In the Arab world, the old balance of power has rapidly changed according to the famous proverb “all things are in flux”, and Saudi Arabia with its architect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) is increasingly coming to the fore. The Crown Prince is determined to lead and transform the entire Arab world in the period of the current rapidly changing environment, but on new and equal footing with other nations.
Two events have cemented and dramatically reinforced Saudi Arabia’s position as a regional political power, perhaps more than anything before. First, the failed visit of US President Joe Biden, with its goals of reasserting America’s influence in the Middle East and finding a solution to the rising price of fuel. “Unexpectedly” Biden discovered that the Middle East is drastically different from what his much-experienced “experts and advisers” had informed him of.
Second, just as Biden, the Crown Prince held meetings and visits in preparation for the Jeddah summit. He had a highly successful tour of Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, coupled with fruitful talks with some of the summit’s other attendees. The outcome was a well-prepared plan and a clear agenda, not only for the Jeddah summit, the city where the priorities of the Middle East were brought at the forefront, but also for the near future.
While the West might have long viewed Saudi Arabia’s importance as being based on its religious significance and economic power, thanks to its oil production, the picture is now very different. It turns out that there is a major geopolitical power in the region that can, and should, replace Western influence. It is Shiite Iran. However, from an international relations perspective, the past few weeks also signified historic zigzags in the dynamics of Muslim power in the Middle East. Tehran’s announcement immediately after the Jeddah summit that it had reached nuclear bomb development capabilities undermined the foundations of Western influence and complicated the dynamics of Arab power in the region.
Biden’s visit, the Crown Prince’s tour and the Jeddah summit might have been offset by the nuclear milestone announcement, which also marked the end of any prospective nuclear deal with Iran. At least in the shape long expected by the international community. Now, from a regional security perspective, everyone must be very worried about the Iranian Ayatollahs’ announcement. As the factors change, the response and overall orientation of the Arabs ought to be changed too. All regional actors, above all the Arab ummah, must now clearly define their role in stabilising the region.
For Saudi Arabia, it continues to enhance its political power and influence within the Arab world through two main approaches. First and foremost, MBS actively furthers regional rapprochement and solidifies his relations with Middle Eastern actors, particularly Jordan and Iraq. Negotiations in Baghdad with the Iranians to re-establish diplomatic relations play no small part in this, which would go some way towards easing tensions between the two countries. The one also should not discount the ongoing clandestine contacts between emissaries from Israel and Saudi Arabia, where bilateral issues are actively discussed.
Furthermore, the rather ambitious and young MBS, having failed to deal properly with a number of problems and having gained enough experience, has now increasingly resorted to the use of so-called soft power to promote its political-economic course. This includes making more business deals regionally and exploring direct investment. This even includes direct implementation of infrastructure development projects that provide sustainable investment returns. The ultimate goal may be that Riyadh becomes the most important investor in key strategic countries of the region. It is quite natural that in this case it concerns the considerable sums available to the Crown Prince. In the first quarter of this year alone, the Saudi surplus was more than $20 billion and judging by high oil prices it is not about to shrink.
It is important to bear in mind that Jordan itself is interested in the peaceful development of the region and should be concerned if any potential Iranian confrontation with Saudi Arabia or Israel would put Jordan in a geopolitically insecure position. Iraq has a major role to play since it has open communication channels with Iran. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has proven his ability to balance relations with both Riyadh and Tehran and thus can bring the two states closer to resuming talks. He can also clarify Iran’s intentions to convince the Arabs that they are making a mistake continuing to consider Iran an isolated revolutionary state of the 1980s.
In an important presentation to journalists, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman detailed his plan for profound economic reforms and development changes, that he believes will put many Arab countries firmly on the path to modernisation and progress. A “new Europe” is emerging in the Middle East, he said. For now, only the UAE has generally set a new bar in this regard. Thanks to its geography, demography, historical status and current experience, Egypt has been highly assessed for its progress, while other Arab countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have also received their due share of praise from MBS. While “reform, modernisation and progress” have been for some time the key words of Saudi Arabia’s startling evolution, what is new is how this has been linked to the future of the region as a whole.
It is well known that the situation in the region in comparison with the rest of the world is far from encouraging and is perceived by many countries as an “exception” to the global trends of globalisation, democratisation and modernisation. The region has been “inseparable” from religious zealotry, insularity as well as civil and sectarian strife. The Arab Spring gave hope that this prognosis had been wrong. But then civil war erupted again in a number of Arab countries, and the region seemed drawn back to jihadist groups, the so-called caliphate and chronic hostility to the West and progress.
However, much has happened in the Arab world. And many developments have taken place particularly since the beginning of the decade, when many Arab countries embarked on ambitious and comprehensive programmes of socio-economic reform. According to MBS, the fundamental pillars of this process are as follows:
- Emphasis on the nation state including its national identity, historical depth and political unity. Within this framework, the renewal of religious thought and further course to bring religion into line with the concept of a modern civil state is an important component of national unity.
- A comprehensive change in terms of the geographical horizons of the development process. Whereas “from the river to the sea” describes Egypt’s aspiration to develop from the Nile Valley to the Mediterranean and Red Seas, for Saudi Arabia it is “from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea”. The beliefs that the Arabs are doomed to live in desert and suffer from aridity while enjoying oil as their only wealth are no longer relevant. We can now see how the sand of the deserts is the building material for industry, the seas become bridges and channels of communication, and the Arabs themselves using the power of reason and creative energy is able build more prosperous societies.
- Unity of political will. Strength and novelty of this commitment can work wonders, which in more scientific terms mean progress in a shorter time.
It was Mohammed bin Salman who added this pillar while promoting a new mode of relations among reforming countries, that replaces rivalry and envy with a common cause and attitude for all the Arabs. In this case, the linking idea is to work together to create a new region similar to Europe after it ceased to live in the Middle Ages and entered the modern era. “New regionalism”, as this approach has been called, emanates from domestic reforms and extends to regional cooperation, mitigation of regional conflicts and tensions. The maritime boundary agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia could already see the potential for new and fruitful endeavours. The agreement opened the door to regional integration between Sinai in north-eastern Egypt and AlUla in north-western Saudi Arabia. Together, these areas form a political and developmental unit in the northern Red Sea shaping geopolitical and geostrategic reality that can lay a firm basis for regional stability and powerful economic development.
It is curious that just recently, this regionalism manifested itself in the convergence of views of the heads of nine Arab states at a meeting with the US president in Jeddah. The fact that the Arab leaders spoke with virtually one voice about what was unacceptable from their point of view established new rules of conduct for the region inside and out. Furthermore, it was the Arabian unity of views that turned Biden’s visit into a failure and showed what tremendous changes have taken place in the Arab world. Back in Washington, the US president urgently instructed his aides to develop a new vision for relations with the Arab countries. Above all, it concerns the new relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which directly affects the price of a barrel of gasoline in the US.
Finally, MBS thinks that the US should reorganise its plans, “revitalise its approach” to Iran and do much more than just impose sanctions against it as they have proved to be utterly useless. Washington should also act quickly and sensibly in anticipation of a possible change of president after the 2024 elections. It also has to continuously consult with the region’s current leaders before taking any action. The point is that if the West wants to support the Middle East, it has to do so only through its partners and refrain from its own ill-judged moves. And this in fact is confirmed by a recent report by the Tony Blair Institute, which showed that the West holds many misconceptions about modernisation in the Middle East and the policies it is now pursuing in the Arab world.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.