Analysis

Losing Its Grip on Gulf, Saudi Arabia Is Desperate for Political Win

Trump's indecision and a wary Congress impel Riyadh to appeasement with neighboring Qatar, which has been under a Saudi-led blockade since 2017

A Saudi fan waves her country's national flag ahead of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup Group B football match between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in Doha, Qatar, November 27, 2019.
AFP

History, seemingly of minor significance, was made this week when the Saudi national soccer team landed in Doha, Qatar's capital, to participate in the Arabian Gulf Cup. A short while earlier, the Saudi envoy to Kuwait, Sultan bin Sa’ad al-Saud, declared that “sports might repair what politics has ruined.”

Truth be told, the match is not the most important event in this championship but rather the fact that Saudi Arabia, which since 2017 has imposed a boycott and a full blockade on Qatar, is taking part in the tournament. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined the boycott and closed their airspace to flights from and to Qatar, with Riyadh sealing shut Qatar’s only land crossing, cutting off a key route for food and construction imports as hostilities mounted. The Saudi team’s plane that landed this week in Qatar was the first to break the siege.

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Two years ago Saudi Arabia presented Doha with a number of demands, the most important of which were that it severs ties with Iran and halt its meddling in the affairs of other countries, especially through infuriating activity of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network and its broadcast criticism of the Gulf states and Egypt. Not only that Qatar refused to comply with these demands, it also impressively managed to overcome the economic blockade imposed on it with the help of Turkey and Iran and established a number of factories to produce goods that until then had been imported from abroad.

Though it did pay more for air transportation, with the financial cushion Qatar had accumulated over the years this had hardly any effect on the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens, who have the world’s highest per capita incomes. Much to the Saudis’ resentment, despite the tension between the two countries and Qatar’s close cooperation with Iran, Washington continued to maintain excellent relations with the small emirate in which the largest American airbase in the Persian Gulf is located.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts over the past two years to bring about reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar failed. However, it seems that it was precisely Trump's strategic decision to withdraw America from the Middle East that impelled Saudi Arabia toward appeasement with Qatar. The soccer tournament is not yet the renewal of diplomatic relations with Qatar but the Saudi Arabia's signal is clear.

When Iran downed a U.S. drone Trump refused to respond, explaining to the Saudis that the attack on its oil refinery facilities is their problem and not an American one and that he would love to help only if Riyadh pays for it. 

Meanwhile, when the circus of his “deal of the century” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in which Saudi Arabia was supposed to play a leading role, has folded its tent, and when the American forces are intending to depart from Syria and leave it in Russian and Iranian hands, Saudi Arabia has to re-evaluate its strategy.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018
Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS

Beyond all that, on the horizon a threatening dark cloud hovers over Trump’s legal and political future. If he is impeached or isn't re-elected, and a Democratic president moves into the White House, Saudi Arabia is liable to find itself facing a double wall of hostility, in Congress and in the administration.

In order to prepare for the eventuality of such a “disaster,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has to act quickly and effectively to stabilize his kingdom’s standing in the Middle East. And to improve his image in Washington, which has not yet entirely forgiven him for the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and is demanding that he put an end to the war in Yemen. In July, Congress nearly succeeded in preventing the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia because of this war, but the deal was saved thanks to Trump's veto on the legislation. As to what happens when Trump leaves the stage, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an answer but it does not want to be surprised.

The Gulf arena, in which Saudi Arabia had ruled high-handedly, is beginning to look like Swiss cheese. From the Saudi perspective, not only has Qatar become a hostile country, but Oman and Kuwait didn’t join the boycott on Qatar while the United Arab Emirates, Saudis’ ally and strategic partner, decided to abandon the Yemeni front and massage its relations with Iran. A defense accord and economic agreements signed in recent weeks between the UAE and Iran have not ignited hostilities between Saudi Arabia and its neighbor, at least not publicly, but these have been added to the list of bin Salman’s diplomatic flubs.

Shift of balance in Yemen

The Yemeni front could be the next site of a Saudi diplomatic effort, which if successful would enable bin Salman to claim at least one diplomatic achievement. On November 5 an agreement was signed in Riyadh between the recognized Yemeni government headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and what is known as the Southern Transitional Council, a military political body that has taken control of the city of Aden with aid from the UAE and is demanding the establishment of an independent state in southern Yemen.

The agreement that was presided over by Khaled bin Salman, the crown prince's brother, stipulates that within a month’s time a new government will be established in Yemen. Said government will consist of 24 ministers equally divided among representatives of the recognized government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council, and the armies of the two sides will be united into a single army.

Saudi Arabia will grant the new government considerable financial aid to fund its activity, especially in the area of public services, and elections will be held in the future. The signed agreement does not yet ensure success, as both the government of Yemen and the Southern Transitional Council are in no hurry to disband their armies and build a joint one. Nor does it obviate the Transitional Council’s demand to establish an independent southern state, but the agreement could at least delay the fulfillment of this demand that will undoubtedly come up again later.

The transfer of full control of the southern part of Yemen to Saudi patronage is the result of the UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen that also included military disengagement from the Transitional Council militias they had funded. The direct responsibility is now incumbent on Salman’s brother Khaled, who has also been given permission to start negotiations with the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. Therein lies the more important development that could lead to an end to the war that has been raging for nearly five years and in which approximately 100,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands left homeless and millions more are in need of food and medicine.

As in the probes towards reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in Yemen too Oman and its ruler Sultan Qabus are serving as effective mediators. Oman has already succeeded in setting up direct talks between the Saudi leadership and the Houthi leadership. In this, Washington has also made its contribution when it began conducting its own direct talks with the Houthis even though they are protégés of Iran.

People gather to greet Houthi prisoners upon their arrival at the airport of the capital Sanaa, following their release by Saudi Arabia, on November 28, 2019.
AFP

According to Al Jazeera, the direct contact between Khaled bin Salman and the Houthi Supreme Council began in September. Shortly after the attack on the Saudi oil complexes, bin Salman suggested to Houthi leader Mahdi al-Mashat the establishment of two committees – a political committee and a military committee – for direct discussions of a long-term truce and an outline for a diplomatic solution. The Houthis accepted the proposal and dispatched their Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein al-Azzi to Oman on a United Nations ship. From there he flew to Amman, the capital of Jordan, where the meeting was held.

Subsequently there was a meeting in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, which has been controlled by the Houthis since 2014, for discussion of more detailed proposals. Some of which are a long truce lasting at least a year, the lifting of the siege on the al-Hodeida port, and a limited re-opening of the airport in Sana’a for purposes of flying out the wounded, the sick and diplomatic delegations. A further meeting was held in Riyadh, at which there was discussion on the details of the truce, and the Saudis demanded a reduction in the connection between the Houthis and Iran.

The talks are far from having achieved an agreement, in part because the Houthis are demanding that the truce be limited in time, while Saudi Arabia wants an open-ended truce. And as for the connection with Iran, the Houthis are in no hurry to adopt the Saudi demand, both because of the funding and aid they are receiving from Iran. And because they don’t believe and don’t trust that Saudi Arabia will be able to ensure them full partnership in governance and suitable funding, the issues that brought about their rebellion against the Yemeni government in the first place.

The question that interests Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel is whether an agreement with the Houthis could reduce or even bring about a break in their relations with Iran, and to what extent Iran is able to thwart any future agreement that would make Yemen a Saudi vassal state. Though Iran has recognized the Houthi administration as an independent regime, and has agreed to grant official status to the Houthis’ ambassador in Tehran, a diplomatic gesture of this sort is not engraved in stone. Just as even Iran knows, diplomatic relations have proven to be a rather fragile foundation upon which to build long-term relations of trust, especially as the Iranian-Houthi connection has never been at all dependent on the establishment of these diplomatic relations.

In contrast to Iran’s close and strategic relations with Syria and Hezbollah, or the interdependence between Iran and Iraq, Yemen’s status is different. The main benefit Iran can gain from it is military access to the Red Sea and its use as a Launchpad for threats to the trade route through the Bab-al-Mandab strait. However, during the past four years the Houthis have served Iran mainly as a force that has successfully prevented Saudi control of all parts of Yemen, and as a demonstration of Iran’s ability to wield influence in another Arab country. The benefit the Houthis have reaped from Iran is far greater. It has enabled them to take control of large areas of Yemen, create a defensive barrier against the government’s Yemeni forces, block Saudi Arabia, and fund their routine activity.

However, the Houthis want more. They are expecting full partnership in government and a suitable portion of the revenues from the oil, most of which is located in the southern part of the country. It is likely that if a peace agreement is signed and is accompanied by a generous Saudi funding package, Iran’s status will shrink and change from being a strategic partner of the Houthis to being merely their friend. 

As for Saudi Arabia, the decision to open the diplomatic channel, which has reduced the military activity on the ground, is recognition – belated but correct – of the limitations of its power. Yemen is now becoming bin Salman’s most important diplomatic test, through which he hopes to make his way back to Washington.