As we approach the second anniversary of the state-sponsored assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia continues its retreat, losing direction and influence in the Gulf and Middle East regions.
More than 50 years after the Saudi kingdom began its rise to regional and international prominence as the leading member of OPEC and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), it now finds itself on a path of steady decline.
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Home to Islam’s holiest sites and to the world’s second-largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia’s misguided policies are wasting the religious and financial clout it has accumulated over the years.
The past five years have been especially painful and destructive. What began as a promising and ambitious drive by the rather Machiavellian Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), soon turned into a reckless venture.
Guided primarily by his mentor, the other Machiavellian prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), MBS is running the kingdom to the ground.
Paradoxically, nothing testifies to the decline of Saudi Arabia more than the abrupt rise of its junior partner as a bellicose regional power, interfering in Libya and Tunisia and supporting dictators and war criminals, like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
With Riyadh paralysed by mostly self-inflicted blows, Abu Dhabi is recklessly dashing forward and dragging Saudi Arabia with it.
This is also evident in MBS’s support for MBZ’s gambit to link Gulf security to Israel’s as a way to safeguard their rule and regional influence.
It is an astounding reversal of roles, considering Saudi Arabia began its rise to regional and global prominence in the late 1960s, before the UAE had even come into existence.
The early rise of Saudi Arabia can be traced to the fall of Egypt’s pan-Arab project after the disastrous 1967 war, and the subsequent death of its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970.
Already a leading member of OPEC, Saudi Arabia organised the first meeting of the OIC in 1970 to magnify its influence beyond the Arab League, which was dominated at the time by the secular, Soviet-friendly regimes – especially Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
The windfall from the oil boom after the OPEC boycott following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war further enriched Saudi Arabia and financed its petrodollar diplomacy and influence.
Egypt’s decision to sign a peace treaty with Israel at the end of the decade all but assured the kingdom’s regional rise.
The 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan elevated Riyadh into an indispensable strategic ally for the United States in the Muslim world.
Saudi regional standing was strengthened further in the 1980s with Iraq and Iran drained by a destructive eight-year war, and Syria and Israel sucked into the Lebanese quagmire following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The Saudi-US alliance reached a new height during the 1980s, as Riyadh supported the US against the Soviet Union and its clients, notably through their successful covert assistance for the Afghan Mujahideen which ended in Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan by 1989, but also paved the way for the 9/11 attacks more than a decade later.
All attempts by the likes of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to regain the regional initiative ended in disaster. America’s decisive victory in the Cold War after the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc and the Gulf War, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its pursuit of a double containment policy towards both Iran and Iraq, further improved Riyadh’s regional and international positions.
In 1991, a triumphant America convened the first international Arab-Israeli “peace conference” in Madrid. Saudi Arabia was invited, while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formally excluded.
In short, Arab failure has somehow led to Saudi success, whether by default or by design.
The Saudi-American honeymoon came to an abrupt end in 2001 with al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Riyadh may have expelled Osama bin Laden, the Saudi leader of al-Qaeda, a decade earlier, but 15 of the 19 hijackers were nonetheless Saudi nationals.
Then, once again, Riyadh was saved by circumstance, or by another American folly. The Bush administration’s decision to extend the so-called “war on terror” beyond Afghanistan made Saudi an indispensable ally yet again.
In April 2002, President George W Bush received the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, at his own private Texas ranch, considered a privilege to any foreign leader. A month earlier, Abdullah was instrumental in getting the Arab League to adopt his concocted “peace initiative” that basically committed it to the land for peace formula in negotiations with Israel.
A year later, the complicit Saudi regime looked on as the US invaded Iraq under false pretences, leaving the country destroyed and the US treasury exhausted by years of war and occupation.
From then on, Saudi Arabia’s luck began to run out.
Saudi Arabia became increasingly vulnerable as its exhausted patron, the US, began to turn its back on the region in the 2010s under the Obama administration.
The US became the world’s leading oil producer thanks to the shale revolution, and hence less interested in Saudi or Gulf security.
It also became less inclined to intervene militarily on behalf of its rich clients, just when Iran’s influence began to grow at the expense of Iraq.
And if that was not enough, the US and Iran signed an international nuclear deal in 2015, paving the way for lifting the international sanctions, emboldening the Islamic Republic and enhancing its standing, to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the outbreak of the Arab uprisings across the region starting in 2011 put the Saudi kingdom and its satellite authoritarian states on alert.
The Obama administration’s initial support for democratic reform and regime change further complicated matters for the Saudis.
Utterly frantic and exposed, the Saudi monarchy went on the offensive after the death of King Abdullah, under the new leadership of King Salman and his ambitious son, Mohammed, who was appointed the new defence minister.
Making Saudi Arabia great again
Guided by his Emirati mentor Bin Zayed, MBS wasted no time to start a war in Yemen on the pretext of taking on the rebellious Houthis, considered allies of Tehran.
He promised victory in weeks, but the war has dragged on for years, with no end in sight.
In June 2017, MBS and MBZ manufactured a crisis with neighbouring Qatar on the fake pretences of countering “terrorism” and foreign interference in order to impose a new pliant regime that would abide by their dictates.
However, the Trump administration reversed its initial support for the planned coup and what was meant to be a quick win has caused a major fracture in Gulf unity which will not be easy to mend.
In November 2017, MBS lured the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri – a dual Lebanese-Saudi national – to Riyadh, forcing him to condemn his coalition partner, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and submit his resignation on live Saudi television.
This move also backfired causing international outrage and making the Saudi regime look even more foolish.
Despite the scandalous blunders, MBS rose through the ranks with every failure, becoming crown prince in 2017. Soon after, he took over all the pillars of power and business in the kingdom, purging princes and government officials through abrupt incarceration, humiliation and even torture.
From then on, the repression continued unabated against all opposition figures, including former officials, religious figures, academics, journalists and human rights activists, reaching a new climax with the horrific assassination and dismemberment of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Thus, just a few years after King Salman took power and set his young son on the path to the throne, Saudi Arabia has come to be known for brutal violence and recklessness rather than its generous charity and pragmatic diplomacy. In the public eye, the country has come to be represented not by the symbol of the Red Crescent, but the image of a bloody bone saw.
MBS’s brash adventures may have strengthened his grip on power, but they have terribly weakened the kingdom.
Despite hundreds of billions of Saudi arms purchases, the five-year war on Yemen – the worst humanitarian disaster in recent years – continues unabated.
Worse still, the blowback from the war is now felt in Saudi Arabia proper as the Yemeni Houthis have escalated their missile attacks on the kingdom.
Once a major Saudi achievement, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is now utterly paralysed because of MBS’s shortsighted policies.
The kingdom that once prided itself on being a pillar of regional pragmatism and stability has become a belligerent and destabilising force.
Instead of embarking on major political reforms to pave the way for economic transformation, the young inexperienced MBS followed in the footsteps of the UAE, but without its tactfulness, turning the country into a repressive police state with the trappings of social liberalisation.
But as the consumer drive wore off and the entertainment circus of professional wrestling and pop concerts faded away, the kingdom was left with budget deficits and domestic discontent.
The initial optimism and excitement about greater social mobility and empowerment of women soon gave way to pessimism and despair, as Saudi economic reform and multibillion-dollar megaprojects stalled, while youth unemployment remains at a high 29 percent.
The Saudi kingdom is in disarray, its regime utterly disoriented and disrespected throughout the region and beyond.
Unable to deal with the failures or to meet the challenges ahead amid rising tensions with Iran and Turkey, MBS is desperate. He may try for a comeback during the upcoming G20 summit hosted by Riyadh, but that will prove too little too late.
The growing likelihood of his American patron, Donald Trump, losing the US elections in November, has left him high and dry.
Israel as a last refuge
Instead of reversing his destructive policies, ending the war in Yemen, reconciling with Qatar and strengthening Gulf and Arab unity to neutralise Iran, the Saudi crown prince has been cementing the covert alliance with Israel to pave the way towards full normalisation with the occupier of Arab lands.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, MBS has encouraged the UAE and Bahrain to normalise ties with Israel as a prelude to imminent Saudi normalisation, but without the consent of his father. King Salman is reportedly adamant that Saudi Arabia normalises relations with Israel only after the emergence of a Palestinian state.
Regardless of whether this is true, or merely father and son playing “good cop, bad cop” with the Palestinian cause, a diplomatic and strategic rapprochement with Israel may prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Not only is it far-fetched for Israel to get involved in Gulf regional security, which is already saturated with American, French, and other world powers’ involvement, but it is also unlikely, not to say unthinkable, for the “Jewish State” to sacrifice its soldiers in defence of Gulf monarchies.
And whatever Israel could offer in terms of know-how, technology, and arms, is already on offer at a discounted rate by world powers.
Yes, Israel may be trigger happy and eager to join the Saudi-Emirati “anti-democratic league”, but this will prove counterproductive, considering the degree of Arab revulsion it may provoke.
After a decades-long occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, Israel remains the enemy for most people in the region, with an absolute majority of Arabs seeing it as a threat to regional security and stability.
But MBS, like MBZ, is mostly hedging his bets in anticipation of a likely Trump defeat that is certain to leave him isolated or even shunned by a Joe Biden administration.
And yes, Israel may be able to help the discredited Saudi regime in Washington, and more specifically in the US Congress, but that will come at a high price, including Saudi total acquiescence to both American and Israeli hegemony.
In other words, MBS’s gamble on Israel may prove as foolish as his other gambles because it will prove more of a burden than an asset to the kingdom.
If the US and Trump himself could not save MBS’s Saudi Arabia from imminent decline, you can be sure Israel will not be able to, either.
Editor’s note: This text has been updated to correct wrong dates for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.