Saudi Arabia: MBS should enjoy his moment in the sun. It won’t last

With his booming relationship with Beijing, detente with Iran and normalisation with Israel on the table, the crown prince has rare leverage over the US. But his position is precarious

By David Hearst
13 June 2023

Call it what you will: on-the-job training; work experience. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is learning from his mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong. If he could kill another Jamal Khashoggi and get away with it without the theatre, he would. If he could find a way of crushing Yemen’s Houthis in one blow, he would.

But he has learned, the hard way, that both were costly mistakes.

MBS has not had an epiphany. The young man who went around Riyadh clutching a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince is still the same – without a scruple or principle in his body, and knowing that the only thing that will stop him from being the kingdom’s absolute ruler is a bullet in the head.

But he has learned that there are some things he cannot do the way he wants to do them.

His neighbour and former mentor Mohammed bin Zayed could have told him that killing dissidents is best done through deniable proxies and that it’s always wise to ask Washington first. That is what he does.

Eight years and, according to UN estimates, 370,000 lives later, MBS’s only problem with the campaign he launched in Yemen has been the billions of dollars it has cost him, not the 24 million Yemenis the war has impoverished.

Strategic lessons

The Rake’s Progress – Saudi style – has also involved learning strategic lessons.

Lesson number one: you can’t trust America. The kingdom cannot depend on the US for its protection. It was Iran who taught him this when in December 2019 it sent waves of drones to attack two of Aramco’s oil production sites, cutting the kingdom’s production in half for the best part of a month.

That was under a Republican president, Donald Trump, who blinked and did nothing. Trump did, however, according to the latest indictment, take the top-secret attack plans with him and stashed them in the lavatory at golfing retreat at Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

There is another reason for MBS’s disenchantment. For as long as there were two wars being prosecuted simultaneously in Yemen – the Saudi campaign against the Houthis and the US war against al-Qaeda – the military relationship between Washington and Riyadh worked fine.

But the US walked away as soon as the war against al-Qaeda was finished, losing interest in protecting Saudi’s soft underbelly – its southern frontier – from Houthi missiles.

The Saudis joined the US campaign against Iran because it was what Washington required of them.

Now MBS is less inclined to act as a proxy for Washington.

So instead of joining an Arab Nato against Iran, Saudi Arabia has just agreed to form a naval alliance with Iran, the UAE and Oman to police the Gulf.

It could be for show, but it is a small step towards accepting Iran’s logic that Gulf states need to defend themselves.

This act alone did send a clear message to the US military in the Gulf. Commander Tim Hawkins, the spokesman for the US 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, said the new naval alliance “defied reason”.

“It defies reason that Iran, the number one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens,” Hawkins told Breaking Defense, adding that Iran had seized or attacked 15 internationally flagged merchant vessels.

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President Joe Biden gave MBS a wake-up call of a different kind. When Biden committed the US to standing full square behind Ukraine, he imposed the largest range of sanctions on any foreign country in the long history of economic warfare.

But what worried MBS most, according to a source who talked to him at length, was not the sanctions against the Russian state, but those against its ruling elite and oligarchs. If Washington could seize Putin’s yachts, they could also seize MBS’s too.

So even if the Trump dynasty, father and son-in-law, returns to power, the relationship with Riyadh will not be the same.

Huge geopolitical shift

MBS has told visitors that he is determined to sell Saudi oil to whom he wants and in consultation only with his oil-producing allies. He has also put in place important hedges and levers.

A second consequence of the sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine is the motivation it has given China and Saudi Arabia alike to “dedollarise” the oil market.

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, buying over 20 percent of its oil exports. Saudi Arabia ranks among the top three countries for Chinese construction projects.

A huge geopolitical shift is taking place and it’s not looking good for Biden’s pivot to East Asia. America’s biggest ally in the Gulf is ploughing billions of dollars in investment into Chinese firms.

The first of many such deals, a $5.6bn memorandum of understanding between the Saudi investment ministry and Human Horizons Technology, the Chinese maker of electric and self-driving cars, was announced on Sunday.

If oil transactions between the kingdom and China were to be nominated in Chinese yuan, it would go a long way to convince other countries to deal in China’s currency. Aramco is partnering up to invest in a major oil refinery and petrochemical complex in northeastern China. A global financial system that has been in place since the Second World War is now on the cusp of radical change.

It remains within the realm of speculation and it has yet to happen, but if it did, nobody in Washington should be surprised.

But as one regional official remarked wryly: “If that happened, MBS would really need his bodyguards.”

Khashoggi killing

All Gulf states are toying with the same idea after the way Washington has weaponised the dollar against states that do not play ball with them. Iran, Syria and now Russia are all salutary examples for any Gulf state.

The Emiratis are experimenting with ways to use the dirham as a reserve currency.

In the early days of Biden’s presidency, MBS was extremely nervous.

It will never be forgotten, least of all by Khashoggi’s widowed fiancee Hatice Cengiz, that Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, vowed repeatedly and publicly to deal with the crown prince as a pariah.

At first, they peddled some fiction about dealing only with King Salman, as if the king was still compos mentis, and as if affairs of state could be separated from its de facto ruler.

Biden did publish the CIA report into Khashoggi’s killing but then he blinked, failing to refer the killing to a formal UN investigation. As soon as they realised what was happening, a wave of relief swept through the diwan in Riyadh.

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To have pursued the Saudi prince in the international courts would also have meant that Washington would have had to get serious about enacting regime change in Riyadh, and there were either no viable alternatives or no energy in Washington to do that, or both.

But the change in Saudi thinking was profound. MBS realised that Biden was an empty windbag, at least as far as Khashoggi was concerned. The elite around MBS began to breathe again. They started to feel confident that events would provide new opportunities.

And so they have. Everyone, once again, is beating a path to Riyadh’s door.

Right place, right time

The deal between the PGA Tour and the LIV Golf series, financed by Riyadh’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and announced last week, to the obvious disgust of Rory McIlroy, is the least of it.

It is not to Trump Towers that investors head these days, but the PIF Tower in Riyadh, or its offices in New York, London or Hong Kong. MBS receives bi-weekly reports on the fund’s portfolio of companies.

Saudi Arabia now finds itself in the right place at the right time.

This realisation has changed MBS’s view of the utility of striking a deal with Israel. Remember that it was through Israel that MBS introduced himself to the White House. His “secret” flights to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were the first steps for decades towards the Arab world’s normalisation with Israel.

He was the one who reportedly told Jewish leaders that the Palestinians had missed one opportunity after another to make peace. “It’s about time Palestinians take the proposals and come to negotiate or shut up and stop complaining,” journalist Barak Ravid quoted the prince as saying.

That was 2018. Today the tone is very different. The Palestinians are once again the “central issue“ for Arabs, MBS says.

I doubt whether this is out of any newfound empathy for the Palestinians.

But MBS may well be asking himself: “What’s in it for me?”

The benefits of such a deal are clear for Biden and Netanyahu. For the Israeli prime minister, netting peace with Saudi Arabia would be the biggest foreign policy achievement of his career. For Biden, normalisation with a big and real Arab state – not a statelet like the UAE, or a broken country like Sudan – would become the signature peace deal of his presidency.

But for Saudi Arabia, a kingdom whose legitimacy rests on its role as custodian of two of Islam’s holiest sites, and which regards itself not just as the leader of the Sunni Arab world, but as the leader of the Muslim world too, the benefits are less clear.

MBS’s shopping list

The template for normalisation, or rather the dry run, has been done by the UAE – and the results are not encouraging. The Emiratis put on a big show of support, celebrating Israel’s Independence Day (otherwise known as the Nakba to the rest of the Arab world) by getting Emirati performers singing in Hebrew in Abu Dhabi.

But Israel still refuses to give Washington the green light to supply F35s fighter jets to the UAE. The UAE has now told the US that talks on the F-35 are suspended.

When you cut through the froth, Israel remains hard-headed about its relations with brittle Arab elites. It always needs an insurance policy. It always has to retain a large technical and military edge.

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And for good reason. Scratch the surface and the same popular resentment against domination by Israel is alive and well in all Arab countries and especially in those who have made peace with Israel. Normalisation has not changed the psyche of the Arab street.

This could be seen quite clearly in an incident earlier this month where an Egyptian border guard killed three Israeli soldiers.

There were two versions of this shooting: the official Egyptian one, which claimed the border guard had been chasing drug smugglers and that “an exchange of fire” had taken place; and the Israeli one, which said that the Egyptian had targeted two Israeli soldiers, waited four hours for Israeli reinforcements to arrive and then shot another one before dying in the shoot out.

For once, I believe the Israeli version, because it speaks to an individual act of resistance, like many others that take place in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The border policeman has become a national hero in Egypt, despite the best efforts of a government in Cairo determined to repress social media.

So for MBS, the price of normalisation with Israel is going up by the week. He has a shopping list – a nuclear reactor, F-35s and who knows what else – but for the first time in his rule, he now has leverage over Washington, not least because of his burgeoning relationship with Beijing.

Once MBS signs the deal with Israel, he will have little left to bargain with. As it is, the strategic ambiguity, the “will he? Won’t he?”, serves him and the kingdom much better.

The attention he and the kingdom are getting from the Arab world does not mean respect. If there were a genuine democratic revolution of the sort promised by the Arab Spring, MBS would meet the same fate as the late Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, as would every other Arab leader.

The Saudis are not admired, but they are needed. And MBS right now is basking in the sunshine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

* David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

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