What has forced Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) to reverse course on a number of aggressive policies he had pursued since 2015? If there is one event that can account for the Saudi retreat, it must be the September 14, 2019 Ansarallah drone attack on Aramco facilities at Abqaiq-Khurais and the US refusal to come to its aid.
MbS and his fellow Arabian rulers had put all their eggs in Donald Trump’s basket. To their horror, Trump refused to come to their rescue. He was only interested in their money and he made no secret of it. While the US accused Iran of carrying out the Aramco attack, American generals told Trump not to take on Tehran, especially as he approached an election year. A war with Iran would be disastrous. Any lingering hopes were dashed by Trump’s loss to Joe Biden who had made no secret of his disdain for MbS.
The mad scramble to protect their hides began in earnest in early January 2021. It started with MbS kissing and making up with the Qatari emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani when he stepped down from the plane to attend the Arab League summit in al-Ula on January 5-6, 2021. Quickly abandoned were MbS’ 13 demands including cutting ties with Tehran and shutting down Al Jazeera, that Qatar had to fulfill if it wanted a return to the Arab fold.
Soon after Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May 2017, the Saudis, together with their puppets, imposed sanctions on Qatar as well as banned Qatar Airways flights over their airspace. Iran and Turkey came to Qatar’s rescue with food supplies as well as facilitating flights. Now, the Saudis want to cultivate warm relations with Qatar. On May 11, Sheikh Tamim again visited Jeddah for further talks with MbS.
The Saudi’s latest retreat related to Iran. In an interview (April 27, 2021) with host Abdullah al-Mudaifer of Saudi state-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel about the prospect for ties between Riyadh and Tehran, MbS said, “In the end, Iran is a neighboring country, we all aspire to establish a good and distinguished relationship with Iran.”
He went on: “We do not want the situation of Iran to be difficult, on the contrary, we want a prosperous Iran.” This is quite a turnaround from what he had said about Iran four years ago. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” accusing Iran of plotting to take over Makkah and al-Madinah, without providing any proof. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”
Islamic Iran has for many years called for dialogue among regional countries, without external involvement, to resolve differences. Tehran has welcomed Saudi overtures and change of tone. Officials of the two countries have held several rounds of talks in Baghdad, according to Iraqi President Barham Salih.
Then there are the Saudis’ soothing statements about a ceasefire and offer to negotiate with the Ansarallah in Yemen under UN supervision. The Yemeni resistance movement has dismissed the Saudi demand to disarm. The Ansarallah brought the Saudis to their knees not by talking but through valiant resistance. By reaching out to Tehran, the Saudis hope that the Iranians may be able to persuade the Ansarallah.
Despite six years of blood-letting, the Saudis have totally failed to achieve any of their military or political objectives in Yemen. Instead, the Ansarallah are on the verge of liberating all of Yemen as well as the lands illegally occupied by the Saudis since 1934. They have also vowed to liberate Makkah and al-Madinah from the clutches of the Najdi Bedouins.
The horrific manner in which Jamal Khashoggi was chopped up in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 earned MbS the epithet, ‘Mr. Bone Saw’. Has he suddenly become a peacenik? His failure on all fronts has forced him to cut his losses and try to save his hide.
The overtures to Turkey are part of this plan. The Turkish daily, Hurriyet daily news, reported that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu arrived in Saudi Arabia on “May 10 to meet his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, and discuss bilateral relations and regional issues.”
“In #SaudiArabia to discuss bilateral relations and important regional issues, especially the attacks at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the oppression against the Palestinian people,” Çavuşoğlu said in a tweet.
“The minister will be in Saudi Arabia until May 12, according to a statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry,” the Hurriyet daily reported. For the Turks, Zionist attacks on Masjid al Aqsa and Gaza may be of some limited concern for cosmetic reasons, but the Saudis want the damning evidence of MbS’ complicity in the brutal murder of Khashoggi swept under the rug. Would the Turks oblige?
The other interesting ‘development’ relates to Saudi overtures to Syria. Since the start of the war on Syria in 2011, the Saudi regime has been one of the principal enablers of takfiri terrorists with the specific aim of overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Asad. Convicted murderers and rapists were released from Saudi prisons and sent to Syria. They were also given a monthly stipend. Not surprisingly, head chopping and other gruesome acts were carried out in the war-torn country.
After a decade of war, the Saudis seem to have realized that they cannot overthrow Asad, hence the reversal on Syria as well. The head of Saudi intelligence, General Khalid Humaidan visited Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart, General Ali Mamlouk on May 3. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have already opened embassies in Damascus.
Taken together, what this indicates is the total failure of Saudi policy under MbS. This has come about because the US has signalled its disinterest in regional conflicts. Hitherto, American warlords used such conflicts, instigated by them, to justify their interference in regional affairs. Their planned exit has led to local players sorting out their own problems.
While this may not solve all the problems, it will certainly reduce tensions and create a better environment. America’s presence is a source of instability; its exit and dismantlement of military bases would help reduce tensions and a more hopeful future for all the people of the region.