Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Purse strings and palace politics

Leaked Saudi diplomatic cables show Riyadh determined to brook no challenge to its regional position. Dina Ezzat reports

Bi Mub
Bi Mub
Al-Ahram Weekly

“Apart from the campaign in Yemen, which is not really planned, it is too early to say what the Saudis really have in mind for the region,” says a senior Western diplomat who recently served in Riyadh.

The campaign in Yemen, he says, will continue despite both its failure to secure any of Riyadh’s strategic objectives and the way it has helped strengthen radical Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda.

“It has become a matter of national pride for Saudis,” he says. It is also part of Saudi palace politics since it is serving to strengthen the hand of Mohamed Bin Salman, son of the Saudi king who is the oil-rich kingdom’s minister of defence.

Diplomats who served in Riyadh during the last years of King Abdullah are well-placed to identify changes in the regional direction of Saudi foreign policy. Such changes, they say, are inevitable, not only because Iran’s international isolation is ending and a deal between Tehran and the West over Iran’s nuclear programme is now imminent, but also because of the way Saudi palace politics play out.

According to an Asian diplomat who has just returned from Riyadh, Mohamed Bin Salman is “the one who effectively calls the shots”, though Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef also plays an important role in determining Riyadh’s foreign policy objectives.

But have there really been substantial changes?

Diplomats who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly agree on one thing: Saudi Arabia’s ultimate goal is to remain a leading regional power, and do so using money rather than any other political or military tool.

“The leaks don’t tell us anything new about Riyadh’s ambitions for the region. We were all aware of their hatred of the Arab Spring and the desire to stifle it at any price,” says a North African diplomat.

Saudi plans to “invest” in the infrastructure of Tunisia’s media and court Tunisian journalists hardly came as a surprise.

“Remember the beginning”, the diplomat continued. “The Saudis offered to host Tunisian President Zein Al-Abidine Bin Ali, the first Arab ruler to be ousted by the Arab Spring. And they did so early in 2011, on the eve the Egyptian 25 January Revolution.”

Bin Ali is still in Saudi Arabia. And as the leaked cables show the Saudis actively pushed for Hosni Mubarak, ousted less than four weeks after Ben Ali, to spend the rest of his days as their guest.

A retired government official and a Western diplomat both told Al-Ahram Weekly that Riyadh’s position on Mubarak has changed little.

“The Saudi offer remains, though I am not so sure whether you can still qualify it as an offer.  After all the support the Saudis have given Egypt it is now more of a wish. It is being keenly expressed and doesn’t look that far from being granted, certainly given the way Mubarak’s prosecution is going,” says the one-time senior Egyptian official.

Hosting Bin Ali and supporting Mubarak, say diplomats, is intended to send a message that Saudi Arabia is one regional power that does not abandon its allies.

“Had the WikiLeaks documents covered the early days of the January Revolution in Egypt we would have had some incredible details of Saudi interventions to save Mubarak,” says a Washington based diplomat.

Though it failed to halt the Arab Spring in countries where its allies ruled, or to take advantage of uprisings in states like Syria to remove rulers it opposes, has Riyadh changed its priorities?

“I don’t think the way Saudi Arabia perceives its interests has changed one iota,” says the Asian diplomat. “The goal has always been to avoid any threat to Saudi rule and that means closing any avenue to change.”

The consensus among diplomats is that Saudi Arabia’s rulers felt an almost visceral hatred of the Arab Spring. “It was about change and change is a word Saudi rulers despise,” said the diplomat from North Africa.

It is for much the same reason, the same sources add, that the Saudis have been throwing money — as the WikiLeaks attest — at Sunni countries with large Shia populations, such as Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain.

The North African diplomat speaks of “endless pressure” from Riyadh — something the leaked documents confirm — to prevent North African states from being courted by Iran.  

“As we speak the Saudis are spending lots of money across North Africa — including Libya, though our friends in Egypt might not want to acknowledge it, to cement ties with Sunni political groups like Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood,” says the diplomat.

An Egyptian diplomat confirms that Cairo is well aware of how far the Saudis are going with their Muslim Brotherhood overtures. “We are showing some unease about Riyadh’s direction,” he says.

Western diplomats in Egypt, and diplomats who spoke to the Weekly from capitals across the region, say that faced with the countdown to an Iranian nuclear deal Saudi Arabia is determined to shore up the “Sunni front”. And if this means bringing the Muslim Brotherhood on board as partners, then so be it.

The Saudis are stitching together an odd patchwork of alliances in their bid to contain expanding Iranian-Shia influence.  

Documents already released by WikiLeaks show the extent of financial support Riyadh has provided Christian Lebanese political figures. And diplomats in Cairo and elsewhere in the region say Saudi support of “selected” Kurdish groups is an open secret.

Cairo may not be happy about the channels of communication Riyadh has opened with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, just as Riyadh is aware it is an issue on which it must tread carefully but, says a senior Western diplomat who has served in the kingdom, the Egyptian authorities need not worry about any fall in the level of Saudi support it has received “even though Riyadh is disappointed with the performance of the Egyptian regime.”

The Saudis, say diplomats, are also constrained in their dealings with the Kurds by the need to accommodate Riyadh’s new ally Turkey.

Following the replacement of Saudi Arabia’s veteran foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal, who has been succeeded by Adel Al-Jubair, it is only to be expected that there will be a reassessment of the way Riyadh has pursued its foreign policy goals. Saudi diplomacy is now considering how best to attain it objectives in a region that has already passed through what Riyadh sees as disastrous changes since 2011, and which is set to face new challenges as Iran’s three decades of diplomatic isolation comes inexorably to an end.

Sources tell the Weekly that in his talks with leading Arab capitals Al-Jubair has injected new urgency into Riyadh’s strategy to shore up its own hegemony and limit the diplomatic damage that might ensue from the return of Tehran and possible empowerment of its allies in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, they say, is growing impatient.

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