28.02.2014 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Saudi Arabia: a change in foreign policy?

665Saudi Arabia resembles an awakened volcano that has slumbered for many decades, and now is beginning to “disgorge” one initiative after another, gradually changing its foreign policy. As noted by the politician and representative of neorealism theory Kenneth Waltz in his book entitled the Theory of International Politics: “… States must be ready for any developments in the international arena, from the military as well as political and economic point of view. They should by no means be in need of, or depend, on another state.” Based on this theory, Riyadh is now trying to develop a new foreign policy, including in its agenda negotiations and improvement of relations with the states, which, until recently, they have been trying to ignore.

Above all, this concerns Russia, with which Saudi Arabia is trying to improve relations and even, according to some information, if not to make it an ally, then to change Moscow’s position to neutral. There is much evidence in this. For example, last year’s visits of the very influential Prince of Bandar bin Sultan, who, according to the Arab press, tried to bribe the Russian President Vladimir Putin in his characteristic manner. “It did not work! Yet, nevertheless, the dialogue between the two countries had started and is successfully moving forward.

Let us take another example. During the visit of the Egyptian Defenсe Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy to our country, it was reported that Russia would supply weapons worth a considerable sum of money to Egypt. Along with the UAE, Saudi Arabia agreed to pay for these weapons. The Egyptian newspaper Akhar Saa, wrote on this occasion that Saudi representatives in the Russian capital received from Riyadh instructions to promote the strengthening of relations with the Kremlin more actively. Thus, the paper concludes, it is possible that the Russian-Egyptian deal, with Saudi participation, is only the first sign of significant changes in the balance of forces in the Middle East.

Recently in Kuwait City “on the sidelines” of the third ministerial round of strategic dialogue between Russia and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), a very important meeting took place between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al Saud. The problems of settlement of the Syrian crisis and the solution of the Palestinian problem as well as the situation in Iraq and the situation around the Iranian nuclear programme were discussed during the meeting. At the same time, as reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry, during the meeting, they discussed a range of issues of further development of Russian-Saudi relations, including cooperation in the trade-economic, scientific-technical, investment and other fields. In addition, very importantly, after the meeting, it was agreed to intensify Russian-Saudi political dialogue on issues of mutual interest.

As is well known, the point of view of Saudi Arabia on Syrian events is quite different from that of Moscow. Nevertheless, we, as the events showed, are not going to abandon support for the legitimately elected president Bashar al-Assad, and stand for solving the very difficult Syrian problem at the peace table. Russia is not going to abandon this moral position.

And what about Saudi Arabia? Until recently, all foreign affairs were actively supervised by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, having extensive experience in working overseas, including 23 years of service as the Ambassador of the Kingdom in the United States. However now, as reported by the Arab press, the Syrian dossier was taken from him and transferred to the Minister of the Interior Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. We should recall that three years ago, this highly influential, in the Saudi hierarchy, Prince survived an attempt on his life by the Al-Qaeda, when he commanded troops during anti-terrorist operations, and was the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, son of the late Crown Prince Naif Abdul Aziz Al Saud, took over as Minister of the Interior in 1975 and was known as an active fighter against Al-Qaeda.

In this regard, we can specify that in the last two months, the role of the head of the General Intelligence of Saudi Arabia Bandar bin Sultan has weakened. Although some media reported that the reason for the absence of the Prince was the continuing health treatments in the U.S.A.; it was assumed by many that the failure of important missions in the region was the main reason of the weakening of his role in decision-making. Long-term absence of Bandar in the political arena increased the participation of the Minister of Interior of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Nayef in decisions on external security of the country and in the international arena.

Taking into account the fact that the name of Bandar bin Sultan is associated with many important regional developments, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the bright star of Prince will soon dim. According to political observers, his failure to implement anti-Syrian projects, not only worsened the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, but also, to some extent, led to the isolation of Saudi Arabia. The future withdrawal of Bandar bin Sultan from the Saudi arena, as is written openly about in many Arab media, for the mismatching of his strategy with the regional policy of the USA and his open criticism of the government of Barack Obama angered Washington, which has been repeatedly brought to the attention of the aged monarch of Saudi Arabia. According to observers, the failure of Bandar bin Sultan in his mission in the region, concern Saudi authorities. This worry about the isolation of the country because of the actions of the Prince, and about the future relationship of Riyadh with Washington and Moscow, as well as the health status of the prince, led to the fact that the king of Saudi Arabia included the dismissal of the head of general intelligence of his country on his agenda.

However, some analysts are of the opinion that today the policy of Saudi Arabia in the region has reached a deadlock. The authorities of the kingdom have adopted a strategy of changing figures in their diplomatic and intelligence system, in order to transmit to regional and other countries the message that a good atmosphere exists for cooperation and understanding. Apparently, in this regard should be considered the good results of the negotiations of Lavrov with the Saudi in Kuwait City.

As noted by The Wall Street Journal, the future withdrawal of Bandar bin Sultan, may, in its turn, mean overcoming differences between the U.S.A. and Saudi Arabia, as well as changes in Riyadh’s policy towards Syria. Until now, the kingdom has been one of the main sponsors of the Syrian rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, Washington was not happy with that, because Al-Qaeda and radical Islamists had serious influence among Syrian opposition fighters. Moreover, analysts believe that the change in Saudi policy in Syria may affect the overall balance of powers and increase diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran, which for now support B. Assad.

Saudi authorities have made a number of statements, which almost no one expected from them. For example, the Saudi authorities have threatened to severely punish those who “financially or morally support radical religious groups”. Such a step could fundamentally change the situation in Syria. After all, most of the intransigent Syrian opposition struggles against the regime of Bashar Assad on money from Saudi Arabia. Head of the religious police of Saudi Arabia (“Al- Mutawa”), Sheikh Abdel Latif Al Sheikh solemnly declared that from now on a “call for jihad” in neighbouring countries was illegal. In accordance with the decree issued by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the extremists, fighting abroad, face imprisonment from 3 to 20 years. Moreover, extremists were found in the department headed by the Sheikh. According to him, in the near future, “tough measures” will be taken against all radical agency staff.

Apparently, in terms of improving relations between the two states, we should consider the future visit of the U.S. president to Saudi Arabia at the end of March this year. According to the press service of the White House, the head of the U.S. Administration will discuss with the Saudi king and other senior Saudi officials the situation in the Middle East, and the fight against international terrorism.

Commenting on the upcoming visit of Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia, American political scientists remind that there has recently been tension in relations between the two countries, related to the situation surrounding Iran and Syria. Authorities of the kingdom fear that negotiations of the international “six” with the Islamic Republic, with regards to its nuclear programme, may lead to a resumption of contacts between the U.S. authorities and Shiite authorities in Iran at the expense of relations with the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf Region. Moreover, Saudi Arabia believes that the United States provides insufficient support to the Syrian opposition, which, as a result, cannot break the resistance of the armed forces of SAR President Bashar al-Assad.

Without a doubt, a general consensus on all matters will be found, and the two countries will return to the strategic alliance, which was founded back in 1944 by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first Saudi king Ibn Saud.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the New Eastern Outlook online magazine.