King Salman's visit to Russia, his first, is a significant and historic event. After the Soviet Union became one of the world’s first powers to recognize Saudi Arabia in 1926, bilateral relations saw both ups and long periods of alienation during the Cold War and from 2011 to 2015.
The first step toward rapprochement was made in September 2003 during the visit of then-Crown Prince Abdullah to Moscow. It was marked by the signing of a number of bilateral agreements. One of the most important was on cooperation in the oil and gas sector. It brought two big Russian companies, Lukoil and Stroytransgaz, to the Saudi market.
Despite all the difficulties of entering a new market, both companies achieved success. Lukoil discovered gas-condensate deposits, and Stroytransgaz completed construction of the Shaybah-Abqaiq oil pipeline, receiving the highest appraisal from its client Saudi Aramco.
The positive development of bilateral relations that followed was halted by the conflict in Syria in 2011, in which our countries took opposing positions. But the arrival to power of King Salman in January 2015, and the meeting of his son Mohammed bin Salman with President Vladimir Putin in May that year, ended the four-year period of no relations.
The achieved deals were perceived as the Kingdom’s positive response to numerous Russian calls to develop economic and investment cooperation despite foreign policy disagreements. During the same meeting in 2015, Putin sent an invitation to King Salman, which he accepted.
But after this visit the dates were shifted several times, probably due to lack of trust and the absence of a favorable environment due to the conflict in Syria. Apparently, there were expectations that one of the parties would make concessions to receive material gains. Nevertheless, thanks to the political will of Putin and King Salman, efforts to find mutual understanding on political and economic issues did not stop.
What made the current visit possible? In the same way as in 2003, the rapprochement is determined by the need to cooperate in the oil sector, on which both countries still greatly depend. Having suffered serious losses during the period of low crude oil prices on the international market, Russia and Saudi Arabia understood that the best way to compete is to cooperate.
After overcoming their differences, both sides reached an agreement on cooperation in 2016 to stabilize the oil market and establish so-called “fair” oil prices that are acceptable to both producers and consumers.
Market stability and acceptable prices are vital to overcoming the economic challenges that the two countries face. Russia has to withstand Western sanctions, while the Kingdom chose the path of reforms to get rid of dependence on oil and to diversify its economy. The strategy of economic, social and cultural transformation is declared in Vision 2030.
Mutual understanding enabled constructive dialogue between the heads of energy institutions, Alexander Novak and Khalid Al-Falikh, who agreed to do “everything possible” to stabilize oil prices. Common ground was also reached by heads of oil giants: Igor Sechin from Rosneft and Amin Naser from Saudi Aramco.

The meeting between King Salman and President Vladimir Putin is destined to provide a new impetus to a multidimensional development of bilateral relations, in the interests of the people of both countries and Middle East stability.

As a result, they managed to reach an unprecedented agreement on cooperation in the markets of Asian counties such as India, Indonesia and others. Experts claim that Russian companies may be invited to realize mega-projects in Saudi Arabia, and that Saudi Aramco may take part in Arctic projects in Russia.
But oil and gas is not the only domain of bilateral cooperation. Vision 2030 creates prospects for foreign companies, and both countries believe that nuclear energy, where Russia is the world’s leader, can become the largest field of cooperation.
Another hi-tech domain is space exploration. Here, the parties can develop an existing partnership, as Russian rockets have already launched several satellites constructed in Saudi Arabia.
Military production offers great prospects in the hi-tech sphere as well. Russia is widely recognized as a producer of the most modern military equipment, and the Kingdom — the world’s biggest weapons importer — has decided to create its own arms production industry with the participation of foreign companies. On Thursday,  Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to buy S-400 air defense systems  and receive “cutting edge technologies” from Russia.
Unlimited opportunities for cooperation can be found in Russian agriculture, mining and processing of minerals — domains that are in line with Vision 2030, and where Russia has vast experience. Wood processing, car and furniture production, civilian infrastructure, medicine, drinking water supplies and many other spheres have potential for cooperation.
Both countries’ institutions and private companies should determine the main directions for cooperation that are starting to open up thanks to Vision 2030, and formalize these directions in a separate document.
It appears that the most important political factor behind King Salman’s visit to Moscow is the interest in a strategic partnership to stabilize the Middle East and Syria in particular, as both Moscow and Riyadh wish to preserve the country’s sovereignty and territorial unity.
The convergence of the Russian and Saudi positions — not only on Syria, but also on Iraq, Yemen and Libya — was recently confirmed by the foreign ministers of both countries. According to UN statistics, Moscow and Riyadh hold similar positions on 90 percent of issues.
Russia’s decisive contribution to the fight against Daesh has perceptibly changed Moscow’s standing in the region, including in Saudi Arabia. Rapprochement with Moscow strengthens the Kingdom’s regional positions, and opens new opportunities of cooperation in order to re-establish stability in the Middle East.
Partnership with Riyadh, Russia’s military might and its good relations with most of the region’s countries can together lead to positive processes. The high-level meeting in Moscow is destined to provide a new impetus to a multidimensional development of bilateral relations, in the interests of the people of both countries, as well as regional and global stability.

Article published in Arab News:

Photo credit: RIA Novosti- Sergey Guneev

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 15 August 2017 14:15

De-escalation zones to end the war in Syria

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

The future of Syria is now being decided in Amman after the withdrawal of Syrian armed opposition troops from neighborhoods near the Jordanian-Syrian border, leaving the crossing point of Naseeb under the control of the Syria Arab Army (SAA). The fate of Syria, and importantly the future of its president, will heavily influence future developments in the polarized region as Middle Eastern states which are divided over the civil wars in Libya and the Qatar crisis are also opposing stakeholders in the Damascus regime’s fate.

An announcement of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria came on June 30, 2017, paving the way for another ceasefire in northern Homs, forcing the armed opposition to move to Idlib. Due to the benefits for both the government and the opposition from the truce, which has been a relief both parties, the regime, its enemies, along with the Russians and Americans, are also considering expanding the de-escalation zones to include eastern Ghouta (Reef Damascus) and the Southeast area by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders following Daesh’s fall in Deir Ezzor.

The expansion of the de-escalation zone in eastern Ghouta is aimed at avoiding clashes between the SAA, its allies, and the US-supported opposition on the ground in that area. The Russians and Americans also coordinating in the area of Deir Ezzor to prevent the Kurds from retaking the lands after the demise of Daesh because Turkey – a major US ally in the Middle East region – is not willing to see a Kurdish state along its southern border. The SAArecaptured the last major stronghold of Daesh on the way to Deir Ezzor. This is the caliphate’s last important stronghold in the central Syria.

Unlike the Russians, the Americans are not in a rush to end the conflict in Syria and they just seek to avoid any armed conflict near the country’s borders with Jordan and Israel. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syrian opposition, is concerned about the future of Syria and its president. This is clear in the statement issued by Saudi ministry of foreign affairs, which read that Riyadh, still supported an international agreement on the future of Syria and Assad should have no role in any transition to bring the war there to an end. The statement reveals that the position of the kingdom on the Syrian crisis is firm, and it is based on the Geneva 1 Communiqué and on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 which stipulates forming a transitional body that will run the country. Thus, Saudi Arabia does not want Syria to be another Arab country where Iran consolidates its influence.

Thus, the future of Syria right now depends on the de-escalation zones’ efficiency and the seriousness of both international and regional players to stabilize the country which, after seven-and-a-half years of war has seen 400,000 of its citizens killed and 12 million (half of the population) uprooted, resulting in an international refugee crisis that has fueled various levels of instability and exacerbated economic problems throughout scores of Middle Eastern and European countries.

The importance of a lasting ceasefire in Syria will help major powers, the United States and Russia, avoid a complex knot of local and sectarian disputes in Syrian and to avoid spillover of the fighting troops including the armed opposition groups, Daesh, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.Only with such international cooperation between Washington and Moscow can there be any realistic hope for resolving the Syrian civil war.

The two major Amman meetings between the Russians and Americans along with their Jordanian counterparts helped reach the ceasefire agreement in three governorates in southwestern Syria: Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida. More than 2.5 million people are believed to be living in the general area of the four zones which span the southern provinces of Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida

Moreover, the talks between Jordanian officials and Syrian armed opposition in Amman at the end of July paved the way for a ceasefire in East Ghouta and other areas. The meeting of leaders of the Southern Front militias was held with American, Russian and Jordanian experts in the Jordanian capital Amman end of July to discuss a truce in southwestern Syria. Another meeting was held also at the sidelines of the Russian-American meetings between Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh to discuss the next step that lead to a transition government.

The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostility acts in some locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal that was reached late June in Amman and which has become effective in July to establish a de-escalation zone in Eastern Ghouta and southeastern Syria that would help end up the civil war. The new zones cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and the southeastern region of Syria by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, slated to be signed in late August to mid-September, paving the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The “de-escalation” zone created in southwestern Syria and northern Homs will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

At present, Moscow is in direct contact with Americans after some meetings in Switzerland between security and military officials from both countries to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the terms of the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Syria, by the Jordanian borders.

Experts from the United States and Russia are holding consultations on the expansion of the umbrella of de-escalation zones in four regions in Syria. The Russians have already completed negotiations with Jordan on the monitoring of the recently established de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, and on the Amman Declaration which is on its final stages before being announced this month in Astana.For Jordan, such an agreement is important to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis and eradicate terrorism, ensuring border security and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as Syria’s security and stability are of strategic interest for the region.

Article published in International Policy Digest: https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/08/14/de-escalation-zones-end-war-syria/

Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

Published in Tribune

Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Iraq’s influential Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, paid an unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia on July 28 and 29, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other senior officials. The meeting took place before the crown prince accedes to the throne, in order to draw up the coming relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Sadr’s rare visit raised concerns in some Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which has refrained from commenting on the trip.

The charismatic cleric has recast himself as the upholder of Iraq’s democratic process and a bulwark against the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias. The visit comes at a time when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are worsening. Would the visit of the Shia cleric, a member of an influential Shia family and son of the prominent Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, help defuse tension between Baghdad and Riyadh?

The timing of the visit is crucial to Iraqi politics. Sadr has returned as a leader in charge of uniting Iraqis under one umbrella, his office said. However, some Iraqi sources believe the visit to Saudi Arabia shows that Sadr has come on the Iraqi political scene to lead, not to linger in his Najaf office to receive followers.

The visit can be perceived as an attempt to consolidate his support and reap the fruits of his involvement in the coming parliamentary elections in April 2018, as Iraq would not have a government without him. Sadr is crucial for many Iraqi leaders as he heads a political bloc with almost 10% of parliamentary seats and has great influence on both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. His persistence to bring about change by bridging gaps between Iraqis is not welcomed by many in government, who are controlled by Iran.

The cleric and his followers are making deals in an attempt to enter positions in Iraq as mediator between Iraqis, Iranians and Saudis. Sadr is now delegated by Saudis to play a role in Iraq to serve Saudi interests and to return Iraq into its Arab fold by playing a role in bridging the differences and gaps between the three countries. That explains why he received $10 million from Saudi Arabia and the promises the kingdom has given him to build up the consulate in Najaf.

The question that arises is the following: Is Riyadh leaning toward Sadr, or is he leaning toward Riyadh at Tehran’s expense?

Sadr’s appearance as a powerful national leader could have some advantages, as seen by Saudi Arabia, because of his newly-minted nationalist stance that has made him a potential bulwark against Iranian influence. This became clear in his April 2017 statement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling on him to step down. Right now there is tension between him and rival Shia factions, especially after his militias clashed with the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, which is concerned with Iran’s influence not only in Iraq but also across the greater Middle East, wanted someone like Sadr to step into the Iraqi field to draw up its relations externally and to organize domestic affairs. This started with the invitation from Prince Mohammad. Saudi Arabia, and mainly its crown prince, views Sadr as a man of the people who is a fervent Iraqi nationalist and federalist, upholding the democratic process by non-violent means. Sadr, who is an advocate of the quota system in parliamentary elections, believes this method can ensure that Iraq’s main ethno-religious constituents — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds — share power.

Some Iranian commentators and political analysts warn that Saudi Arabia is playing games by courting Sadr to influence Iraqi politics — especially after Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Riyadh in June — which could threaten Iranian interests in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis called on the Iraqi prime minister by giving him a chance to either reconsider his policies toward Iran and bear the consequences that Iranian control of Iraq’s politics and its resources would carry, including the marginalization of Iraqi Sunnis, or to U-turn toward his Arab brethren in order to proceed with regaining stability in Iraq.

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

Since the Saudis received no positive response from Abadi, they thought of other alternatives, Sadr being one. Some view the cleric’s visit as a concession from the Saudis to Iran, especially as a result of Qatar and the Islamic Republic growing closer at the expense of Riyadh’s influence amid the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rift over Doha.

Sadr is known for shifting alliances in order to remain in a position of power and influence. He proved this in February 2016, when 100,000 of his followers demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad, calling for government reform and for building bridges with Sunni tribes and politicians. He is famous for shifting political positions in the past, including stopping militant activity against the United States, turning against the government in Baghdad and speaking out against Assad.

Among Iraqi politicians, reports circulate that Saudi Arabia is attempting to control Sadr. Some journalists suggest the kingdom will be monitoring what he does after returning to Iraq and what his plans would be in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Some argue that Sadr would serve as a stepping stone for Saudi Arabia into Iraq, where the cleric could help Riyadh put pressure on the Shia-led order in Baghdad to distance Iraq from Iran.

Officials have not, thus far, disclosed details surrounding Sadr’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. However, among those who are close to the cleric, there are suggestions that Sadr may have gone to the kingdom to seek financial help from Riyadh in preparation for Iraq’s elections in 2018.

Another important Shia cleric on whom Saudis pin high hopes is Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was the largest party in the country’s Council of Representatives from 2003 until 2010. He is exiting his bloc to create the National Wisdom Party, an umbrella group of Shia and Sunni political parties — a new political movement in the country. This would be a reason for Sadr to set up his own front, benefiting from his close and strong ties with other Sunni leaders in Iraq and the GCC states.

SERIOUS DIALOGUE

Sadr’s latest visit to Riyadh was the second since 2006, when he met with the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. With Riyadh’s latest invitation, it turned out that Saudi leaders have resorted to dealing with Baghdad in order to either change the political scene in Iraq or to ask Sadr to use his connections and channels of dialogue with Iran to melt the ice between Riyadh and Tehran. Riyadh is seeking to have a stable Saudi Arabia without any external interference from Iran, and it also wants Iraq to be back to its Arab track, away from Iranian influence. Once the seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections are secured by Shia and Sunni moderates or those pro-Saudi Arabia, the war game with Iran will change in favor of Riyadh.

The Saudi government has also extended invitations to other Iraqi Shia leaders, who have not yet made a decision whether or not to visit Riyadh. Iraqi politicians close to these leaders believe that Mohammad bin Salman aims to improve his image among the Shias in the country by inviting the clerics from Iraq to mediate between him and Iran, as Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is known for its dissent against the Saud rulers.

The invitation has come after Sadr’s April statement calling on Iran’s ally, President Assad, to step down to avoid further bloodshed in the Syrian conflict. Sadr has also avoided using any hostile rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Arab states. In May, he urged Tehran and Riyadh to start a “serious dialogue to bridge their difference and gaps for regional stability.” He also called on the two to “care for their peoples — regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity — and engage in serious dialogue with a view to restoring regional peace and security.”

Regardless of the outcome of visit, the most important is that it came at a critical moment and would be an inspiration for further sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq after the defeat of Daesh (Islamic State) in Mosul. Once the war against terrorism is over in Iraq and Syria, it could pave the way for a potential war between sects in Iraq supported by regional powers, as some countries in the Middle East have started to gain power shortly after the demise of Iraq. Once issues of terrorism are resolved, this might mean that the Iraqis could return to wielding control over neighboring countries, politically and militarily. Seeing Iraq regain stability serves as a source of panic for some in the region.

Article published in Fair Observer

Photo Credit: thomas koch / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune

Without a hint that a GCC-Qatar rift tearing apart the fabric of the regional stability and cooperation resolution is anywhere in sight, ill and aged Saudi king Salman via a royal decree, Wednesday morning declares his 31-year-old son, Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) a new crown prince. Naming of the young crown prince along with a number of other young appointees, completes important leadership shift to a new generation in a country with more than half of population under the age of 25, and a desperate need for social, political and economic reform.

In parallel, the former crown prince, 57-year-old King’s nephew, Mohamed bin Nayef was stripped of all official functions, including the interior minister post where he was in charge of the country’s security and the anti-terrorism efforts.

Although the international media has presented the event as breaking news, currently occupying the media space across the globe, informed sources in Washington and Riyadh say the move was expected, adding that more change is on the way at the top of the Saudi government.

Another important event featuring Saudi royals escaped public attention, due to media occupation with the Riyadh Summit outcomes, the ongoing Saudi-led Qatar crisis, and lastly the new crown prince appointment, and the expectations of the economic and political changes his ascent to the first successor to the Saudi throne would bring to the country, region and globally. The missed event is a brief yet hugely significant Saudi future King’s visit to Russia, China, Japan, France, the UK and the US in the past few months meant to initiate a new phase of the soon-to-be Saudi King’s relationships with these countries, all UNSC members, with the exception of Japan.

During Russian visit last month Bin Salman is believed to have sought Russian support after successfully gaining American backing in terms of his economic and political pursuits in the region ― namely the GCC Iranian- Qatari standoff, and the anti-terrorism efforts in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. In Moscow the just appointed Saudi crown prince was expected to cement several significant agreements with the Russian president, but the visit fell short of expectations, followed soon after with the breakout of Qatar crisis.

There are speculations that Saudis asked Russians to cease their support for Iran, and the Syrian government, but Russians did not warm up to the idea, unlike the Americans, so the visit was abruptly cut short.  Such a visit at the beginning of Muslim Holy month of Ramadan last month, on the heels of the Riyadh Summit where Saudis sought to prove to the American president Trump their de facto leadership of the Muslim Sunni world.

As for Mohamed bin Salman, his power and influence both within the Saudi royal family and across the Atlantic has grown significantly in the past few years. As a defense minister, Mohamed bin Salman spearheaded the war on Yemen, and is the chief ideologist of the GCC anti-Qatari campaign.

The young, tremendously ambitious crown prince is also credited with the recent mega-billion arms deal concluded with US president Trump during Riyadh Summit, and the securing of American support for the Sunni collation against Iran.

Bin Salman is also the chief proponent of the ambitious economic reform plan Vision 2030, launched in 2016 with the aim of diversifying and modernizing country’s oil dependent economy.

According to sources close to Israeli military intelligence, the new crown prince has strong links with the Israeli top military, intelligence and political brass and as such plays a key role in US president’s plan for building friendly relations among Arabs and Israel. This link to Israel was made evident through the rekindled crisis with Qatar, when some important figures in the Israeli leadership have joined Saudi condemnation of Qatar and its support for ‘funding and supporting terrorism’ and the Saudi-Israeli common arch-enemy – Iran.

Bin Salman is also known for his mentee relationship with the de facto ruler of the UAE, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed. Both UAE and Saudis seek to curb Iranian and Qatari influence in the region. While the conflict with Iran and Qatar, for most part is presented as the political and ideological in nature ― the two being accused of fomenting and abating extremism and terrorism in the region and beyond ― that storyline is only part of the truth.

It is noteworthy mentioning that Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field and both together and individually represent political and economic rivals to the Saudi regional leadership role. Firstly, Iran is considered key political rival to the Saudi regional dominance, both due to its influence among the region’s Shia Muslims and its growing importance as the energy supplier.

Secondly, Qatar, although insignificant in terms of size of its territory is important as the home to the largest US military base in the region, as well as the key regional and global exporter of the natural gas. Moreover, some of the Qatar’s financial institutions, such as its national bank, are the wealthiest in the region, thus a direct threat to the cash strapped Saudi economy staggering under the weight of protracted low-oil price crisis, augmented by the completely misguided and unwinnable war in Yemen.

Add to the combustible mix a massive amount of money ― which according to some estimates is likely to surpass a trillion dollars ― just poured out of the country’s thinning reserves into the American struggling economy ―  Qatar’s cash reserves seem like a perfect gift to the ‘aggressive and ambitious’ Saudi crown prince.

Quite unexpected, amid the unprecedented diplomatic rift between the two countries, is the congratulatory cable sent by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim to Mohamed Bin Salman upon his high appointment, viewed by some politicians and analysts as an icebreaking attempt to restart soured relations between KSA and Qatar and to open a new page of bilateral relations based on mutual respect rather than on dictatorship of agendas or preset doctrines.

Two big questions now lingering on many analysts’ minds are whether the aging Saudi king will soon step down and hand the mantle to the young son, and whether the son would use the just acquired US weapons and the Sunni support to carry out a blitzkriegon the small, annoying brotherly Arab nation, or choose a path of peace and reconciliation.

In both cases, young crown prince – soon to be king will be facing two grave dangers – both to his own and the country’s future – one internal and the other external.

Will he be able to consolidate the internal power soon enough to ensure his ambitious reform policy is carried out and the country’s economy put back on the path of growth to quell the likely internal dissent?

Will he be able to curb his own inflamed passions and stop short of another disastrous war campaign, this time against a very different enemy, be it either Qatar or Iran?

Photo credit: SPA

Published in Tribune

The recent visit to Moscow of Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, didn't make many headlines. However, given the current developments in the Gulf with Qatar, the visit has acquired new significance. 

Until recently, "America's hand" was seen behind virtually all events in the Middle East. Now that Moscow has raised its regional profile, “Russia's hand" is seen here and there: No sooner had the Qatar crisis erupted June 5 than some suggested the prince had discussed with the Kremlin the Saudis’ decision to shun Qatar — which is very unlikely.

President Vladimir Putin gave his guest a hearty welcome when the prince arrived May 30. Their public statements struck a particularly friendly note, as is usually the case at the meetings of high-ranking officials. Putin praised their rapidly expanding ties, stressing that since early 2017, economic cooperation has increased by 130%, according to state-owned Tass news agency.

As he touched on political and military contacts, Putin reminded journalists that the two states are searching for ways to resolve complicated situations, “particularly in Syria,” and that “energy agreements are very important for our countries.”

Salman also stressed energy cooperation with Russia, saying, “The main point is that we are building a solid foundation for stabilizing the oil market and energy prices and this is creating good opportunities for building our strategic future.” He also described the current stage in the bilateral relations as “one of the best.” 

Indeed, today’s relationship contrasts sharply with the once virtually nonexistent economic ties, which were inhibited in the 1990s and 2000s. Both countries’ economies are driven largely by oil production and there wasn’t much opportunity for collaboration at that time.

Also, Russian Muslims hold the Saudi royal house in high esteem. The renewed emphasis on religion in Russia makes the reverence particularly significant. It is noteworthy that authorities from Russia's Muslim-majority regions pay regular visits to Saudi Arabia and meet with the country’s top officials in a bid to grow their stature in Russia’s Muslim community.

Yet the resulting state-to-state interactions have been somewhat bizarre in recent years. The friendly relations are underpinned by numerous agreements, but few of those have been implemented. Both countries aim to build trust, which they deem absolutely necessary. Moscow and Riyadh have had different perspectives on the international landscape and until recently, they found themselves on opposite sides of most regional issues.

However, the situation has changed, as life is teaching the two countries to be clear eyed about current developments. While Russia and Saudi Arabia continue to maintain opposing views on the Syrian peace process and Iran’s regional role, they have managed to find some common ground. Moscow toned down its rhetoric about Yemen and Bahrain, and it promotes cordial relations with Saudi-allied Egypt and cooperation with the kingdom on the ruptured Libyan government. Finally, both Russia and Saudi Arabia have faced similar economic problems caused by the oil price plunge, which prepared the ground for their rapprochement and a potentially promising “oil alliance.” 

Notwithstanding their contrasting approaches to regional matters, Russia’s military campaign in Syria won Riyadh’s respect. Thus, the kingdom started to view Moscow in some ways as a potential alternative to Washington, which had proved unreliable under the administration of President Barack Obama.

In this context, the frequent encounters of the Saudi prince with Putin have special importance.

Even though Syria was officially the key item on the meeting’s agenda, no formal arrangements were finalized. What is more important, though, was the two sides refrained from rebuking each other. 

Salman, according to some informed sources in Moscow who spoke with Al-Monitor, was supposed to spend far more time in Russia’s capital. Today, however, it is clear that the dramatic developments brewing in the Gulf regarding Qatar most likely led him to shorten his stay.

As the meeting failed to produce any serious deal, it allows for some speculation about the prince’s real agenda regarding Moscow. It seems quite evident that Salman intentionally arrived in Moscow soon after US President Donald Trump’s trip to the Saudi kingdom May 20-21. Even the red carpet welcome the Saudis gave Trump couldn’t close the credibility gap between them. Riyadh doesn’t completely trust Washington. Given the uncertain future of Trump’s presidency and his still-vague Middle Eastern strategy, putting all of the kingdom’s eggs into one basket would be an ill-conceived step, to say the least. 

That’s where Egypt comes into this speculative scenario.

Some experts in Moscow assume the Egyptian government needs Russia’s weapons but is unable to pay the bill. However, Riyadh, capable of backing Egypt, is becoming involved in establishing security zones in Syria, which could emerge as a way to constrain Iran’s ambitions for control in Syria. Yet Saudi Arabia, a militarily weak state mired in the Yemeni war, would rather entrust a reliable ally, presumably Egypt, with a peacekeeping role in the security zones. This would give Egypt a chance to strengthen its regional stature and bolster popular confidence in its government, which is grappling with severe economic problems. 

This interpretation fits current developments in the Gulf.

Russia is on good terms with Qatar and Iran — Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy. Qatar’s alleged ties to terrorism and Iran are the reasons it is being ostracized in the Gulf. Judging by statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow is not willing to interfere in the crisis engulfing Qatar — which suits Riyadh but that in no way means Russia’s support for Iran is waning. What this could mean is that Russia wants to see Saudi Arabia as a leading representative of Arab Gulf monarchies’ interests — in which case Russia must satisfy the Saudis’ legitimate interests in the region.



Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/06/russia-saudi-arabia-gcc-alliances-qatar-middle-east.html

Photo credit: REUTERS/Pavel Golovkin

Published in Tribune

Trump's overseas visit, the first since he has become the 46th US President, is not typical as it started with Saudi Arabia, the first leg of his external tour which takes him also to Israel and with the Vatican as his final destination, defying traditional first state visits that are usually paid to Washington’s old allies. That is one of the reasons why the world is following the visit with a pity dose of skepticism, while the Middle East region is boiling with happiness.

This time the tour is not only a purely geopolitical matter. It is predetermined by a complex pack of geopolitical, political, business reasons and personal beliefs. The Middle East is at the center of the major global turbulences. The Middle East is the cradle of the world’s religions and of civilization. The Middle Eastern countries are important partners in terms of investment and trade, as they have high financial capabilities for investments and trade development while undergoing intensive full scale development in many sectors. With this tour, based on visiting three centers of three main world’s religions, Trump somehow gives a message of coexistence, and of building bridges between the religions and of reconciliation. 

The Riyadh Summit has become the starting point not only of his tour, but is deemed a new face-off of regional and world order. The summits may enter the modern history as a cornerstone of the new unprecedented tomorrow. 

They were not only about fighting terrorism and extremism, that are fundamental threats for the whole mankind, but about forming new alliances, closing the rows of the Muslim world under the powerful shield of the US. It is about formation of a new system of cooperation and breaking off with the heritage of Obama, considered weak-willed. However, the speech in Riyadh delivered by Trump at some extent reminds of Obama’s one, delivered in 2009 in Cairo University, during his first few months as president, entitled “The New Beginning,” which addressed Muslims from a Muslim capital. That time the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has stated that the choice of Egypt was predetermined by the consideration, that “it is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab World.” Trump has targeted in his speech not only the Arab World, but the whole Muslim community, except Iran, from heartland of Islam. 

The Muslim world is at the same time both the source of terrorism and extremism and its main victim. And Trump’s decision to make the first foreign visit not to the old allies, but to Riyadh can be explained also by the fact that old allies are incapable to lead the fight against the main threat to the world and to eradicate terrorism and radical Islam. Unfortunately, old Europe is incapable to take actions, be effective in crisis management, while plunging in everlasting disputes, vain rhetoric, loud declarations with fatal absence of real action. Old allies are incapable to make “America great again.” To become great, America needs to lead those who really hold the keys to the resolution of the main tragedies and problems of humanity. Trump gambled on the Middle East. The only powers that can save the whole international community are the Muslim ones. Absolute responsibility of leadership lays on the shoulders of the Kingdom as it is a custody of two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, for the sake of the religion and believers, of humanity and peace.

The meetings were not only about fighting terrorism and extremism, that are fundamental threats for the whole mankind, but about forming new alliances, closing the rows of the Muslim world under the powerful shield of the US.

Russia is left outboard of the historical alliance and initiative, while suffering from and fighting the terrorism and religious extremism on a daily basis, being targeted by terrorists and having regions majorly populated by the Muslim community. But even if the gates of the alliance and cooperation launched in Riyadh are left open for the “friendly” states, Russia, one of the few allies of Iran, will hardly be welcome on board. 

Friendly to Iran, Obama is replaced by hating the Persian State Trump. Trump unites the countries against Iran, which he has pointed as a main trouble maker of the region. Taking a unique flight from Riyadh to Israel, he will make an effort to bring to an end the Arab-Israeli conflict that splits the region and breeds strife, damaging global stability. Most likely he will fail to become the peacemaker we all aspire for, but anyway the effort is worth to be made. With this historical first ever flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, he is trying to bring Israel to the congregation of the regional states as an equal partner. From the view of the current US administration this can be explained by the fact that Israel and the Arab States are facing the same enemy – Iran. The formation of a structure resembling Middle Eastern branch of NATO has already sparked criticism in the US. Trump’s opponents who consider the perspective of the US to support one side in a sectarian conflict threatening to the national interests. The visit in general was covered most critically by the US media, to the contrary to Arab ones, which praised the historical visit in the most flattering and complimentary evaluations and appraisals. 

The Arab World feeling weak in face of the new threats, suffering from the oil price cut that is posing a heavy burden on the national state economies which were not accustomed to austerity measures, feels in dire need of the US shield and of the strong and determined president in the White House. Trump has already demonstrated his might with airstrikes in Syria last March that have much pleased the regional powers. The Arab world pins high hope on Donald Trump; however, the presence of the US in the region has never brought anything but wars, instability and destruction. But the hope for the better dies the last. But this time it has all chances to perish completely. Donald Trump, with whom the Arab world is so happy, despite his uncomplimentary remarks about the regional powers he had been making before running for president of the US and his presidential campaign, forgotten and forgiven by extraordinary Arabic magnanimity, makes his countrymen very dissatisfied. And the things are developed in such a way so far that Trump has all chances even not to remain in office even by the end of this year. If the things follow such a scenario that is predicted by most renowned analysts’ that would mean the return into power of the Democrats and return of Obama-like agenda back on track with a much more friendlier approach to Iran, and far less friendly one to the GCC and mainly Saudi Arabia. In such circumstances, somehow rephrasing Trumps words from his speech delivered during Riyadh Summit, the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children. It is a choice America cannot make for Middle Eastern states. And instead of waiting for anyone to protect them and solve their problems, it is the most appropriate time to unite their forces themselves, to trespass contradictions, to diversify global ties, to fight terrorism and radicalization themselves, to take the lead in building their own future. The upcoming 22 years will be the hardest for the region. And how the regional powers will survive the turbulence depends exclusively on their own potentials rather than relying on others.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1103896

Published in Tribune

Saudi Arabia is ready for US President Donald Trump’s visit amidst mounting concerns about his temperament towards Arab and Sunni Muslim strategies to combat terrorism.

On his first overseas trip, Trump will seize this visit to cement ties with Arabs and Sunni Muslims in a bid to shove aside Iran, a rival for Sunni Muslims as he claimed on many occasions.

With Saudi preparations to dazzle the American president for his visit to Riyadh, where King Salman, his Crown Prince  and Minister of Interior Mohammad bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammad bin Salman try hard to prove to Trump that Saudi Arabia is the center of influence in the region as there will be a meeting on the tripartite summits for the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism which groups officials and officers from the concerned Muslim and Arab states along with the Americans.

The importance of the visit stems from the accompanying delegation which includes amongst others the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, at a time many Saudi analysts believe that “Trump will not come to Riyadh because he loves us. The Gulf and Muslim leaders will not come to Riyadh because they love him. The common interests of these international leaders are what bring them together in Riyadh including issues ranging from terrorism to rekindling U.S. ties post-Obama.”

The other topics on his agenda are Iran and Syria as Riyadh has hailed Trump's rigid rhetoric on Iran regarding the nuclear deal. Other analysts from Saudi believe that such a visit would restore what Obama ruined during his tenure, describing Trump’s electoral campaign slogans against Muslims as mere propaganda.

The summit between Trump and Saudi royals will helps Saudis build on the visit to display that Saudi Arabia is an earnest honest reliable and credible partner in the war on terror and is sincere to fight radicalism.

With all eyes on the American president’s visit, the most of the regional moves currently being made by the US in the Middle East region which include the Eager Lion military exercises in Jordan aim to declare war on terrorism and those who support them, entailing drying up terrorists’ financial resources and criminalizing radical factions.

This summit comes after a closed door meeting in Washington DC early May between some Arab countries and the Americans regarding the coming scenario in the region starting from the Arab-Muslim-American Summit in Riyadh and the military drills in Jordan which would be a sign for Iran on the eve of its presidential elections.

The summit would result in imposing financial sanctions on the some Iranian figures, supporters and sympathizers around the world. Amongst the moves will be further measures to monitor money transfers to create difficulties for it Iranian leadership in financing its political and military structures in Syria and Iraq.

The Summit in Riyadh will also close the curtain on the war on Al-Nusra Front and Daesh in line with Astana agreement which delegated this mission to liquidate these factions to the moderate Syrian opposition factions backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Regarding Daesh, the terrorist faction has lost Mosul strategic locations and the war on Raqqa to liberate it from this terrorism group will start soon shortly after mid-Ramadan through the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The war will start once there is adequate number of American tanks and armored vehicles. That explains why the Americans approved the decision to arm the Kurds with heavy artillery.

Once terrorist in Syria and Iraq are destroyed, there will be no reason for any Iranian presence in both countries, thus, a new economic war will start on Iran accordingly if it refuses to withdraw from both countries.

This is also on the agenda of the summit between Arabs and Trump. Will this lead to a future war in the region?

What American analysts are gleeful about is that the visit aims to send powerful messages from the new president to Sunni countries that after 8 years of strained ties under former president Barack Obama, a new page has been opened with an announcement of setting up an Arab NATO led by the US and funded by the countries of the region.  

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 26 March 2017 00:55

The complications in Yemen

The Yemeni conflict is frequently called a forgotten war, because in terms of media coverage it is always overshadowed by Syria and Iraq. But its tragedy is no less serious, and has no justification; this is the only simple thing about the conflict. Politically and historically it is a complete mess, more so than the public imagines.
 
The roots of the bloodshed go deep; we must take this into account when analyzing the situation. The current crisis started not in 2014 but in June 2004, and its direct roots are in the 1962 revolution in North Yemen that ended more than 1,000 years of Zaidi rule.
 
In 2004, the conflict flared when dissident Zaidi cleric Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi launched an uprising against the Yemeni government, following an attempt by the authorities to arrest him. The government accused the Zaidis and other Islamist groups of trying to overthrow it and the republican system. Iran was accused of managing and fueling the uprising with financial support.
 
The rebels said they were defending themselves, and accused the government of committing an act of aggression. The conflict has since killed thousands of people and caused severe economic losses for the country.
 
In 2011, the Houthis tried to ride the wave of the 2011 revolution, expressing their full support for democracy. They overthrew the local government in Saada and established their own rule, independent from Sanaa. Following the revolution, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after 33 years as president, and was succeeded by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
 
Yemenis had many reasons to be discontent with the government, including enormous corruption, high levels of unemployment, economic decline and the absence of prospects for youths. These formed the core of the uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring. A change of leader could hardly bring significant change to the country; it needed in-depth reforms and a full restructuring of the governmental system.
 
Since 2011, Ansar Allah, the official name of the Houthi movement, had been sustainably undermining the authorities in Sanaa. It overthrew them in January 2015 after months of clashes and protests, again seizing on popular grievances such as the rising price of oil to gain support from ordinary Yemenis. Pro-Saleh forces joined Ansar Allah, even though the Houthis supported the 2011 revolution against him.
  
Hadi was forced to leave Sanaa, and the Houthis seized key provinces, though they have been expelled from southern Yemen due to Operation Decisive Storm. The campaign is carried out by a broad international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by many major global and regional players, including the US. It is accompanied by Operation Restoring Hope, whose aim is to reach a political solution, but so far without concrete results.
 
Seven million people are on the brink of starvation due to the conflict. The health care system has collapsed. The conflict is worsening and becoming sectarian. The Houthis can no longer deny receiving backing from Iran, which they have been trying to conceal since 2004.
 
It is difficult to deliver humanitarian aid, especially in areas under Houthi control, not only due to airstrikes, but because of Houthi denial of access to aid convoys, and provocations by local community leaders. A Russian humanitarian convoy recently faced such a provocation while distributing aid in the Darawan camp for internally displaced Yemenis, forcing it to stop its work. Such cases are common and lead to the continuation of people’s suffering.
 
Attempts at constructive dialogue have failed as the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces have violated agreements and cease-fires. But a cease-fire is urgently needed, at least to allow humanitarian convoys to reach those in need, and at best to launch a political process and implement a UN roadmap.
 
The insurgents are becoming global troublemakers, recently planting underwater mines in Bab Al-Mandab, thus threatening the security of navigation in one of the most important waterways.
 
The situation is aggravated by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Yemen is bombed not only by coalition forces but also by the US, which has been striking terrorist positions in Yemen since the mid-2000s, inflicting civilian casualties. Coalition airstrikes are undoubtedly causing severe civilian losses, as in any similar situation.
 
Peace must prevail soon, not in the name of politics but for civilians. The coalition and its international supporters, as well as the legitimate President Hadi and forces loyal to him, are eager to work on a political solution and an inclusive government. But the international community does not have sufficient influence over the Houthis, whose actions belie the innocent image they are trying to portray. They are first to be blamed for civilian suffering.
 
Their slogan “death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam” hardly correlates with the image of an oppressed people fighting for democracy and equal rights. The slogan is reminiscent of something heard all too often in Iran.
 
Continuing violence and sectarianism are creating regional instability and a breeding ground for extremist groups and terrorism. A roadmap to settle the conflict exists. The hardest question remains how to make all sides speak with each other. They have to demonstrate a high level of responsibility for the fate of their own compatriots, who have become hostages, and put aside politics to work on building a common fate.
 
The work of government institutes that are trying to function despite the conflict shows the high potential of Yemenis to overcome the crisis. The international community should take an active part in the peace process.
 
Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1073521/opinion
Published in Tribune

Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East in recent decades was based on a harmonious approach that helped maintain good ties with all the players in the region without getting involved in political and sectarian wrangles.Russia’s involvement in Syria made this balance very difficult to maintain, since the Syrian conflict showed the sectarian and geopolitical fault lines of the regional powers.A main reason for the skewed balance now is Iran’s interference in Iraq and its multidimensional support for the Damascus regime, also given through groupings such as Hezbollah or other Shiite militias originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Iranian involvement becomes more alarming as the conflict progresses. Tehran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq is clearly not limited to the “noble” causes of fighting terrorists, helping Syrian minorities or supporting and defending the “democratically elected president” against “terrorists.”Iran has always had far-reaching plans, primarily to counter major Sunni countries in the Gulf, chiefly Saudi Arabia, and change the regional balance of power.Iran is also pursuing its goal of exporting the revolution, which means, according to Hamid Reza Moghaddam Far, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deputy commander of cultural affairs, “not sending advocates and preachers to other countries, but rather exporting the ideology.”This dubious export will go well beyond the Mediterranean.This ideology is brought in Iraq and Syria by gangs like Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, a Shiite militia fighting in Syria on the side of Assad regime.According to Tasnim News Agency, this division will stay involved in Syria for as long as Islam, read, in this case, Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, does not know borders; it “will always stand by Khomeini’s divine goals.”Iran is using Shiite Muslims as an instrument in its dirty game of expanding its influence and destabilizing Sunni neighbors.Saudi Arabia and its regional allies do not have any illusions about the troubles the Iranian expansion will bring them.Thus, by tragic coincidence, Syria has become a battlefield of rising sectarian regional tensions.The attempts to ease this sectarian conflict and careful messages of peace and detente coming from the western side of the Gulf are unheard, muffled by a roar of accusations coming from the Gulf’s eastern side.

It is not that Russia cannot cope with having Iran as a rival, particularly taking into account the latter’s difficulties on the global stage. By aligning with Tehran, Moscow seems to be on the wrong side of history.

Maria Dubovikova

Despite declarations of a balanced policy that keeps it friendly with everyone and does not allow it to build alliances, Russia is actually failing to maintain this policy in Syria, even despite its will, because it is being squeezed between the players there. The success of the Astana talks and the relative success of the new Geneva round only strengthened the Iranian position, especially after Iran was recently recognized as a guarantor of the cease-fire in Syria, leaving out GCC countries. True, the GCC countries were invited to take part in talks, but Saudi Arabia cannot accept the role of spectator and the other GCC countries will not get involved without this key Gulf power. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has been urging all foreign players in Syria to not turn the Syrian sides into pawns of their own game. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington signals the re-emergence of Saudi-US partnership. Moreover, it seems that in Syria, the two major players will try to overplay the until now successful trio. But is this a reasonable step? Due to certain circumstances, Russia appears to be on the same side with Iran in the Syrian game, even though it tries to stay relatively “impartial.” There is significant cooperation between Russia and Iran in many areas, boosted after Russia’s spat with Europe. Then, after all, Iran is a neighbor. It is also a dangerous rival and an absolutely unreliable friend. And between the two, Russia is choosing “an unreliable friend.” Yet it is not that Russia could not cope with having Iran as a rival, particularly taking into account the latter’s difficulties on the global stage.

Russia seems to be on the wrong side of history in this case, but it has few choices under the current shaky circumstances. The success of Astana and Geneva talks is greatly dependent on the relative friendship between Moscow and Tehran. And for Russia, it is a matter of honor to have the Syrian conflict solved through a political process. What should be clearly understood about the Russia-Iran cooperation is that there is no illusions about Iran in Moscow. Iran wishes to cooperate with the West more than with anybody else. Cooperation with Russia is not based on common values and long-term interests. There is a full pack of difficult to resolve issues between them. Iran poses an imminent threat to Russia’s interests. In Iran, there is a high level of discontent with Russia, especially its policy in Syria (that seems insufficient in Tehran’s eyes) and in all its policy toward Iran (which seems to Tehran not friendly enough: The nuclear plant is not build as fast as it was promised, the delivery of the notorious S-300s had been postponed for a long time, etc.) Currently, Russia’s answer to the question asked by Saudi Arabia — “Are you with us or with Iran?” — seems to be “with Iran.”

And expecting such an answer, the GCC is reinforcing the US presence and alliance in the region to counter Iran’s and its allies’ imminent threat. For Russia, as always, cooperation with Iran does not exclude an in-depth partnership with GCC, but Russia is interested in cooperating with the Gulf. With some GCC countries, like Qatar and Bahrain, relations are progressing well, while with other, they seem stuck or hostile, adding to the climate of mistrust. Russia is clearly making a grave mistake by getting bogged down deep in the sectarian mess and losing its impartial status, but it can hardly avoid it. But certain countries are making an even bigger mistake by expecting to overplay the existing trio, as deepening the geopolitical misunderstanding over Syria will plunge the region in an endless mess that costs dearly the civil population and the global stability. A great role Saudi Arabia could play, as a leading and powerful GCC state, would be to not urge the US to oppose the Russia-Turkey tandem, with an adjunct Iran, but to make Russia, Turkey and the US work together on resolving serious issues in Syria and Iraq, as well as to fight terrorism and minimize Iranian influence and role by actively taking part in all activities itself. That would be a worthy gambit, hardly expected, but benefiting the whole world.

 

Published in Tribune
Saturday, 18 March 2017 22:11

A Saudi Royal Visits Trump

While Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was on the fourth leg of his three-week Asia tour, his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), became the first Saudi royal to visit the White House during the administration of US President Donald J. Trump. With the king wrapping up his state visit in Japan before going to China, and MbS in Washington, the timing sent a message that Riyadh is seeking to work with allies, friends, and partners across the world. These visits occurred at a time when the kingdom is pursuing an economic transformation in line with Vision 2030, a blueprint for improving the future of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is also facing a host of financial challenges stemming from cheap oil as well as ongoing security crises near and within its borders.

MbS’ visit to Washington and his meeting with Trump on March 14 provided clear signals that the United States considers Saudi Arabia a major ally and MbS a credible partner. Trump and MbS’ meeting may suggest that the White House views the thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince as the next king of Saudi Arabia, a future leader to depend on in the Middle East, and a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yet the meetings in Washington may also leave the impression that the United States is trying to balance its relations with both MbS and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (MbN), suggested by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh in February where he met with MbN and awarded him with a medal for his counterterrorism efforts.

MbS, who is charge of all Saudi economic portfolios and is a businessman who owns many companies, seeks to establish a sovereign wealth fund (SWF), a pillar of Vision 2030. This could possibly be the largest SWF in the world, worth $2 trillion, depending on the sale of 5 percent of Saudi oil company Aramco’s shares.

The reception MbS received in Washington sent a signal that the Trump administration has given the deputy crown prince carte blanche to discuss all economic, political, military, and security portfolios as he has, arguably, become the kingdom’s first decision maker. 

At the top of the agenda in Washington, Trump and MbS discussed countering “Iran’s destabilizing regional activities,” and exploring “steps across a broad range of political, military, security, economic, cultural, and social dimensions to further strengthen” US-Saudi strategic relations, according to a White House statement.

Trump and MbS also discussed former US President Barak Obama’s decision to suspend the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh in response to high civilian casualties caused by the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. US officials pointed out that Trump was considering ending the ban and approving the sale of such munitions, and all that is left is a White House approval. It should be noted that the kingdom’s military spending, which surpassed $87 billion last year, has almost doubled since 2006. 

Saudi investments in the United States were also discussed on the Washington visit. Saudi Oil Minister Khalef Al Faleh, who is close to MbS, said that the kingdom would invest in US infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel. These investments could help to grow the economy and create new job opportunities, which Trump promised during his election campaign.

The visits of both the king and his son to Asia and the United States, respectively, aim to strengthen the kingdom’s economic, military, and political alliances with major world players. This could set the kingdom’s economy on a positive trajectory. The Saudi economy suffered a setback because of plummeting oil prices that have left a huge budget deficit in the kingdom.

An outstanding issue, which will remain a source of tension in Washington-Riyadh relations, is the controversial Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The US law, which passed last year despite Obama’s veto, implies that the Saudi government was partially culpable for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and permits victims’ family members to sue the kingdom in US courts. Trump, on the campaign trail, supported JASTA. It is unclear how his administration will address the legislation and future problems it will undoubtedly create in US-Saudi ties.

MbS’ trip to the White House was about resetting US-Saudi relations in the wake of the Obama presidency, which one of the crown prince’s senior advisers described as a “period of difference of opinion” between Washington and Riyadh. The Saudi leadership is cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration will reverse what it sees as the Obama administration’s flawed policies and strategies vis-à-vis Iran, which, either intentionally or unintentionally, empowered Tehran to expand and consolidate its influence across Middle East. MbS’ visit to Washington signaled that Riyadh is determined to foster close ties with the Trump administration.

Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates.

Initially published by Atlantic Council: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/a-saudi-royal-visits-trump

Published in Tribune
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