Saudi Arabia: Time to face the music

Having lost its staunchest supporter in Washington, MBS now has to tread carefully on the international scene.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a virtual G-20 summit held over video conferencing in Riyadh on November 22, 2020 [Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP]

Participants at a regional security conference in Manama over the weekend must have been surprised to see former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal shoot in all directions, considering that no Saudi is allowed to shoot from the hip nowadays – not even a prince.

Indeed, some may have been quite indignant when the seasoned former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States, lectured neighbouring Oman on foreign interference and dubbed Israel a “Western colonising” power that incarcerates Palestinians in concentration camps.

Regardless of whether Prince Turki was wrong on Oman or right on Israel, the tone and timing of his rebuke provoked the foreign ministers of Oman and Israel who were in attendance and invoked some question and exclamation marks about the coherence and consistency of Saudi foreign policy.

After all, only a week earlier, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the new Red Sea coastal city of Neom.

And it was only a month before that the other former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, slammed the Palestinian leadership for condemning Gulf states which decided to normalise ties with Israel!

To add to the confusion, both princes and their children are or remain privileged royalty when many of their cousins have fallen from grace. Big time.

If, as reported, Prince Turki is indeed close to King Salman and echoes his sentiments, does it mean – as some claim – that the monarch is in disagreement with his crown prince?

Or, are the father and son in agreement, but take on different roles, with the king and his entourage expressing the official policy, and the crown prince and his clique working from behind the scenes?

I find the latter more plausible.

That is because it is difficult to believe the king and his crown prince are actually in disagreement about anything major, and that they deliberately and openly display their discord for their friends and foes to see.

If anything, the past six testing years made their relationship stronger in the face of mounting challenges, like the fiascos of the war in Yemen, the Gulf crisis, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and many others.

As the Beirut Bureau Chief for the New York Times, Ben Hubbard, chronicles in his book, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, the king has been his son’s greatest fan and supporter from the start, enabling him to become the de facto ruler of the kingdom. It helped that MBS, on his mother’s advice, shadowed his father since he was 16 years old, especially after the unexpected deaths of two of his older half-brothers.

My guess is that both men were angered by Netanyahu for leaking the news of his secret trip to Saudi Arabia in his last-ditch effort to force the kingdom to come out about their warming relations and to thus improve his standing at home and abroad.

Netanyahu’s smug phoniness must have been especially irritating and embarrassing to the monarchy, which reportedly moved to cancel an upcoming secret visit by the Israeli intelligence chief.

Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia remains keen on improving security ties with Israel to contain Iran, but without openly normalising relations, as such a move could cause a backlash within the kingdom and part of the Islamic world.

Unlike its smaller neighbours, the kingdom has much to lose from openly betraying the Palestinian cause.

With President Donald Trump’s defeat in the US elections, Riyadh lost its staunchest ally at the White House. The monarchy is now obliged to tread carefully, walk back some of its mistakes and avoid any new risky moves before a less friendly administration takes over next month.

Biden has already made it clear that he will reverse much of Trump’s appeasement of Saudi Arabia and his hostile policies towards Iran.

This explains Riyadh’s recent overtures toward Turkey, after more than two years of hostility, and its keener attempts at resolving the Gulf crisis with Qatar, which may lead to relations being restored at the GCC summit later this month.

The same goes for alleged attempts at ending the disastrous war in Yemen. Reports about Riyadh trying to expedite a settlement of the war, that includes a “joint declaration” by the two warring Yemeni parties will, if serious, prove a step in the right direction.

And the same applies to Saudi Arabia’s recent engagement with Iraq. After years of snubbing Baghdad, Riyadh sent a top-level delegation to the Iraqi capital earlier this week. And last month, Riyadh opened the Arar border crossing for trade with Iraq for the first time in 30 years.

By taking these and other steps, Saudi Arabia seems keen to show willingness and ability to act independently and without foreign interference, when in reality, it is eager to move quickly to preempt and placate potential future American pressure.

After shrewdly getting away with almost everything he wanted from the Trump administration, thanks in no small part to the gullibility of its emissary, Jared Kushner, MBS must now face the new reality, both in Washington and the region.

The honeymoon is over. It is time to face the music and deal with the consequences.