What is certain about the visit by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) last Monday is that it couldn’t have been to extend an invitation to the Summit for Democracy that President Joe Biden plans to convene on December 9-10.
Quite obviously, Biden has no intention to invite any leader of the countries on Sullivan’s itinerary – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Indeed, Sullivan picked the most authoritarian, repressive regimes in West Asia for his first visit to the region since taking office in January. This must have been a deliberate decision.
All three are highly prickly countries hugely experienced in managing their equations with US administrations, and longtime partners whom Biden wanted to keep at arm’s length. As for the Saudis, Biden had famously vowed on the campaign trail to “make them the pariah that they are.”
MBS was persona non grata for the Biden administration. No one from the top echelons would see him, talk to him on the phone, let alone visit him. Sullivan’s visit, therefore, came as a sobering moment.
In July, Sullivan received at the White House MBS’s younger brother, who serves under him as the kingdom’s deputy defense minister. Succinctly put, Sullivan’s visit is the ultimate acknowledgment that Biden is no longer sure about the wisdom or practicality of ostracizing MBS.
The Biden administration did all it could to “punish” MBS – published a Central Intelligence Agency report that held the crown prince responsible for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (whose third “anniversary,” by a quirk of irony, fell this week); stopped arms deals with the Saudis over human-rights violations in Yemen; pulled a Patriot missile defense system out of Saudi Arabia amid rumors that a drawdown of the estimated 20,000-strong US military deployment in the kingdom is also in the cards.
Sullivan’s visit comes on an eventful week in the Beltway when Pentagon generals publicly criticized Biden’s decision on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the State Department and Pentagon traded blame over the Afghan evacuation, and new evacuation flights out of Afghanistan are being lined up with the Taliban’s help.
The White House has a media blackout on Sullivan’s talks with MBS on Monday. But from the Saudi perspective, the talks went so well that they unilaterally issued a statement two days later. The statement highlights a new convergence over “intensifying diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen.”
It said Sullivan “stressed Washington’s complete commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia as it defends itself against threats, including ballistic missile and armed drone attacks by the Houthis. He emphasized US President Joe Biden’s support for Saudi Arabia’s goal to push forward a lasting political solution and ending the conflict in Yemen.”
No doubt, Yemen topped Sullivan’s agenda. He was accompanied by special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking and the White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk.
But the Saudi statement also highlighted that “talks focused on bilateral relations between Riyadh and Washington and ways to bolster them in various fields. They also tackled regional issues of interest.”
Interestingly, MBS received Sullivan in Neom, the futuristic city he is planning to develop on the Red Sea coast at an estimated cost of $500 billion, an enterprise in which Western business and industry are keenly interested. Interestingly, immediately after the meeting with Sullivan, MBS received a call from French President Emmanuel Macron.
The salience of the brief estrangement between Biden and MBS is that the latter discovered he has lots of other productive relationships and other partners do not treat him like a pariah.
Saudis even signed a major defense cooperation agreement with Russia on August 23 in a not-so-subtle signal to Washington that Riyadh is willing to diversify its defense relationships. Sullivan’s visit comes just four weeks later.
Far more consequential is the thaw in tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. The fourth round of talks between the top officials of the two countries just took place in Baghdad on normalization of bilateral relations and the fact that this major regional development has no American role shouldn’t be overlooked.
There are rumors that an understanding may be at hand for Riyadh and Tehran to restore diplomatic ties after a 5-year hiatus.
Such a historic rapprochement holds the potential to reset regional politics and impact the situation in the hotspots such as Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. Yet, Washington finds itself standing on the sideline weakly applauding the process.
Conversely, of course, the Persian Gulf is calming down once the US dropped its hands-on attitude toward Saudi Arabia. Iran certainly would have been a major talking point for Sullivan. But the Saudi statement didn’t even mention Iran.
It is not that Saudis have ceased to care about the outcome of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, but they have decided to navigate their interests their own way instead of depending on Washington.
Put differently, the Biden administration has unwittingly contributed to regional security and stability by turning away from the decades-old strategy to fuel tensions over Iran with a view to create synergy vis-a-vis the petrodollar states and advance American hegemony.
The mother of all ironies will be if the Baghdad summit conference of West Asian powers and France on August 28 provides the basis for a new regional institutionalized structure for solving key regional issues, similar to other structures in East and Central Asia.
Such a scenario cannot be ruled out if the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement gains traction and an agreement is reached between Iran and the US on returning to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Meanwhile, the possibilities of military confrontation in the Persian Gulf region have diminished.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.