The 10 March 2023 agreement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) to resume diplomatic relations severed in 2016 is widely viewed as an inflection point in the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Of particular significance is that the rapprochement between these bitter regional rivals was engineered by a previously marginal player in the region’s political affairs, China, and formally consummated in Beijing. The restoration of Saudi-Syrian relations the following month, this time facilitated by Russia, and followed by the formal re-admission of Damascus to the League of Arab States, has only strengthened such assessments. Particularly so because the United States, which has exercised near-hegemonic control over the region for decades, was in each case reduced to the role of a frustrated spectator.
That we are witnessing important developments in the geopolitical disposition of MENA is indisputable. At the same time its magnitude is easily overstated. The United States may be pivoting to Asia, and may be chastened by defeat in Afghanistan and failure in Iraq, but it is still very present in MENA and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Washington’s regional client states for their part possess neither the intention nor capacity to sever their strategic relationship with their superpower patron. And neither China nor Russia harbor the illusion that they can supplant American power and influence in the region.
Rather, MENA is experiencing the convergence of several distinct yet related dynamics. Prominent among these are the diversification of strategic relationships; the reduction of regional polarization; initiatives to ameliorate the region’s multiple conflicts; and the restoration of the Arab regional order. The latter, shattered by the combined weight of the 2003 US invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq, and by the upheaval that has engulfed MENA for more than a decade, is considered vital to blunt further popular challenges to ruling elites and curtail the influence of non-state actors.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has emerged as a key driver of these developments. Given its role and reputation as a surrogate for US hegemony, instigator of polarization, and more recently regional chaos agent, this may seem somewhat surprising. Yet these changes did not materialize overnight or proceed along a linear trajectory, and reflect transformations within the Kingdom, within the region more broadly, as well as in the global economy.
Within KSA the key development has been the meteoric rise and consolidation of power by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). MBS has not only roused his country from the prolonged torpor that characterized the latter years of King Fahd and his successor King Abdallah; he has redesigned the Saudi state in his image. Previously, power in the Kingdom was distributed among multiple royal power centers and, to a certain extent, shared with other Saudi elites. Policy was formulated on the basis of consultation and consensus within the Kingdom and among its partners, and Riyadh would as a rule lead after others had first been persuaded to follow. Under the volatile, impulsive, resolute leadership of MBS, KSA has entered the era of l’etat c’est moi.
Unrestrained and unconstrained, MBS was able to imprison powerful princes and tycoons, seize their assets, and render them collectively powerless. He ordered the dismemberment of a disloyal journalist, kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, executed a prominent Shia cleric, and emasculated a religious establishment that has been the Al-Saud’s partner in crime since the eighteenth century. MBS’s unprecedented personal control of the reins of political, economic, and military power in KSA also means he has been able to launch a war against neighboring Yemen, impose and lift a blockade on fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar, reverse policy on Iran and Syria, and coordinate oil policy with Moscow rather than Washington. His power is such that, in contrast to his predecessors, he has been able to realize all of the above while blithely ignoring competing interests or perspectives.
Changes in the Saudi royal court nevertheless form only one part of the story. Recent decades have also seen substantial developments in the region’s relationships with the United States, Russia, and China. Beijing, which half a century ago existed only as an ideological inspiration on the region’s political fringes, is today its main trading partner, and for most MENA energy producers their main export market as well. Moscow, which during most of the Soviet era did not have diplomatic relations with KSA and maintained strategic relations with its regional adversaries, is today Riyadh’s main partner in setting oil policy through the OPEC+ framework and aspires to similar cooperation with Qatar and Iran through the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). Russia and China today maintain bilateral relations with all MENA states, and Moscow has additionally forged ties with many other significant players in the region, such as Lebanon’s Hizballah, Hamas in Palestine, and General Haftar in Libya. Washington, which has either sanctioned or proscribed numerous MENA states and movements, by contrast has no diplomatic relations with either Iran or Syria, and has been seeking to undermine their regimes for decades. As such it was hardly in a position to mediate between Riyadh, Tehran, and Damascus, and more to the point opposed their recent agreements.
Yet the most interesting changes have been in relations between MENA governments and the United States. As the patron, Washington ensured the survival of its client regimes against domestic and external threats – a significant commitment during the Cold War. MENA clients for their part aligned their policies with the United States, particularly where it concerned US adversaries such as the Soviet Union, post-1979 Iran, and Iraq after 1990. In the case of KSA and other energy producers the strategic partnership additionally meant ensuring a stable supply of oil on world markets. The supply fluctuated according to the needs of Western economies, and was complemented by the purchase of Western weaponry at inflated prices and investment of surplus revenues in Western markets – what is known as petrodollar recycling.
Doubts about US power began to emerge in the aftermath of the 2003 occupation of Iraq. The most powerful military in human history proved incapable of stabilizing a country thoroughly enfeebled by a decade of comprehensive sanctions, or of preventing its transformation from a bulwark against Iran’s regional ambitions to an Iranian zone of influence on their watch. It required only a few thousand body bags for the US to capitulate and withdraw.
The overthrow of Egyptian president Husni Mubarak in 2011 constituted a further blow. There is no evidence the US supported the uprising of the Egyptian people, and quite a bit that it sustained him until it could no longer do so. Yet Washington’s failure to use its power on his behalf – admittedly an entirely unrealistic expectation – raised questions among other MENA allies about the strength of the US commitment to their own security and survival should they confront similar challenges. The Obama administration’s subsequent decision to bleed rather than kill Syria’s Ba’thist regime and ignore its self-proclaimed “red lines” with respect to developments in Syria only heightened frustrations. While the US may have supported and benefitted from the regional counter-revolution, it was tellingly led by an increasingly autonomous Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Of even greater concern to Washington’s MENA allies was the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Their primary interest in the matter was not Iran’s nuclear program, but rather the perpetuation of Tehran’s regional and international isolation. Yet the agreement was from their perspective concluded without their involvement or reference to their priorities, and they felt betrayed at what they perceived as the US riding roughshod over their national security concerns in order to satisfy its own.
Against this background the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House was celebrated as a moment of salvation. His transactional predisposition, and an entourage peppered with pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian extremists, promised better days ahead. Indeed, US assistance to the Saudi-led war against Yemen reached unprecedented heights. Trump endorsed the Saudi and Emirati-led blockade against Qatar. Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq were reduced to rubble during the campaign to eradicate the Islamic State movement’s self-proclaimed caliphate. And within a month of taking the helm at the US National Security Council uber hawk John Bolton engineered a US renunciation of the 2015 international agreement with Iran, replacing it with a policy of “maximum pressure”.
Yet, when things did not proceed according to plan, in the form of escalating Yemeni Houthi missile attacks on Saudi (and later Emirati) territory, and particularly when vital Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais were in 2019 put out of commission in a sophisticated drone and missile attack correctly presumed to be the work of Iran, the orange knight in shining armor failed to mount his steed. The Carter Doctrine was conveniently disregarded. The only shock and awe in evidence was in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, whose rulers came to the painful realization that they would serve as undefended cannon fodder in any confrontation with Iran.
Matters have, to put it mildly, hardly improved since Joe Biden entered the White House and left Afghanistan pursuant to a deal concluded by Trump. What was previously assumed in concerned regional capitals to be a product of George W. Bush’s stupidity or Obama’s perfidy, in other words, was revealed to be a more fundamental problem: the reliability and dependability of the United States in the twenty-first century, and the wisdom of placing the entire carton of MENA eggs in the American basket.
The geopolitical response to the above developments has been diversification. Washington is still looked upon as the ultimate guarantor of regime security in times of existential crisis, and along with Europe as a key partner in economic and other fields as well. But this has not precluded a strengthening of relations, based on mutual interests, with Russia and China.
Rather than participate in the rivalry between American plutocracy, Russian oligarchy, and Chinese state capitalism, MENA governments have opted to develop relationships with each of them. Thus, for example, Egypt and the UAE have partnered with Russia to promote the leadership ambitions of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and KSA has set oil policy in close coordination with Russia in willful disregard of the US and European energy agenda arising from the war in Ukraine. Advanced weaponry is no longer sourced from either West or East, but from the US, Russia, Europe, and China.
Indeed, MENA responses to the war in Ukraine provide an excellent illustration of strategic diversification. Symbolic votes in the UN General Assembly notwithstanding, relations with Russia have continued largely unaffected, in sharp contrast to the fundamental re-assessment we have seen in Europe. Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, has opted to play the role of mediator and middle-man to increase its global profile. Israel, for decades the region’s primary beneficiary of US foreign aid, has demurred in embracing US-EU sanctions directed at Russia.
Within the region, the past several years have witnessed a series of diplomatic initiatives that reflect this newfound realization among key US allies that they, rather than Washington, must bear primary responsibility for their own security and stability, even if this comes at the cost of US policy priorities. Thus, KSA resolved the GCC crisis by lifting the blockade of Qatar, and subsequently both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi repaired their previously hostile relationship with Qatar’s close ally Turkey. The UAE preceded KSA in negotiating a rapprochement with Tehran, and similarly was first to commence disengagement from the war in Yemen and normalization with Damascus. More recently, the past year has seen an effectively indefinite suspension of hostilities between KSA and Yemen’s Houthi movement, culminating in an Omani-facilitated official Saudi delegation to Sanaa.
The most significant developments are of course the Saudi-Iranian and Saudi-Syrian normalizations, though here too it is important to note that the road to Damascus was previously traveled by several other regional governments including Jordan, the UAE, and Oman, and may soon include Turkey as well. Egypt too has been taking steps to repair its relations with Iran, which were severed in 1980, and with Turkey, which reached a nadir after Sisi’s 2013 coup in Cairo unseated the Muslim Brotherhood government viewed as an ally-protégé of sorts and template for the rest of the region by Ankara.
As these various initiatives have been unfolding, Western media speculation has tended to focus on the prospects of normalization between KSA and Israel. On the one hand, and as demonstrated by the UAE, relations with Iran and with Israel are not mutually exclusive. At the same time Riyadh at present has no interest to conclude an agreement similar to that consummated by Abu Dhabi. KSA already maintains extensive relations with Israel, and aside from an outpouring of US goodwill would derive no additional benefit from their formalization. Secondly, such an agreement would primarily represent an American achievement, and MBS is loathe to provide Biden – who previously pledged to treat MBS as a “pariah” - with an achievement that would strengthen his re-election campaign.
More importantly, an agreement with this particular Israeli government would bring only grief to the Saudi leadership. Quite apart from its strained relations with the US and even poorer relationship with its own citizens, it contains a senior cabinet minister who self-identifies as a “fascist”, another who is a convicted terrorist, and which has collectively adopted the intensified dispossession of the Palestinians and systematic escalation of violence against them as a strategic objective. The UAE, Israel’s most enthusiastic Arab partner, has on account of these realities already considerably cooled the formal, public aspects of its relationship with Israel. Autocracy and absolute monarchy notwithstanding, KSA has a much larger and more engaged public opinion to take into account. And in this context Riyadh understands full well that Israel will not offer meaningful initiatives with respect to the Palestinians in exchange for normalization, and that rather than be able to claim any benefit for the Palestinians KSA would essentially be providing Greater Israel with a Saudi halal certificate.
As the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic world, KSA would also need to take into account that additional assaults on the Haram al-Sharif and Al-Aqsa Mosque are a foregone conclusion. Simply stated, Netanyahu and his far-right associates are simply not worth the trouble, and even less so if Saudi-Israeli normalization is used by Washington as bait to entice Israel to acquiesce in the eventual fruits of continued US-Iranian diplomacy. It is in this respect important to note that the resumption of diplomatic relations and reduction of tensions notwithstanding, Riyadh and Tehran remain rivals for regional influence. Indeed, the efforts to reduce regional polarization have neither resolved them nor prevented the emergence of new tensions, such as growing political and economic rivalry that between KSA and the UAE.
Yet, on the whole, Saudi Arabia and its regional partners appear to have devoted their energies to the reconstruction of what is known as the formal Arab order or Arab state system. Its revival, for all its many faults and limitations, is viewed by them as a better insurance policy against the upheaval of the past decade, and for confronting new threats and challenges that may arise.
[This article, drafted in early 2023, was originally published in Spanish translation in the current issue of Vanguardia Dossier]