Major changes in Saudi foreign policy are in the works, as Middle Eastern powers prepare for a new administration in Washington, and at the forefront of the rethink in Riyadh is a pending rapprochement with Doha.
An announcement can be expected in a matter of days. Kuwait, which had been mediating between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, hinted on November 27 that a breakthrough was imminent. And on Friday, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Sabah said there were “constructive and fruitful discussions” and progress was made in resolving the row that erupted in mid-2017.
After the Kuwaiti statement, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani thanked Kuwait for its mediation.
There is a saying that success has many fathers, and, unsurprisingly, US President Donald Trump is positioning himself for a photo-op to claim a foreign-policy trophy. But ironically, if anyone in the US were to claim success here, it ought to be President-elect Joe Biden.
The heart of the matter is that the Biden presidency is looming large on the horizon, which in turn is triggering major realignments in the Middle East.
The Saudi ship is taking a big arc of course correction, resetting its compass for a new voyage ahead with an eye on the Biden presidency. Incipient signs in this direction began appearing with the recent Saudi feelers to Qatar and Turkey for reconciliation and, importantly, Riyadh’s reticence in establishing formal relations with Israel.
Acting on Israel’s behalf, the Trump administration tried hard to persuade Saudi Arabia to enter the Abraham Accords laterally, but to no avail. The Saudis balked at the crucial meeting at Neom, a resort on the Red Sea, on November 27 of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What emerges is that Saudi Arabia does not want to get associated with any precipitate move that would annoy the Muslim world and the Saudi religious establishment. In effect, therefore, the Saudis are choosing instead to harmonize with the contrarian position taken by Turkey and Qatar.
Indeed, Qatar’s foreign minister did some plain speaking recently warning that Arab states that establish ties with Israel undermine efforts for Palestinian statehood. Of course, the Palestinians have denounced the Abraham Accords as a “stab in the back” and a betrayal of their cause. They fear that the moves by the United Arab Emirates to team up with Israel will weaken a long-standing pan-Arab position.
“I think it’s better to have a united [Arab] front to put the interests of the Palestinians to end the [Israeli] occupation,” Sheikh Mohammed told the online Global Security Forum recently. He said that division was not in the interest of concerted Arab efforts to get the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians and resolve the decades-long conflict.
Qatar supports a two-state solution with occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a stance the foreign minister reiterated.
Suffice to say, a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement would deal a body blow to the Abraham Accords of last August. In retrospect, all the hype about the accords heralding a new dawn in the geopolitics of the Middle East is turning out to be wishful thinking.
Certainly, Israel and the UAE will not like Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Qatar and Turkey. Both have great animus against the Turkey-Qatar axis, which they see as an existential challenge to their regional strategies to dominate Middle Eastern politics. They see Ankara and Doha as mentoring the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Equally, the Israeli-Emirati plan was to create jointly with Saudi Arabia a front against Iran. That plan also won’t take off now. Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia has distanced itself from the Israeli-Emirati plan to stoke tensions with Iran, which would create an alibi for US military intervention while Trump is still in power.
(Curiously, Qatar’s foreign minister was the first foreign dignitary to call Iranian FM Javad Zarif to convey his country’s condemnation of the recent killing of the Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.)
We may expect a rapprochement soon between Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well. There is close coordination between Ankara and Doha on regional developments. It is entirely conceivable that the Saudi policies figured prominently in the discussions recently in Ankara between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the visiting emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on November 26.
Interestingly, during the emir’s visit, the two countries also finalized several multibillion-dollar investment projects by Qatar in the Turkish economy.
After Saudi King Salman’s phone call to Erdogan on November 20, prominent Turkish analysts have noted that the latter welcomes a Saudi-Turkish normalization. The foreign ministers of the two countries have since continued the discussion and the Saudi side has shelved plans to ban Turkish goods.
The main sticking point for Turkey appears to be the Saudi-Emirati axis in regional politics in recent years. Turkey resents that the UAE has been the driving force behind the controversial Saudi policies in regard to Yemen, Qatar, etc. This is where the Saudi-Qatari normalization becomes a sign of a rethink in Riyadh’s regional policies. Turkey will view this trend with satisfaction, especially the Saudi-Qatari normalization.
Indeed, the “big picture” is that Biden has voiced harsh criticism of both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Erdogan has reason to be worried that Biden will not tolerate his aggressive foreign policy and measures in the security field (in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Nagorno-Karabakh, etc) and could impose sanctions in coordination with the European Union.
There has also been a palpable change in Turkish rhetoric in recent weeks toward a more conciliatory tone vis-à-vis both the US and the EU as well as Saudi Arabia. For both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, an improvement of their bilateral relationship could halt the trend toward their growing isolation in the Middle East, enhance their space to maneuver and burnish their image in Washington and Brussels as responsible regional powers.
Both hope that Biden will get to see them in a more positive light and that an engagement may ensue.
At any rate, an overall easing of regional tensions in the Persian Gulf is sure to go down well with the Biden presidency, which intends to focus on the situation around Iran as its top priority in foreign policy. The Saudi retrenchment from the Israeli-Emirati regional stratagem aimed at systematically undermining the US-Iranian negotiations constitutes a big step forward in that direction.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.