Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, once a pariah, was master of ceremonies last week as Arab states readmitted Syria to the Arab League, showing Washington who calls the regional shots.
At the Arab summit, he kissed President Bashar al-Assad’s cheeks. Then, he hugged him, defying U.S. criticism of Syria’s return to the fold and capping a geopolitical turnabout in the prince’s fortunes.
In an oil-dependent world burned by the Ukraine war, MbS aspires to restore Saudi Arabia as a regional force.
The prince, shunned by Western nations after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad, has become a player Washington must deal with on a transactional basis.
Despite Washington’s disapproval, MbS is forging relationships with other global powers and repairing relations with its mutual opponents.
His international stage bravado was not limited to his greeting of Assad. MbS sought to arbitrate between Kyiv and fellow oil producer Moscow at the Jeddah meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Saudi Arabia still relies militarily on the U.S., which freed it from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, monitors Iranian military action in the Gulf, and supplies most of its armaments.
Still, MbS is pursuing its regional agenda with less apparent regard for its most powerful partner.
“This is a strong signal to America that ‘we’re reshaping and redrawing our relations without you’,” Gulf Research Center Chairman Abdulaziz al-Sager said of the summit.
Sager added, “He is not getting what he wants from the other side,” noting Saudi Arabia’s ententes with regional rivals were based on Riyadh’s regional security stance.
Last year, Western countries turned to Saudi Arabia to calm an oil market destabilized by the Ukraine war, strengthening MbS’ position. MbS might begin a diplomatic effort with high-profile summit attendance.
Despite U.S. intelligence implicating him, Washington’s immunity for MbS’s Khashoggi death helped that effort.
Last July, U.S. President Joe Biden went empty-handed while the prince publicly displayed U.S. support for Saudi security.
After years of antagonism, China brokered a resolution between Riyadh and its archrival Iran this year, demonstrating the Saudi tilt away from the U.S.
Iran’s allies had defeated Saudi forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, where they controlled most of the population.
Still, Riyadh was able to limit its losses and cooperate with U.S. competitors and opponents to protect its regional interests, such as cooling the Yemen war, where Saudi forces have been mired since 2015.
Diplomats and Doha officials say the prince has repaired relations with Turkey and stopped a boycott on Qatar, which he considered invading in 2017.
“Over the past three years, the hatchet was buried and relations were repaired,” Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed told Asharq Al-Awsat.
After the 2011 Arab revolts, Riyadh saw a weaker security umbrella and substituted the oil-for-defense paradigm with a more transactional relationship with the U.S., a Gulf official said.
A senior State Department official called the connection “an important eight-decade one that spans generations, across administrations in our own country and across leaders in Saudi Arabia.”
“We have various interests with Saudi Arabia…Our policies and involvement will aim to keep our partnership strong and ready for future challenges.”
Riyadh believed Washington had abandoned old allies during the revolts and may desert the Al Saud monarchy. At the same time, it believed the U.S. pursuit of a nuclear deal with Tehran had caused Washington to ignore the growing activities of Iranian proxies considered by Riyadh as a threat.
That impression strengthened. A Saudi source close to the ruling elite cited soft Iran sanctions and a pullback in Syria, where a small U.S. mission has denied territory to Iran’s allies.
“I think countries in the region, as a consequence, will do what is best for them,” he said.
After repeatedly urging Riyadh to take responsibility for its security, the U.S. withdrew its support for Saudi operations in Yemen, which angered the monarchy.
The insider claimed Riyadh had no choice but to make a deal with Iran even though it irritated Washington.
“U.S. action caused this,” he said. The Gulf official said both sides have requests they won’t grant. But both sides may have to forgive.
The U.S. security umbrella may be diminished, but Saudi Arabia still relies on it. Moreover, western nations have recognized that Riyadh’s prominence in a volatile oil market necessitates dealing with its de facto ruler and future king.