Saudi Arabia Plays East Against West While Smothering Dissent
Federica Zoja 11 November 2022

The future of the Saud dynasty is being played out on two parallel tracks, along which the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman‘s choices race forward rapidly and unscrupulously. First, is that of foreign policy, which includes agreements with all the major world powers, albeit adversaries among them. Second, the domestic one, made up of purges at the top of the State.

On the foreign front, little or no use was made of US President Joe Biden‘s trip to Riyadh this summer, designed to agree on common oil strategies. Without turning his back entirely on Washington, Mohammed bin Salman has demonstrated his autonomy in decision-making by instead strengthening his alliance with Moscow within the OPEC+ framework.

The upgraded version of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has ordered a cut in oil production, even if it flies in the face of its US allies. And what is more, a cut that is double what was originally planned: 2 million barrels per day, or 2 percent less production. A choice shared by the two founders of the larger assembly, Saudi Arabia and Russia, and supported by the set of partners: OPEC+ includes the 14 “senior” members – Algeria, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, United Arab Emirates, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, and Venezuela – and the non-OPEC producers, aggregated since 2014 precisely for the purpose of deciding together whether to curb world production. That is, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brunei, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Oman, Russia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Biden risked gambling away the midterm elections on the Riyadh’s independent streak and the consequent rise in the price of Brent crude, destined to thwart any attempt to cap oil prices in an effort to contrast Russian belligerence.

Now Saudis and Russians make no secret of the fact that they are intent on making the OPEC+ experiment last, at least until 2028, which they view as a success, of course. But the confidence with which the Saudi crown is handling its relations with Washington and Moscow, as if it is not afraid of losing at either table, leaves more than one observer astonished. Is the coldness of a poker player or the lucidity of one who knows he has the upper hand? Vladimir Putin‘s Russia has been cooperating for decades with Iran, Riyadh’s ‘best enemy’. Moscow and Tehran exchange technology and military expertise, including nuclear expertise: in the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian military is also deploying Iranian-made weapons. Riyadh is well aware of this. Moreover, it is precisely thanks to Russian know-how in the energy sphere that it is planning its own nuclear future, on a par with another controversial US ally in the region: Egypt.

Cairo, while not turning its back on the White House, has closed its distance with Moscow. Cooperation with the Russian Federation has never been in question, even after the invasion in Ukraine. On the contrary. Within the League of Arab States, Egypt itself took the lead in creating – in March, shortly after the outbreak of war – a liaison group, a kind of diplomatic task force, to mediate between Moscow and Kiev. In addition to Egypt, its members include Jordan, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia preferred to play in its own sandbox: more on that in a moment. In April, therefore, the Arab League subcommittee went first to the Kremlin and then to Warsaw (where it met with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky) to start a negotiating process. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later stopped in Egypt in late July during his African tour aimed at strengthening ties with some of the continent’s heavyweights, including Ethiopia and Uganda.

What about cooperation with Beijing? Once again, Riyadh is setting the tone for countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Forging more stable economic and political ties with China is inevitable so as not to be squeezed between the two world superpowers, whose geopolitical strategies go in opposite and conflicting directions.

On the one hand, the new US regional strategy calls for the reduction of naval bases in the Middle East, in favor of a less cumbersome ground presence, with the aim of supporting the security forces of the Gulf monarchies. On the other hand Beijing’s outlook is the complete opposite: to protect its interests, China is developing its naval potential, expanding its geographic sphere of influence.

It is in the interest of Gulf monarchies, therefore, to entertain fruitful relations with both superpowers in a world with rampant shocks and crises. It should be recalled, in this regard, that the Saudis and Qataris recently attended the Shanghai cooperation organization (SCO) summit held in Samarkand as “auditors.” The member countries of the Eurasian organization, led by China, account for 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the planet’s GDP.

But the domestic game being played in Saudi Arabia is equally interesting. Just over a month ago, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ( or MB S as the international press is wont to call Mohammed Bin Salman) was appointed Prime Minister, promoted from his original official role as First Deputy Prime Minister. Until then, the post was held by his father, King Salman, now 86 years old. The ruler is paving the way for a succession in all its details: Prince Mohammed’s brother, Khalid Bin Salman, has also been ‘promoted’ from Deputy Defense Minister to Minister. Another brother, Abdullaziz, retains the role of Energy Minister. In short, the economic and political power is crystallized in the hands of a few royalty. There are those who believe Prince Mohammed in particular was appointed Prime Minister ahead of time so that international justice – and especially US justice – could not hold anything against him in the case of Jamal Kashoggi‘s murder, for which he is believed to be responsible for.

Clearly, this is a resounding signal to dissidents of the Saudi regime: not only is Riyadh mercilessly pursuing its enemies everywhere, but at the moment no Western champion of human rights can (or will) act against the Kingdom. Since, however, the international community needs to be provided with a semblance of restraint, the newly appointed Saudi Prime Minister is trying to slip into the garb of a diplomatic peace broker. And so the negotiations for the release of prisoners of war in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict proved crucial to Riyadh’s image: in late September, Saudi diplomats led a successful negotiation that led to the  release by Russia of ten fighters, including a Moroccan, an American and a Brit.

At this point, having summarily outlined the chessboard on which the new generation of Saudi royals moves nimbly, can Washington turn its back on Riyadh, leaving it to proceed in the opposite direction, ever further East? Where US-Saudi relations stand will be better understood at the upcoming annual summit devoted to trade and finance (the 9th Saudi Trade Finance Summit), organized by Saudi Arabia to forward its non-oil related economic sectors. This year, the event is scheduled for November 14 and 15. The presence – or absence – of major US stakeholders will serve as a litmus test for the degree of understanding between the White House and the Saud household.

 

Cover Photo: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting during the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019 (photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP).

 

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