit the Saudi construction industry, Hariri has been unable to pay his debts to the kingdom. His stake in Saudi Oger is worth just under a billion dollars, a reasonable contribution to MbS’s coffers. Interestingly, the disappeared Abdulaziz bin Fahd was the Saudi point person in charge of Saudi Oger, and, thus, Hariri’s partner. Hariri has, since his ‘resignation’, been rumoured to be interned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, along with others arrested on Saturday. However, Hariri’s removal also has political objectives. MbS, with the support of the USA and Israel, hopes to increase the pressure on Iran through its proxies and associated groups. Thus the removal of Hariri can be read as part of the effort to escalate tensions in Lebanon, and to begin an offensive against Hizbullah.
He identified Iran’s role in Lebanon and the region, and his dissatisfaction with Hizbullah as reasons for the resignation. Yet, shortly before he left for Saudi Arabia, he met with Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor on international relations to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; and Hariri’s party’s relations with Hizbullah have not been any rockier than usual.
MbS’s power grab has already caused much disquiet within the house of Saud, which previously divided government portfolios between the different family branches to prevent fractious succession battles, and to ensure continuity. Saturday’s moves have upended this policy, centralising immense power in MbS’s office. It is likely that the families of Nayef, Abdullah and Muqrin will join forces, especially if Salman abdicates power in favour of his son in the next weeks. Abdulaziz’s disappearance and Abdullah’s death will aggravate this urge. Any rumblings of protest from within the National Guard at the firing of its former boss, Mut'ib, to whom the Guard had been fiercely loyal, would be an indicator in this regard.
Further, despite earlier expressions of enthusiasm for MbS’s ‘modernisation’ proposals – especially from Saudi youth, it is uncertain whether the majority of Saudi citizens will accept MbS’s plans, even though Saudi Arabia has a bulging youth population, especially after the recent crackdown. He has already alienated many critical clerics who had previously called for such modernisation, and who enjoy much popular support, as well as created fear in the business community, and anger in many sections of the royal family.
Additionally, the arrests of young reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki and Mustafa al-Hassan, together with the arrests of cleric Salman al-Awda in September, suggest two faces of MbS’s ‘reform’ initiative. Despite, for example, voicing support for increased freedoms, relaxing conditions on Saudi women’s restrictions to drive, and advocating (rhetorically) a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, MbS instituted two committees (the Union of Electronic and Software Security, and the National Authority for Cyber Security) in October to monitor and control social media, and curtail freedoms. Already, the head of the Union of Electronic and Software Security, Saud al-Qahtani, called on Saudi tweeps to report citizens sympathising with Qatar in the issue of the blockade on that country. Another example of MbS’s two-faced policies is his commitment to ‘privatise’ Saudi assets such as Aramco, while the recent crackdown shows that he is just as happy ‘nationalising’ private assets of those he dislikes.
The increasingly gung-ho attitude from the Saudi palace will also have serious regional consequences. MbS and his deputies have hardened the kingdom’s stance toward Iran, used war-like rhetoric in reference to Iran and Lebanon, further threatened the Houthi in Yemen, and instituted a full blockade on Yemeni ports. While a war with Iran is unlikely, Riyadh’s moves threaten to destabilise Lebanon’s complex, sectarian consociational political system in a manner that could have disastrous consequences; some Lebanese are talking about the possibility of another civil war.
While there is concern in the Middle East about where this will lead to, MbS and his authoritarianism have won unqualified support from the USA and Israel. Both the US president, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner enjoy a close relationship and mutual admiration with the crown prince. Kushner returned to the USA from a personal visit to Saudi Arabia just a week before the recent arrests, sparking speculation that MbS briefed him about his plans for the arrests and for Lebanon. After the arrests, Trump tweeted that he had ‘great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing’. Israel, which MbS reportedly visited in September, has also been jubilant about the new crown prince and his keenness to normalise relations with the Zionist state. The events of the past weekend have been pounced upon by Israel, with its envoys around the world being instructed to use the Hariri ‘resignation’ to attack Hizbullah and Iran. Whether this was coordinated with Saudi Arabia or not, events in the kingdom are proving useful to Israel in its battle with Iran, and, ultimately with the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty. From the time he was appointed deputy crown prince by his father in April 2015, he began to present himself as the face of the kingdom’s future, and many of his actions – domestically, regionally and globally – have been crafted to concentrate power in himself, show Saudis and the world that he is tough, willing to deal decisively with his enemies, fully in league with the United States, and to prepare for his coronation. This year, the blockade against Qatar, increased sabre-rattling on Iran, normalising relations with Israel, developing intimate relations with the the US Trump administration, and the events of the past weekend have all had a singular motive: strengthening MbS’s hand in preparation for his being handed the throne by his father. The latest arrests and firings are an attempt to silence criticism of his ascension to the throne, and to shore up his military, economic and media power.
Furthermore, MbS is transforming Saudi Arabia into a strong regional client that will help the USA maintain global ascendency, and serve, together with Israel, as a US proxy in the Middle East. MbS has set himself up as the new regional strongman whose role has been rubberstamped by Trump. The US administration has given him wide permission to consolidate his position in a way that will allow him to become an effective instrument of the USA in the region. The focus and escalating rhetoric on Iran (and its proxies) helps consolidate this position by ensuring that Saudi Arabia, the USA and Israel will be on the same page, with a common enemy that they each can rally their constituencies against.
By Zeenat Adam
The May 2017 Riyadh Summit marked the first international tour of the new US president, Donald Trump. Three meetings in Riyadh – a bilateral with Saudi Arabia (KSA), a USA-Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) meeting and the US-Arab-Islamic Summit – collectively supposedly focussed on unity in the fight against terrorism. The Summit culminated in a declaration – crafted unilaterally by KSA – that proposed, among others, the establishment of an ‘Arab Alliance’ and an ‘Islamic Military Coalition’ to combat terrorism; the establishment of a counter-terrorism centre based in KSA; and a condemnation of Iran as a regional destabiliser. Contrary to the show of unity, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, expressed reservations about signing a declaration that had not been discussed, in clear defiance of his hosts. It is unclear whether he ultimately did sign the document.
A day later, statements attributed to Tamim – supposedly uttered at a military graduation ceremony – appeared on the website of Qatar News Agency. He was quoted praising Iran and the Lebanese resistance organisation Hizbullah, mentioning Qatar’s close ties with Israel and the USA, and proclaiming his country’s unwavering support for the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas. Additionally, tweets posted in the name of Qatar’s foreign minister declared that Qatar would withdraw its ambassadors from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because of a ‘plot’ against Qatar. The Qatari government vehemently rejected these statements, claiming the news agency website had hacked. By this time, however, the reaction from KSA, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt was becoming frenzied. Within an hour of the hacking, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media began a media campaign to discredit and demonise Qatar. The seemingly-orchestrated onslaught maligning Qatar as a cancer in the GCC persisted despite Kuwaiti attempts to intervene and restore calm. Tamim’s visit to Kuwait to quell the tensions was in vain, as KSA and the UAE refused to entertain any explanations, leading to a shock announcement on 5 June 2017 that both states had severed ties with Qatar. They were followed by Egypt, Bahrain and, later, other Arab states or non-state actors aligned to KSA or the UAE, in what became one of the greatest spats in the GCC’s history.
A series of leaked emails revealing the extent of the lobbying by the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, added to suspicions that the GCC fallout was not as sudden and reactive as the Saudis and Emiratis portrayed it. The emails uncover the key contentious issues according to Qatar’s neighbours: the presence of US CENTCOM in Qatar, the Al Jazeera network, and support for Hamas. Otaiba’s courting of Washington neo-conservatives adds to the suspicion that the Saudis and Emiratis seek to seize the opportunity of Trump’s presidency to reconfigure the US agenda in the Middle East. The carefully orchestrated plan to isolate Qatar appears to be aimed at reinforcing Saudi hegemony in the region and cultivating a new power dynamic with the Trump administration. The renewed courtship with America is led on the Saudi side by the deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been at the forefront of decision-making since his aged father, King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015. His ambitious vision for Saudi Arabia and his aggressive, impulsive resort to military action against perceived rivals is setting the scene for regional upheaval. The Emiratis have also been flexing their petrodollar muscles to exert influence in the region, led primarily by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan who has been aggressively building up an arsenal of weaponry to support his interventionist motives.
As tensions between Qatar and its neighbours heighten, more questions arise as to the future of the GCC and the expected result of the dramatic siege of the tiny peninsula state. Without providing evidence, the anti-Qatar alliance led by KSA and UAE accuses Qatar of supporting terror organisations. The list of individuals on their ‘terror list’ appears to be a regurgitated post-9/11 CIA list that was laid to rest over a decade ago, and which has been dug out of some dusty archive for lack of any other credible evidence against Qatar. Organisations on the list appear to mainly be humanitarian and charity groups that have been active in war-torn regions. Qatar, KSA and UAE have all been deeply involved in Middle East conflicts, with proxy wars playing out in Syria, Libya and Yemen in particular. None of the three have been neutral in supporting factions that may have committed war crimes and atrocities and / or have been accused of being terror organisations. Thus, the KSA-UAE accusation against Qatar is a case of ‘the camel never seeing its own hump, but only those of others’. The allegations of Qatari terror funding and destabilisation of the region through its policy of engagement with Iran, support for Al Jazeera, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood are bones of contention but it is unclear how much the anti-Qatar alliance expects Doha to concede on these issues, especially since it would encroach on its sovereignty and independence.
Perhaps the alliance, and KSA in particular, cares little about sovereign rights of states like Qatar, which it has long treated as an extension of its eastern province. It has even been suggested that the anti-Qatar alliance is plotting for regime change in Qatar; unsubstantiated rumours surfaced in Egyptian and Emirati media weeks before the Riyadh Summit that the Tamim’s father was planning to support one of his other sons, the current deputy emir and Tamim’s half-brother, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Thani in a coup against his brother. These rumours are likely unfounded and generated outside Qatar among those who believe the real power in Qatar is with Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Misned, a prominent figure who has been repeatedly disparaged by Qatar’s patriarchal neighbours. She has been at the forefront of social and educational transformation in Qatar, and served as a UNESCO Special Envoy for basic education. Her children were groomed for leadership and she has stood as a model for women’s empowerment in the Gulf.
Further whisperings of regime change, also emanating from Egypt, attempted to open old wounds in Qatar’s history by goading Tamim’s distant cousin, Saud bin Nasser Al Thani, into making a claim for the position of emir. These attempts fail to consider that Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, and Qataris talk of a ruling family as opposed to a royal family. Its historical succession has not traditionally been one of primogeniture, but of regency and consensus within the ruling family. Furthermore, the split between the two wings of the ruling family dates to a 1940s succession debate when then-emir, Abdullah, intended for his son Hamad to succeed him. Unfortunately, Hamad died prematurely, but an agreement was reached within the ruling family that Abdullah’s other son, Ali, would assume the helm until Hamad’s son Khalifa would be able to rule. Ali, however, handed over the affairs of state to his son Ahmad in 1960, contrary to the agreement, and in opposition to the Hamad faction of the Al Thani family. In 1972 Khalifa, the rightful heir, deposed Ahmad. Any claim by Ahmad’s heirs would be contrary to the historical agreement, and would require consensus from the entire Al Thani clan, numbering more than 20 000 in Qatar alone. In addition, Tamim’s father, the former emir, Hamad, focussed, during his rule, on bringing the Ahmad faction back to Qatar from self-imposed exile and reunifying the factions, though there may still be some within the clan who feel disgruntled and entitled to power. To ensure that the matter would be laid to rest, the constitution stipulated that the succession of the rule of state would be hereditary in the male lineage of Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani.
There is no inclination to effect regime change by installing a ruler from outside the Al Thani clan, but any such attempt would fail, first of the constitution, and second because the Al Thani family has led the Qatari tribes with little opposition since the British Empire entered the territory in the 1800s.
Most analysts trace the current tensions between Qatar and its neighbours to the Middle East and North Africa uprisings, when Qatar positioned itself apart from the rest of the GCC in supporting the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, events unfolded sporadically and the momentum was organic. In both countries, parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power through the popular vote, to the dismay of other Arab dictators. Qatar’s role was minimal but for extensive coverage on Al Jazeera, which became the people’s channel – broadcasting their revolution live from Tahrir Square to the world. Once the governments in these two countries were democratically elected, Qatar provided keen support – financially and politically. The uprisings also presented Qatar with an opportunity to exert influence and affect the outcomes in other areas where similar uprisings were simmering, but where the leadership was militarily more equipped to suppress the people. In Libya, Qatar was instrumental in lobbying for international intervention, which subsequently set the country on a debilitating course of war. Similarly, in Syria, Qatar was one of the first countries to openly support the Free Syrian Army and is also alleged to have supported al-Qa'ida-linked Nusra Front. Qatar’s stance in Bahrain, however, was far more ambiguous as it joined the GCC coalition in support of the Bahraini monarchy; but coverage by Al Jazeera left its Gulf neighbours wondering if its allegiance to the coalition was genuine. Similarly, in Yemen, whilst Qatar contributed troops to the Saudi coalition forces, it strongly expressed the view that the Houthi should be engaged as a legitimate party; Saudi Arabia considers the Houthi terrorists.
KSA and Qatar now find themselves at opposites, though not for the first time. The polarisation during the MENA uprisings boiled down to the views of each country on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1950s the Gulf states served as a haven for Brotherhood activists escaping persecution from Egypt and Syria. During the 1970s a Saudi society (Al-Sahwa al-Islamiya – the Islamic Awakening) was formed, inspired by the Brotherhood. KSA rendered support to the Brotherhood until the 1991 Gulf War when Al-Sahwa opposed the kingdom’s position of inviting US intervention in Iraq, and began to mobilise for democratic and political reform. Similarly, in the UAE, an organisation with roots in the Brotherhood, Al-Islah wa al-Tojihi al-Ijtima (The Reform and Social Guidance Association) was established in Dubai in the early 1980s. During the MENA uprisings, Al-Islah began to call for democratic reforms, and was subsequently banned as a terror organisation, along with the Brotherhood. With its prominence in uprisings, the Brotherhood suddenly became an existential threat to the monarchies. Qatar provided a haven to Brotherhood clerics and Al Jazeera stood as the driving force of popular revolution. This prompted GCC members in 2013 to secure themselves against one of their own by ensuring that Qatar committed to ‘principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other GCC countries and not support anyone who threatens the security and stability of other GCC countries, including organisations…and not supporting the antagonistic media’. However, a few months later three countries recalled their ambassadors from Qatar citing non-compliance with the pact. Qatar was forced to make some concessions eight months later, ahead of the next GCC summit, including the closure of the live Al Jazeera channel, Al Mubasher Misr in Egypt and requesting some members of the Muslim Brotherhood to leave Qatar. Exiled members sought refuge in Istanbul.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has viewed the tiny territory of Qatar as an irritant that should be dispensable due to its diminutive size, but which always tried to play in the big leagues. Until the early 1990s, KSA dominated the GCC, which had been established in response to the security concerns from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. As a miniscule state, Qatar had always relied on alliances with mightier external actors to ensure its security, notably the Ottomans, British Empire, and the Saudis. The 1995 coup by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani against his father Khalifa, a staunch Saudi ally, irked the Saudis who supported the former emir in a failed counter-coup attempt in 1996. Most of Qatar’s nuanced policies were developed during Hamad’s reign from 1995 until his abdication to Tamim in 2013. Credit is also due to the then foreign minister and later prime minister, Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr Al Thani, as the architect of Qatar’s enigmatic foreign policy. By the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, whilst Hamad bin Khalifa was heir Apparent, Qatar began to woo the Americans, who soon established US CENTCOM (Central Command) at Qatar’s Al Udeid military base. Having the military might of the world’s superpower just a few dunes away from the regional big brother emboldened Qatar to embark on its ambitious plans for development. The second major development was the founding of the Al Jazeera News Network, and the third was its embarking on economic investments through its sovereign wealth fund aimed at diversifying its gas-based economy. This allowed Qatar to position itself at the centre of numerous international political dialogues, as it did not shy away from criticising the US interventions in the Middle East, whilst concurrently expressing a willingness to engage adversaries and position itself as a peace broker. No doubt Qatar’s financial clout greatly contributed to its political ambitions; often leaving its neighbours feeling slighted by its brazen actions. Often, Qatar would be reminded of Saudi’s seniority, particularly when it tried to influence the outcomes of GCC and Arab League summits. This would frequently occur when Qatar tried to present a conciliatory tone in discussions regarding Iran – a sensitive matter for the region and a view which KSA is not tolerant of. Qatar has maintained cordial, yet cautious, relations with Iran due to the proximity of the two countries and the fact that they share the North Dome / South Pars gas field. The wars in Yemen and Syria found Qatar and Iran on opposing sides, but Qatar has consistently held that diplomatic engagement would be more beneficial than hostility and military aggression, a position its GCC partners do not agree with. Iran has exploited the rising tensions between Qatar and its neighbours by extending a hand to Qatar; Doha has, however, been cautious not to be over-eager to befriend Iran in this sensitive time.
The smear campaign against Qatar has isolated geographically and politically. The economic impact of the siege will likely be severe, considering that air traffic has been affected, impacting on the successful Qatar Airways, and hindering importation. Ground transport across the border with KSA has been completely shut off. Sea ports are limited, and access to the UAE port of Jebel Ali has been restricted, making the movement of aluminium and LNG challenging. Qatar has begun using Omani ports, and has been offered the use of three Iranian ports. Food imports have been seriously affected, but Iran and Turkey have become new sources of fresh produce, and a ‘buy local’ campaign has been launched, enhancing growth in the local market. Moody’s had downgraded Qatar’s status prior to the siege, and other ratings’ agencies did so since. Fitch dropped Qatar’s credit rating from AA to negative, noting that a prolonged siege may affect its credit outlook. The stock market has been significantly affected, but indications are that Qatar has sufficient investments abroad to ensure its survival should further economic sanctions be applied. Stress on gas production has been evident with the shutdown of two helium production plants, impacting on 32% of the global market. This is an early warning of what could potentially happen should the blockade affect Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) and gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants. World powers would be wary of allowing the anti-Qatar alliance to push Doha to the extent that it begins to flex its energy producing muscles and threatens a world energy crisis. Gas production is not governed by OPEC, and therefore Qatar is not regulated in its production or price settings. It would have the potential to cripple Asian giants like Japan and South Korea but the real question is whether it would consider retaliation against the UAE by cutting off the Dolphin Energy gas pipeline to the Emirates. Thus far, Qatar seems to have adopted measured responses, and emphasised the need to enter into dialogue to resolve differences, but the anti-Qatar alliance appears determined to force its way irrespective of the consequences.
The push for US sanctions on Qatar through the Congressional Bill HR 2712 (Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2017) bolsters the suspicion that the action against Qatar was not sudden, but was part of a broader plan for reconfiguring the Middle East. The bi-partisan sponsored bill already appears to be gaining momentum in Washington DC, and clearly targets Qatar (and Iran), without specifically mentioning its name, by its allusion to the sponsors of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It proposes economic and military sanctions against individuals, entities, organisations and organs of state. The banking sector is specifically mentioned. Were this bill to pass, it will have far-reaching consequences in the further isolation of Qatar, and in the ability of Qatar to do business with the rest of the world. The bill and the actions against Qatar are likely to have devastating effects on Hamas, possibly constraining the capacity of the movement to continue to resist Israeli occupation, or forcing it to make unimaginable compromises that could be devastating for the Palestinian cause.
There are strong indications that Israel- and KSA-funded lobbyists had pushed for the bill to be tabled, and it is no mere coincidence that its timing corresponds with the siege on Qatar. Israel expressed strong support of the anti-Qatar alliance, with Israel’s Deputy Minister for Diplomacy tweeting: ‘No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror’. The Saudi and UAE insistence for Qatar to break links with Hamas, and their promoting the notion that Qatar undermines Palestinian-Israeli peace beg the question whether their new-found friendship with Israel and the relationship with Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have any bearing on these demands. There are strong indications that Israel has been cooperating covertly for some time with both KSA and UAE. In recent years the GCC had been increasingly muted in addressing the flagrant disregard of international resolutions by Israel. Qatar expressed extreme frustration with the GCC in 2008 when the GCC refused to hold an emergency session on the margins of its Summit in Kuwait to condemn the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Qatar has financially supported Gaza with humanitarian and reconstruction aid after both the 2008 and 2014 Israeli attacks. It has been instrumental in mediating between the Palestinian factions to bring about unity, and supported the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, proposing a normalisation of relations with Israel, which the Saudis tried to reignite earlier this year, against the backdrop of their own warming relations with Tel Aviv.
It remains unclear what tangible outcome the anti-Qatar alliance seeks to achieve from the current escalation other than battering what they see as a delinquent into submission. Any suggestions of regime change will not be welcomed by Qataris who hugely support Tamim, and have a strong sense of national pride. The siege has sent Qatar’s patriotism to an all-time high, even amongst non-Qatari residents. An expression of allegiance to Tamim by the Bani Hajer and Al Murrah tribes, which span the Arabian Peninsula, has caused concern in Saudi Arabia, which fears other tribes, including the Bani Tamim, whom the Al Thani family derives its lineage from, will follow suit. The siege has already had a negative impact on the lives of Gulf nationals who are married across state lines or whose families and tribes were divided by national borders, but who, until two weeks ago, had ease of movement between Gulf states. Any coup or transfer of power will not significantly alter Qatar’s policies, and will, instead, leave the country more vulnerable to internal strife, as it would be seen to lack integrity, pride and independence. Qatar is unlikely to accede to the shutting down of Al Jazeera, a demand (sometimes threatening) of several Arab states over the years that it has withstood.
Kuwait’s attempts to negotiate a de-escalation may yet succeed, but an escalation, including the option of military intervention (though minimal at this stage) cannot be completely ruled out. Any such move would be catastrophic for the region, polarising the Muslim and Arab world and drawing other regional powers into the conflict. KSA is clearly lobbying other countries to join its alliance against Qatar, with a growing number of countries seemingly willing to do so. Saudi Arabia appears to be courting several African states for support with either offers of millions of investment dollars or threats of divestment. Pledges of support by these client states is indicative not only of the immediate isolation of Qatar, which has massive huge investments in Africa and membership of La Francophonie, but possibly of a potential plan to table motions against Qatar at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Arab League, and perhaps even the United Nations.
Qatar would not be able to withstand a military incursion without outside support, even though it has pulled back its troops from Yemen and the border region between Djibouti and Eritrea. Turkey has strongly supported Qatar and has begun to fast-track the deployment of about 3 000 troops to Qatar based on a pre-existing military cooperation agreement. Iran is keen to align with Qatar, as demonstrated by its immediate deployment of foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Ankara on 7 June to engage his Turkish counterpart on collaborative means to support Doha. It is, however, unlikely that Qatar will choose to align itself too closely with the GCC’s antagonist while facing the prospect of sanctions or expulsion from the council. Qatar’s options may appear limited but the anti-Qatar alliance has drawn itself into a quagmire that would be difficult to withdraw from. Other world leaders have been weighing in on the crisis. US President Donald Trump initially expressed glee at the siege, taking credit for the notion. Washington has sent conflicting signals to Qatar since the blockade, as the White House has aligned itself with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in accusing Qatar of support for and funding of terrorists, whilst the Pentagon continues to engage Qatar more constructively, including through a new arms sale and joint military and naval exercises. French President Emmanuel Macron has urged dialogue, whilst Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Erdogan in calling on all parties to ‘develop compromise solutions in the interest of preserving peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region’.
The siege will undoubtedly have far-reaching ramifications for GCC. The values upon which the GCC was formed may still be important for its member states, but culture, language and familial ties cannot be the sole basis for unity when political ideology and military ambitions undermine the prospects of shared values. Unification of the states and integration will not be possible in a climate of mistrust. Threats to regional security in the form of wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria require a unified vision that will not be possible if GCC members have different views on the root causes of these conflicts, and view each other as enemies. The absence of trust between member states, together with the lack of transparency, accountability and an archaic notion that the public must remain submissive to a ruling elite, does not augur well for the GCC’s future, and may even lead to renewed popular mobilisation for democratic change in the Gulf. This is already indicated by a petition by GCC nationals calling for citizen participation in political decision-making, noting that ‘arbitrary and extreme actions’ such as the blockade would not have happened in a democratic environment. With Qatar not willing to concede, and the anti-Qatar alliance not backing down, the dissolution of the GCC in its current form is likely.
* Zeenat Adam served as South Africa’s deputy ambassador to Qatar between 2005 and 2009, and is currently an independent international relations strategist
The 5 June decision by Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and their allies and proxies – Egypt, Bahrain, the Maldives, Mauritania and rival governments in Libya and Yemen – to sever diplomatic and other links with Qatar is payback for Qatar’s support of the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011. It represents, for KSA and UAE, another phase in their process since 2011 to reverse the changes brought about by the uprisings.
The sanctions on Qatar aim to force the government of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to alter its foreign policy – particularly regarding its warming relations with Iran, and to end its financial and political support for Islamist dissidents in the region such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The Saudi-led move followed and was encouraged by US President Donald Trump’s visit to KSA in May, and his 21 May speech in Riyadh where he supported stronger action against Iran, and spoke out against terrorism – including Hamas in his list of terrorist groups.
Saudi and Emirati claims
The main reason advanced by KSA and UAE for harsh measures such as the land-sea-air embargo and travel prohibition for citizens of these countries, was a statement attributed to Al Thani, in which he allegedly praised Iran’s regional role and criticised states seeking to declare the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organisation. The 23 May statement, published on the website of the state-owned Qatari News Agency, is likely a hack, as the Qatari foreign ministry has claimed. No audio or video footage exists of the emir’s speech, purportedly presented at a graduation ceremony for National Guard officers at the Al Udeid base. Although the alleged statement may reflect the broad trajectory of Qatari foreign policy, Al Thani is unlikely to have expressed such sentiments publicly. Moreover, statements praising Hizbullah and criticising the US are at odds with Qatar’s policy and national interest, especially considering that Qatar supports forces opposing Hizbullah in Syria, while the US troops stationed at Al Udeid are critical to Qatar’s security.
Nevertheless, there are indications of a warming of relations between Qatar and Iran, as evidenced by Al Thani’s 27 May congratulatory phone call to Iran’s re-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, during which he proposed enhancing Qatari-Iranian ties. Further, reports that Qatar paid a $1 billion ransom for Qatari royals kidnapped in Iraq, and that about $700 million ended up with Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, also enraged the KSA and UAE. KSA viewed these moves as compromising its battle with Iran for regional hegemony. For the Saudis, this is the main reason for its action against Qatar.
The UAE, on the other hand, used the KSA action to pursue its agenda of trying to force Qatar to cease support for the MB and other such groups. Since 2011, it has worked strenuously to undermine and destroy the MB-aligned organisations throughout the region through attempting to finance parties such as Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia (against the Islamist Ennahda), by militarily supporting the campaigns of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and by supporting the 2013 coup in Egypt which overthrew the MB’s Mohammed Morsi.
Both KSA and UAE regarded Qatar’s support for civil society action during the 2011 uprisings as incompatible with their regional aims, upsetting the regional balance, and potentially ultimately threatening their own monarchies.
The sanctions, however, did not happen entirely suddenly and without careful consideration. In 2014, the KSA and UAE, together with Bahrain, recalled their ambassadors from Doha in a successful attempt to weaken Qatari ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The current sanctions follow a campaign by, mainly, the UAE to demonise Qatar, particularly in the USA where, in the run-up to the breaking of ties, fourteen op-eds in US media attacked Qatar and called for the USA to downgrade relations with that country. And, at the end of May, Saudi media alleged Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, secretly met with Qasim Sulaimani and discussed enhanced intelligence cooperation between the two countries.The cutting of ties by Egypt, Yemen, the Maldives, Mauritania, the House of Representatives in eastern Libya, and the Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi government in Yemen was primarily in support of the Saudi and Emirati benefactors of these actors. There has been some suspicion in the region that KSA and UAE would act against Qatar, but the suddenness (and severity) took everyone by surprise. It is possible that the suddenness is related to recently leaked email correspondence of UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, which reveal his country’s disdain for US-Qatari relations, anger at the US military base in Qatar, and envy about Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The emails hint at Otaiba’s role in the anti-Qatar campaign in Washington over the past few weeks.
To justify the action, the two countries have accused Doha of threatening the region’s stability, ‘adopting’ terrorist organisations – including the Islamic State group, and supporting opposition Shi'a groups in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. Much of this is untrue. What is true, however, is that the UAE-KSA and Qatar also support different (even opposing) sides in Egypt, Libya and Syria, and both countries regard Qatar as an obstacle to their agenda for the region.
Saudi and Emirati objectives
Following the conclusion of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia has attempted to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region. The kingdom has sought to enhance this containment strategy by advocating unity among ‘Sunni’ states, and by tolerating (and even sponsoring) Islamists linked to the MB, such as Yemen’s Islah movement. Trump’s singling out Iran as the greatest regional threat emboldened KSA, and especially its inexperienced deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Riyadh declaration, which KSA issued after Trump’s visit, vociferously admonished Iran’s regional role and advocated a coordinated containment strategy. However, Qatar was regarded as not being entirely compliant with KSA’s wish to isolate Iran.
The UAE focused mainly on Qatari support for Islamists such as Hamas and the MB, which the Emiratis believes pose a greater threat to them than Iran. This conformed to Cairo’s position on the MB, and Egypt thus fell in line with the UAE, already a major financial backer of the Egyptian state under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Abu Dhabi also used the situation to reduce tension between forces it supports in Yemen and those supported by KSA. Pressure had been building since June 2016, when the UAE redeployed its frontline forces to southern Yemen, to consolidate the gains of the secessionist Southern Movement (Al-Hirak), in opposition to Saudi interests. Worsening the situation, in February 2017, forces loyal to the UAE prevented Hadi, heavily supported by KSA, from landing at Aden’s airport, forcing Riyadh to mediate in an attempt to enforce Hadi’s ‘prerogative’. There was likelihood of even further deterioration when the UAE-supported forces routed those of Hadi, and consolidated control over the Aden airport. At the heart of these differences is UAE opposition to Saudi support for Yemen’s MB-aligned Islah movement.
The UAE thus expertly exploited the inexperience of Saudi Arabia’s thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince to create a false consensus around Qatar. Significantly, the suspension of Qatari troops from Yemen as part of KSA-UAE sanctions will empower UAE-supported groups, at the expense of Saudi-supported Hadi. Although Qatar’s troop contingent was small, Doha and Riyadh have comparable interests in Yemen – which are not the same as the UAE’s.
In what is definitely a major diplomatic crisis for the Gulf, other countries are also becoming engaged. Apart from KSA and UAE allies that also cut ties with Qatar, Jordan has downgraded its links. On the other hand, Iran offered to export food to Qatar from Iranian ports – which are around 200 nautical miles from Doha, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erodgan, defended Qatar, opposing the sanctions. Furthermore, on Monday, less than a day after the sanctions were implemented, Turkey exported planeloads of food to Doha to replace food that had previously been imported from KSA. The USA, which has its largest Middle East military base, and 11 000 troops, in Qatar, has issued contradictory messages. While Trump tweeted support for the sanctions, claiming responsibility for its success, the Pentagon praised Doha for hosting US troops and for its ‘enduring commitment to regional security’, and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson offered to mediate. The USA will likely attempt to ensure the smooth continuation of relations with both Doha and Riyadh, and will seek to maintain the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
As in 2014, Kuwait and Oman will attempt to mediate a resolution to the crisis. Neither has severed ties with Qatar, and Kuwait’s emir has been shuttling around the Gulf to seekagreement on a mediation process. Both states maintain good ties with Iran, and Oman was involved in preliminary negotiations for the nuclear dealin March 2013, helping to ensure face-to-face talks between Iranian and American officials prior to the commencement of public negotiations. However, resolving the dispute this time will be more challenging, especially since the demands on Qatar are multifaceted, and because the measures instituted are more wide-ranging than in 2014.
Qatar faces three possible options. First is the unlikely possibility of it aligning with Iran. Second, it could buckle under the pressure and give in to KSA-UAE demands, especially since it depends on Gulf transit routes for its food security, and because of its strong economic links with Saudi Arabia. Such a capitulation could mean that members of Hamas and the MB residing in Doha will be expelled (possibly to Turkey and Lebanon). Further, Qatari media activities will be severely curtailed, and the AlJazeera network, in particular, will have its wings clipped and will begin resembling other Gulf media outlets, in addition to the likely shutting down of Britain-based Al-Arabi al-Jadid as well as other websites financed by Qatar. Palestinian exile and intellectual Azmi Bishara will likely be expelled as per the demand of the KSA-UAE alliance. Qatar’s links with Iran will also have to be firmly cut. The third option is that Qatar remains defiant, and joins with Turkey to informally form a third axis – which could include Oman and Kuwait, and could see some involvement of Iran. With countries such as Turkey and Pakistan seeking to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, albeit unconvincingly at times, this third axis is already slowly emerging. Heavy-handed measures such as the current siege on Qatar are increasingly forcing smaller states to unhappily choose sides, accelerating the development of a third path, even if informally. The possibility of the emergence of such a third axis (and the possibility of Qatar refusing to give in) increased dramatically Wednesday night when the Turkish parliament passed legislation to facilitate the posting of as many as 3 000 troops in the Turkish military base in Qatar. Qatar might have momentarily been on the ropes, but its allies (and hopeful allies, such as Iran) have come out swinging. David Hearst argues that, in fact, the action against Qatar is doomed to fail, and Doha's two Gulf antagonists had bitten off more than they can chew.
The increasing tension also indicates a weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was established in 1981 to ensure unity and coordination among Gulf countries, as a response to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Although GCC countries have been coordinating on regional policing, established the Peninsula Shield Force military arm, and signed agreements on economic and taxation matters, the organisation has been increasingly fragmented by different stances of individual states. In 2013, for example, Oman was widely criticised for hosting secret negotiations between Iran and the USA, prior to the nuclear deal; in 2014, Oman and Kuwait refused to recall their ambassadors from Qatar; and in 2016, when KSA severed ties with Iran, Bahrain was the only GCC member to follow suit. No matter how the current crisis ends, the GCC will emerge weaker. If Qatar refuses to capitulate, that could spell the beginning of the end of the council.
By Ebrahim Deen
The rise of the Islamic State Group (IS) and resurgence of Iran is now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with likeminded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions which are looser and more issue specific in contemporary times, and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters such as youth unemployment will in the short to medium term force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival.
Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity, and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought. This took the form of partnerships with the British post World War I until the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, and with the U.S post World War II up to today. The Kingdom’s vast oil resources –it is currently the largest oil producer and possesses the largest amount of reserves– enabled it to gain influence and acquire strategic partner status with the U.S during the Cold War.
Domestic matters will force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival
Its aversion to communism and ability to cultivate coalitions with other Gulf States aided in this regard. The kingdom, in contemporary times, is now an aspiring regional hegemon; it has largely ensured its territorial integrity, possesses large cash reserves and military hardware, and as will be observed below, is willing to act financially and militarily to fulfil its national interests.
Although foreign policy and national interests in the Kingdom are an elite driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses a disproportional influence in shaping the state’s path. Noteworthy is the observation that domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.
Regarded by western commentators as a ‘reformer’, foreign policy under Abdullah sought to diversify bilateral Saudi relations. Visits to China, Russia, India, and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 were noteworthy in this regard. These were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the U.S’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The Kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state sponsored discrimination.
The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran
Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the Kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It thus supported Saddam during the eight year long Iraq-Iran war, and was opposed to the 2003 invasion. The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.
However, the Kingdom still maintained warm relations with the U.S, and would confer with it before adopting decisions, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam enabled the Iranian regime to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the U.S’s then opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed after the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings.
Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the Kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the U.S’s role in enabling this. Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies and Egypt, during the latter end of Mubarak’s term, largely followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in responding to regional issues. The Kingdom thus felt that the U.S, which had been a close Mubarak ally, had betrayed him, and would adopt a similar position were the regime in Saudi Arabia threatened. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia views the Brotherhood as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior Brotherhood figures refused to support its role during the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013. This was especially true since the Assad regime had at the time been accused of using chemical weapons, flouting one of the Obama administration’s ‘red lines’. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase support to proxy groups such as Hezbollah. The Kingdom is of the perception that Iran seeks regional hegemony, and that its rise will blunt Saudi Arabia’s relatively strong regional influence. This is especially true since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf States including Qatar and the UAE, is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hezbollah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of holding elections.
The Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt
The Kingdom was especially angered for not being informed about the initial U.S-Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future U.S support, believing that in a situation where the regime is threatened the U.S will not offer its full support and prefer to instead call for negotiations and compromise.
Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive foreign policy. First it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over 700 billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and provided funding to withstand protests. The funding was used to quell protests through increases in public sector spending, especially in Jordan where they allowed the Abdullah II regime to stave off the need for subsidy removal.
The Kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Al Khalifa regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command with a proposed hundred thousand strong deployable force. Agreements on a shared GCC police force and the opening of a centre (the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies) to promote GCC security coordination were also signed.
Second, the Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through financing remnants to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, together with the UAE and Kuwait, the Mursi regime was overthrown and replaced by a former military head Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party, and Saudi-Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining participatory Islamists (the Justice and Construction party, Libya Dawn forces in Libya, and Ennahdha in Tunisia).
This culminated in the March 2014 decision declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation adopted by Gulf states, and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. It is noteworthy that even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran through removing an ally. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition sought to distinguish between participatory Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groupings such as Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Shaam, supporting the latter.
Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. These have resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole wasn’t viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE –Sisi and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (crown prince of Abu Dhabi) were requested not to attend Abdullah’s funeral. Moreover, the Kingdom has severely reduced its aid to Egypt, providing long term loans and fuel grants instead. Since November 2016 it has even halted oil shipments to Cairo as a result of Egypt’s opposition to a UNSC resolution criticising the Iranian supported Syrian regime, and because it believes that Cairo had become increasingly dependent on its largess and was failing to restart its economy.
Key in influencing these decisions has been the Iranian nuclear deal and rise of the Islamic state group (IS). The Kingdom views these as greater threats than participatory Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence. This is particularly true since the Assad regime has consolidated its control in Syria, and with Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s supported candidate, became Lebanese president.
IS, on the other hand, has been active in the country, claiming bombings on Mosques frequented by Shia and Special Forces, and its leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime. In May 2015 for example, the group undertook attacks on Shia sites of worship in Katif and Damam killing around twenty nine people, while an attack on a Mosque in Asir in August that year killed fifteen Saudi security personnel.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists.
Moreover, the group has been critical of the Kingdom’s leadership of the Sunni world, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime as a result of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance. It is noteworthy that some within the Saudi clerical establishment are partially sympathetic to IS’s ideology, that Saudi citizens have been involved in the financing of militant groups in Syria, and that they comprise a sizable portion of IS’s international recruits.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists. Ennahdha’s Rached Ghannouchi, the Jordanian Brotherhood’s Hamam Saeed, and Hamas’s Khaled Mishaal had all visited the kingdom in 2015. Further, it has re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party and financed and armed it in its attempt to reassert influence in Yemen.
The kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm Syrian opposition in Syria, while in December 2016 it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic, even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troups fighting IS.
In addition, in January 2016 the Kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an attempt in foreign policy terms to both stall the improving relations between the Islamic Republic and the west, and to ensure that Gulf allies followed suit.
Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s re-prioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were a part of a ten member coalition which the Kingdom headed, and were without initial U.S endorsement.
The Yemeni Islah party (Yemen’s main participatory Islamist faction) has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground troupe component, consisting of around 50000 forces has since been implemented. Thus far the effort has had some successes, the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south. However Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many Northern regions. Moreover, it is unlikely that these will be dislodged easily as Houthi influence in Yemen is largely a result of disillusionment with Yemeni politics and opposition to Saudi meddling in the country; the Houthis have strong institutional bases and grassroot support in Northern provinces such as Sada.
It is noteworthy that Salman’s renewed relations with participatory Islamists constitutes tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Erdogan and the previous Emir of Qatar (Hamed bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision is more a result of the kingdom’s belief that the group has been weakened and now poses no real threat to the regime. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these participatory Islamists possess some influence regionally and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS.
US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.
The regime’s lingering long-term fears of participatory Islamists can be observed in its treatment of Sisi’s Egypt. Despite Salman’s dislike for Sisi –it is reliably reported that Sisi sought to ensure that Salman was bypassed and power transferred to Muqrin after Abdullah’s death, even endorsing the use of Egyptian forces if necessary. Although Sisi has been dismissive of Gulf regimes and their willingness to fund the coup, the Kingdom still maintains relations with Sisi and has not sought to engage closely with the Muslim Brotherhood. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to that of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action such as what occurred in Yemen.
Further, US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession. The administration was likely given little warning about the then impending Saudi intervention in Yemen in March 2015 and was likewise not informed about Nimr’s execution. The US had however retroactively supported the Yemen intervention, providing logistical and armament support to Saudi coalition forces, and securing a United Nations Security Council resolution (2216) endorsing the intervention.
However, during Obama’s term, this was informed more by the US’s need to placate the Kingdom in light of the Iranian nuclear deal. President Trump seems to signal a change, reinforcing support to Saudi forces in Yemen, and vowing to implement tougher measures against Iran. Further, the administration’s proposed ban on citizens travelling to the country does not include Saudi Arabia, but encompasses Iranians. although these moves can be seen as a convergence, US and Saudi regional interests still deviate, especially in light of Trump’s intent to provide priority to East Asia, specifically China, and his stance on shrinking the US’s military.
Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and re-prioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and especially Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon. In Syria, the only reason the December 2016 ceasefire has largely held is because Saudi Arabia had been sidelined ,while Turkey, a fellow regional heavyweight with a direct presence on the ground, is a guarantor together with Russia. Political talks to negotiate a transitional agreement are however proving more difficult, owing to the Assad regime’s strengthened position and increased demands from Iran.
Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon.
This will ensure that the Kingdom continues its support to rebel groups, especially if Hezbollah and Shia militia groups are permitted to continue operating in the country. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which is increasingly resembling a regional Cold War. Already in Yemen for example, since the Saudi intervention, over eighty percent of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance, up from sixty per cent prior to the intervention; fifteen million people don’t have access to healthcare and twenty-one million don’t access to clean water, up fifty-two percent from before the intervention; and ten governorates are on the verge of experiencing famine.
Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. Balancing is more informed by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE for example is more fearful of domestic participatory Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, wherein the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has blamed it for much of the country’s problems, refusing to finance and arm it and preferring to make use of Emirati troupes and private contractors instead.
Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. Dubai and Oman have important economic ties with the Islamic republic, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars/North Dome GAS field. All three of these refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with the Islamic republic while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, and thus offered to play a mediating role between Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite the Erdogan regime’s continued opposition to the Islamic republic’s interests in Syria.
Second, the drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. 2015 saw the oil price drop by over thirty-five per cent from its 2014 level, and this trend has to date continued in 2016 despite the strong Saudi-Iranian tensions. The Kingdom, which relies on oil income for between seventy-seven and eighty-eight per cent of government revenue has thus been forced to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic social programmes. This has caused its reserves to drop from around 735 billion dollars in 2014 to around 623 billion by the end of 2015, and the budget deficit for 2016 stood at seventy-nine billion, ensuring that the kingdom will need to make use of more of its reserves.
The drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states.
Levies on petrol and gas have increased by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent respectively and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value added tax with income tax soon to follow by 2018. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the Kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime in Egypt.
Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the 15-24 year old group stands at over thirty per cent and around two-thirds of the country is aged under thirty.
Opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest
The 2016 budget allocated around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services, however much more will need to be implemented, including finding employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. It is argued that this is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammed (thirty-one) and the relatively young Mohammed bin Nayef (fifty-seven) as deputy crown prince and crown prince respectively. The Kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes. David Hurst thus argues that the other fourty-five executed with Nimr in January 2016 was a sign aimed at domestic dissenters. Most of these comprised Al-Qaida linked militants, some of whom had been on death row since 2004. Executing them at this juncture when levies and taxes are increasing is meant to illustrate that rebellion against the monarch would not be tolerated.
Things however can change quickly. The region is currently in flux, the chances for miscalculations are abound, especially in terms of further regional upheaval. The increasing regional interference of Russia is worrisome in this regard, especially as the country moves to fill the gap in Egypt and more overtly supports Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince was not unanimously endorsed by the allegiance council. This may pose problems, especially were the king to suddenly be unable to govern. Mohammed bin Salman, who currently acts as a de-facto prime minister and is largely in charge of the countries defence policy, is viewed as lacking the capacity and credentials for such a high office by some within the royal family. His appointment was seen as risky and informed more by his proximity to his father than his ability to govern.
Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is seen by most in the royal family as legitimate, does not fully agree with some of the policies adopted by the deputy Crown Prince, especially those concerning Yemen, and may thus act to freeze him out of political office once he ascends to the helm. This would most likely lead to a rethink in Saudi foreign policy and the means best suited for its achievement. However for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.
* Ebrahim Deen is a senior researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre.
* This article was first published by Open Democracy on 20 February 2017.