Analysis: Is a crisis in US-Saudi relations on the cards?

The recent arrests in Saudi show the US can no longer rein in MBS, and any attempt could backfire on Trump.

Trump Bin Salman
US President Donald Trump with Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 leaders' summit in Japan, in June 2019 [File: Reuters]

In the saga of the Saudi royal family’s palace intrigue, it is sometimes difficult to draw a line in the sand between gossip and reality.

The prevailing understanding, however, is that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has arrested potential rivals within the Saudi royal family with apparent consent from his father, King Salman.

MBS’s timing and motivation may be debated, but we can be almost certain that one consideration weighed in his calculations: the US factor.

This is not the first time we have heard about MBS seeking to either consolidate or exert power. In a palace coup in June 2017, MBS replaced Mohammed bin Nayef, who, crucially, has deep connections with the Washington establishment, as crown prince and next in line to the throne.

In November 2017, MBS detained members of the royal family, among other Saudi elites, to eliminate and neutralise potential rivals and critics.

Last week, Mohammed bin Nayef and his brother Mohammed bin Nawaf, as well as King Salman’s younger brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, were all reportedly arrested.

The US’s silence on all of this has once again been deafening.

No longer on parole

Since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, MBS steered clear of his prior controversial policies to repair his public image abroad and ease his ascendancy to the throne when the time comes. 

He appeared to be a king in the making on parole, keeping a low profile and approving the return of Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz from the UK – a move that was widely seen as a step in the direction of diversifying views in the Saudi royal family and potentially appointing Prince Ahmed, who is the last surviving brother of King Salman, as crown prince once MBS takes over as king.

Prince Ahmed is one of the three members of the Allegiance Council – the body responsible for determining future succession to the throne – who, in 2017, opposed MBS becoming first in line. While in London, he had appeared to publicly oppose MBS’s military campaign in Yemen.

Prince Ahmed had previously been given assurances that he would not be detained upon returning to Riyadh.

His arrest last week suggests that MBS’s self-imposed parole period has come to an end.

Sending a message to Washington

The reason why MBS has chosen now to remind those concerned at home and abroad that there is only one sheriff in town does not appear to be connected to any imminent takeover from his father, King Salman. The more he gives the impression of consolidating power, the firmer his grip will be on the system of Saudi tribal alliances, which remains loyal to him and is the foundation of his rule and popularity.

However, MBS has recently come under pressure from both Washington and Moscow on issues that could have an effect on Saudi domestic politics.

Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent three days in Riyadh to discuss ways to potentially end the Saudi-led war in Yemen and release detained Saudi American citizens, including the Harvard-trained doctor, Walid Fitaihi, who was arrested in November 2017.

President Donald Trump’s administration is under pressure from Congress to push towards a peaceful resolution in Yemen, to unveil a US government unclassified report about Khashoggi’s killing and to release dual Saudi American citizens detained by Riyadh.

But Pompeo returned to the US with no apparent breakthrough and without exerting any public pressure on Riyadh to move in this direction.

This new move by MBS against weakened potential rivals in the Saudi royal family could, therefore, be interpreted as a message to the Washington establishment that he will not be swayed to change his policies.

Riyadh is sensing a shift in Trump’s policies, which are now sparking difficult conversations on Yemen and human rights. Furthermore, MBS is keenly observing an increasingly tough tone on the Saudi leadership coming from the Democratic presidential candidates in the lead-up to the US election in November.

As MBS has put all his eggs in Trump’s basket, his nightmare scenario might be to deal with the pushback from the Washington establishment if either former Vice President Joe Biden or Senator Bernie Sanders wins the election.

It is not clear whether US officials made direct contact with members of the Saudi royal family before their detention, but MBS’s justification for arresting his potential rivals has, interestingly, shifted from “corruption”, which was the rationale used in 2017, to “treason” by referencing an alleged coup attempt and some sort of US involvement, as sources have revealed in recent days. MBS distrusts the Washington establishment and it is possible he is concerned that Trump’s views may be becoming more closely aligned with it.

We do not know if Saudi security officers loyal to the detained princes have also been arrested, but if they have been, it would reflect an increasing paranoia typical of authoritarian leaders – as if MBS needed to remind everyone abroad that he is the only Saudi interlocutor.

A distraction

This power grab also serves as a distraction from other domestic challenges facing the Saudi leadership which, incidentally, are coming from Moscow. The economic dimension of the Saudi Vision 2030, which was announced in April 2016 to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and develop public sector services, has hit a challenging deadlock.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected a proposal by OPEC to cut 1.5 million barrels per day of production aimed at supporting oil prices, which has increased energy tensions in a global market already under stress since the coronavirus outbreak.

Putin partially appears to be retaliating against the Trump administration’s decision last month to impose sanctions on Russian oil giant Rosneft for transporting Venezuelan oil.

This energy war between Moscow and Riyadh could, in the long run, negatively affect the American stock market and US energy companies, as well as change Saudi Arabia’s regional and domestic priorities.

MBS might not be interested in having this rather public conversation about the impact on the oil market since a decrease in oil revenues might mean halting or delaying some of the economic and investment activities in the Saudi Vision 2030, so the arrests could serve as a useful distraction.

Incidentally, both the arrests and the Russian rejection of the OPEC offer occurred on the same day – March 6 – as if these Saudi princes are being held hostage until this oil price war is over.

The US has traditionally been involved in the Saudi royal family’s palace intrigue out of concerns about the House of Saud’s impact on the stability of the global oil market.

As the US has moved from being energy dependent to being a competitor of Saudi oil over the past 10 years, the dynamics of this relationship have changed. MBS can now use the steep decline in oil prices as leverage against Trump, which could further complicate the US-Saudi relationship.

If there is an oil price war in the global market – something which could trigger an economic slowdown in the US – American policymakers would be hampered by Washington’s lack of access to what is happening behind the scenes inside the Saudi royal family. Meanwhile, US energy companies are bystanders in the Russian-Saudi oil showdown.

The assumption that the Trump administration is in control or is even particularly aware of the palace intrigue in Riyadh is not accurate. MBS remains in the driving seat and in full control of the country. However, Trump has directly or indirectly emboldened the young Saudi prince to the extent that Washington can no longer rein in MBS without creating a crisis in US-Saudi relations.

Any attempt by the White House to pressure the Saudi crown prince over oil prices or the arrests of US-Saudi dual citizens could backfire at this stage, given the leverage MBS has on Trump, by potentially affecting the US economy in a presidential election year.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Source: Al Jazeera