With US assistance no longer guaranteed, Saudi Arabia adopts a new strategy: Talks with regional foes

In the months since a missile and drone attack widely seen as the work of Iran left two Saudi oil facilities smouldering, the Saudi crown prince has taken an uncharacteristic turn to diplomacy to cool tensions with his regional enemies

The New York Times December 27, 2019 09:39:07 IST
With US assistance no longer guaranteed, Saudi Arabia adopts a new strategy: Talks with regional foes

Cairo: In the months since a missile and drone attack widely seen as the work of Iran left two Saudi oil facilities smouldering, the Saudi crown prince has taken an uncharacteristic turn to diplomacy to cool tensions with his regional enemies.

The prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has stepped up direct talks with the rebels he has been fighting in Yemen for over four years, leading to a decline in attacks by both sides.

He has made gestures to ease, if not end, the stifling blockade he and his allies imposed his tiny, wealthy neighbour, Qatar.

He has even engaged in indirect talks with the kingdom's arch-nemesis, Iran, to try to dampen the shadow war raging across the region.

Fuelling the shift from confrontation to negotiation, analysts say, is the sobering realisation that a decades-old cornerstone of American policy in West Asia — the understanding that the United States would defend the Saudi oil industry from foreign attacks — can no longer be taken for granted.

Even though US and Saudi officials agreed that Iran was behind the 14 September attacks on the petroleum processing plants at Abqaiq and Khurais, temporarily halving Saudi Arabia's oil production, President Donald Trump responded with heated rhetoric but little else.

For the Saudis, the tepid response drove home the reality that despite the tens of billions of dollars they have spent on American weapons — more than $170 billion since 1973 — they could no longer count on the United States to come to their aid, at least not with the force they expected.

Worried about having to fend for themselves in a tough and unpredictable neighborhood, analysts say, the Saudis have quietly reached out to their enemies to de-escalate conflicts.

"I think we will look at 14 September as a seminal moment in Gulf history," said David B Roberts, a scholar of the region at King's College London. With the presumption shattered that the United States would protect the Saudis, Roberts said, "they realise the need to be more accommodating."

For the United States, the shift toward diplomacy is an awkward paradox. The Trump administration and Congress have been pressing the Saudis to end the war in Yemen, and the administration has pushed them to reconcile with Qatar, largely in vain.

With US assistance no longer guaranteed Saudi Arabia adopts a new strategy Talks with regional foes

File image of Donald Trump meeting Mohammed bin Salman in Washington. By Doug Mills. © 2019 The New York Times

Now, the presumed Iranian strikes may have done more to advance those goals than American pressure ever did.

Saudi Arabia's foreign policy turned more aggressive after Prince Mohammed, then 29, emerged as its driving force in 2015. He plunged the kingdom into a devastating war against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen; imposed a punishing boycott on Qatar, which he accused of supporting terrorism and cozying up to Iran; and vowed to confront Iran across West Asia.

Critics said the young prince was brash and headstrong, and a destabilizing force in the region. Moreover, the Yemen and Qatar campaigns failed to achieve the desired results.

The war in Yemen settled into a costly stalemate with the side effect of a devastating humanitarian crisis, while Qatar employed its vast wealth and other international relationships to weather the blockade. Then the refinery attacks highlighted the vulnerability of the Saudi oil industry, the country’s economic jewel.

Those events led to what Rob Malley, a top official for West Asia in the Barack Obama administration, describes as a "semi-recalibration" of Saudi policies. The sudden willingness to pursue diplomacy in Qatar and Yemen, he said, "reflects a Saudi desire to solidify its regional posture at a time of uncertainty and vulnerability."

Analysts saw the lack of a significant American response to the attacks as a blow to the policy known as the Carter doctrine, which dates to 1980, when then-president Jimmy Carter vowed to use force to ensure the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Subsequent presidents, Democrats and Republicans, upheld it, seeing Saudi oil exports as essential to the global economy and US interests.

"For as long as I have been working on the West Asia, that's why we were there: To protect the free flow of oil," said Steven Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to a period dating back to the 1980s.

After the attacks, Trump sent more US troops to Saudi Arabia to operate Patriot missile systems, support that fell far short of what the Saudis had expected from a president whom they considered a close friend and who shared their animosity toward Iran. Trump ordered, then abruptly called off, airstrikes on Iran.

"What the Saudis didn't understand," Cook said, "was that Trump is a lot closer to Obama's worldview than they realised. It's about getting out of West Asia."

The Saudi reputation in Washington had suffered gravely because of the war in Yemen, the Qatar blockade and the killing of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul last year.

While anger spread in Congress and other parts of the government, Trump continued to support the kingdom as an important Arab ally and a reliable buyer of American arms. But as a presidential election looms, the Saudis realise that Trump could find that position to be a liability with voters, and a new president could take an entirely different approach.

"It is a hard ask, even for Trump, to defend Saudi Arabia at every turn during a campaign," said Emile Hokayem, a West Asia analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "So I think the Saudis are smart enough to tone it down for a time."

Daylight also broke between Saudi Arabia and its closest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates. In June, the Emirates began withdrawing its troops from Yemen, leaving the Saudis with the burden of an ugly war that few believe they can win. In July, the Emirates hosted rare talks with Iran about maritime security, an effort to calm tensions in the Persian Gulf and safeguard the country’s reputation as a safe business hub.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment on the recent diplomacy.

While those overtures have yet to yield official agreements, they have eased pressures in the region.

In Yemen, both sides have released more than 100 prisoners to show goodwill, and cross-border attacks by the Houthis have grown less frequent. Last month the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, reported an 80 percent reduction in airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition over the previous two weeks.

Since then, no Yemeni civilians have been killed in airstrikes, said Radhya Almutawakel, the chairwoman of Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights group.

The current de-escalation, she noted, is the first that resulted from direct talks with the Houthis. She suspected that the Saudis would not have chosen that route if the war had been going their way at the time of the Abqaiq attack.

"They would not have chosen to speak with the Houthis," she said. "They would have escalated the war."

In the standoff between Saudi Arabia and its allies and Qatar, demonstrable progress has been scarce but quiet talks between the countries' leaders have softened the conflict's rougher edges.

Saudi social media accounts that often insulted Qatar's emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, have toned it down. And while Qatar has not shut down its Al-Jazeera satellite network as the Saudis demanded, criticism of Qatar from pro-government news outlets and social media accounts in Saudi Arabia has noticeably quieted in recent months, Qatari officials say.

Instead of punishing citizens who travel to Qatar, Saudi Arabia now looks the other way, and has even sent soccer teams to play in tournaments in Doha, the Qatari capital. And although Qatar's emir did not accept an invitation by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, to attend a regional summit meeting in Saudi Arabia this month, Qatar's foreign minister did.

The Qataris have also gained ground in Washington. While Trump initially cheered the blockade, endorsing the Saudi allegation that Qatar supported terrorism, he later switched tracks. Last year, he welcomed Qatar's emir in Washington and this month sent his daughter and senior advisor, Ivanka Trump, to a major conference in Doha.

But the antagonism toward Qatar has not softened in the Emirates, which has been a leader of the embargo and which still sees Qatar as dangerously close to the region's Islamists. The distrust is reciprocated by Qatar, where officials have spoken of possibly reconciling with Saudi Arabia but not the Emirates, effectively splitting their alliance.

Concrete progress has been scarcest where the stakes are highest: Between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But after years of heated statements and competing support for opposite sides in regional conflicts, officials from Pakistan and Iraq have stepped in as intermediaries for back-channel talks aimed at averting a wider conflict.

It remains unclear how far such talks will go in reducing tensions, especially since an official Saudi opening with Iran could infuriate Trump, who has tried to isolate and punish Iran.

"Washington would not look kindly upon a Saudi-Iranian channel at a time when the US is trying to isolate Iran," said Malley, the Obama administration official. "Not to fully trust the Trump administration is one thing. To openly defy it is another altogether, and Prince Mohammed is unlikely to do that."

Declan Walsh and Ben Hubbard c.2019 The New York Times Company

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