More stories

  • in

    The Aftershocks of the Saudi and American Debacle in Afghanistan

    Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have a complex relationship. Their ties date back to the 19th century when Afghanistan became the first Muslim country to recognize the second Saudi state of 1824 to 1891. In 1930, Ibn Saud recognized King Nadir Shah’s rule in Afghanistan, in 1932, the two countries signed their first friendship agreement, and in 1950, King Zahir Shah’s visit to Saudi Arabia was commemorated on a Saudi stamp.

    Ties over the following decades remained close. This was not so much because of Saudi geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, but rather how the country affected Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and Pakistan, a major rival and an important ally of the kingdom respectively.

    How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World


    The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 marked the summit of Saudi influence. In coordination with Pakistan and the United States, the Saudis famously supported the mujahideen and also assisted many Afghan refugees. Throughout the 1980s, the kingdom exercised direct interference over various Islamist groups in Afghanistan and many Saudis traveled there to fight the Soviets.

    After the Soviet Union departed in 1989 and throughout the subsequent civil war in Afghanistan, the Saudis continued their role of manipulating Afghan politicians and factions, using their petrodollars and religious influence on behalf of the US, with mixed results. In 1993, all of the Afghan mujahideen factions signed a peace agreement in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but that failed to stop the conflict.

    Saudi Ties With the Taliban

    Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, some commentators have encouraged the Saudis to try to play the religious card again. In June, Muslim scholars from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia signed a “declaration of peace” in Mecca, which Arab News described as a “historic, landmark event on the path toward reconciliation between warring factions.” But the Taliban rejected the move — which, in any event, had no impact on peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government — as a theatrical attempt to steal the diplomatic limelight from Qatar using Islamic mercenaries.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Saudi influence over the Taliban began with funding hardline religious schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan where the movement started. It effectively ended in 1996 when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan. At the end of the 1990s, Saudi citizens were officially barred from giving money to any charity that was not state-approved, which meant Saudi public funding for the Taliban was largely cut off, except for a few individuals acting without the explicit knowledge of the government. A 2013 research paper by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs stated that Saudi “fundraisers for the Taliban … are believed to extensively exploit networks and use old mechanisms dating back to the times of Saudi cooperation with mujahedeen and Taliban functionaries.”

    When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to officially recognize their government; Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the other two. This was not because the Saudis supported the Taliban regime, but rather because they were looking for a way to grease the wheels for an approach by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, to persuade the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, the Saudi leader of al-Qaeda.

    The Saudis calculated that by recognizing the Taliban government, they could win influence as they had done in the past with other factions and warlords. But in 1998, when Prince Turki traveled to Afghanistan with a delegation of Muslim figures, the former Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, turned him down.

    The Saudi View of the Taliban

    The House of Saud now faces a disconcerting moment over Afghanistan, not least because like the former Afghan government, the royal family depends on the US for protection against external enemies and internal threats.

    In a report by Wikistrat about the implications of the Taliban takeover on Saudi Arabia, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, comments: “Questions are likely to be mounting in Riyadh about the sincerity and the reliability of US security guarantees which themselves have been a matter of considerable uncertainty since the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.” He adds that the “sudden abandonment of Afghan partners, spelled out clinically and coldly in [Joe] Biden’s televised address, may resonate strongly among US regional partners for whom President [Barack] Obama’s perceived abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 set in motion a questioning of US motivations that then continued into the Trump era.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, continues in the same Wikistrat report: “The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority.” He adds that the “nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cause for concern in Saudi Arabia. President Biden’s speech about the withdrawal, wherein he noted that remaining in Afghanistan no longer constitutes a vital interest, has also sent shockwaves through the Saudi leadership.”

    The Taliban may turn on Saudi Arabia in the media war. Transnational jihadist groups like al-Qaeda could also threaten the Saudis from Afghanistan again. But as Sami Hamdi explained in the Arab Digest podcast, there are reasons why Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might benefit from the situation in Afghanistan in terms of finding a renewed utility toward the US. A foreign diplomat in Riyadh, quoted by Reuters, predicted that the kingdom will take a pragmatic approach. “The Saudis have a historical relationship with Afghanistan and will eventually have to accept the Taliban [again] … They have no other option,” he said.

    In 2019, Jalaluddin Shinwari, the former Taliban deputy minister of justice, told the New York Times: “What [we] are saying to Americans is this: You have accepted Saudi Arabia, and we won’t do more than their basic code — retribution for murder, chop off the hand for robbing. If you have accepted Saudi, what’s wrong with us being another? The rest will be your priorities: aid, friendship, economic relations.”

    The US Would Never Pull Out of Saudi Arabia

    The Taliban can dream of a relationship with the US akin to that which the Saudis enjoy. Yet that relationship is completely different from whatever ties the US has with Afghanistan. The United States would never pull out of Saudi Arabia the way it did from Afghanistan, not only because of hydrocarbons — although with the Middle East still providing around 31% of world oil production and 16% of global natural gas supply, this remains an important factor. Nor is American support just about Israel’s security — although the US and its Western allies certainly wish to ensure this, and they are ready to work with any Arab regime, particularly Saudi Arabia, that is ready to officially recognize Israel on US terms.

    The main reason the US can never pull out of Saudi Arabia is because of the unthinkable consequences of losing Saudi control of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina to al-Qaeda or another jihadist movement. That is why US support for the Saudis remains solid despite misgivings on both sides.

    *[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    For Saudi Arabia, Iran Looms, Israel Beckons and the Taliban Cause Goosebumps

    Prince Khalid bin Salman may not have planned it that way, but the timing of his trip to Moscow last week and message to Washington resounded loud and clear. By not postponing the visit, the Saudi deputy defense minister signaled that he was trying to hedge his kingdom’s bets by signing a defense cooperation agreement with Russia. This took place just as the United States fumbled to evacuate thousands of people from Afghanistan after that country was captured by Taliban militants.

    Saudi Arabia would have wanted to be seen as hedging its bets with or without the US debacle. The kingdom realizes that Russia will exploit opportunities created by the fiasco in Afghanistan but is neither willing nor capable of replacing the US as the Gulf’s security guarantor.

    US Media Amplifies Afghan Chaos


    Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia likely wants to capitalize on jitters in the US as Washington tries to get a grip on what went wrong and come to terms with the fact that Afghanistan will once again be governed by the Taliban. In 2001, the US ousted the ultraconservative militants from power because they harbored al-Qaeda terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.

    Al-Qaeda, alongside various other militant groups, still has a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban insist that no one will be allowed to operate cross-border or plan and/or launch attacks on other countries from Afghan soil.

    Jitters in the Gulf

    Yet the willingness to exploit US discomfort may also signal jitters in Saudi Arabia. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions for Riyadh. First, is the US still reliable when it comes to the defense of the kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula? Second, does the US move undermine confidence in Washington’s ability to negotiate a potential revival of the Iranian nuclear deal if and when talks start again? Third, could Afghanistan become a battlefield in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite both sides seeking to dial down tensions?

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, argues that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has increased its influence among the Taliban at the expense of the Saudis, who backed away from the group in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The kingdom and the Taliban’s paths further diverged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman liberalizing the once-shared ultra-conservative social mores while Afghanistan appears set to reintroduce them.

    “The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority. At the same time, the Saudi leadership will be keen to align policy with the US and its Western partners and will follow their lead in establishing diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government and providing aid to the country’s population,” Quilliam predicted.

    His analysis assumes that reduced Saudi interaction and closer Iranian ties with the Taliban mean that the group’s inclinations would lean more toward Tehran than Riyadh.

    In a similar vein, some analysts have noted that Saudi Arabia was absent among the Gulf states that helped the US and European countries with evacuations from Afghanistan. Instead, it sent its deputy defense minister to Moscow.

    Others suggested that Saudi Arabia chose to remain on the sidelines and hedge its bets, given its history with the Taliban. Until 2001, Saudi Arabia was a major influence among Afghan jihadists, whom it funded during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. It was also one of three countries to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan when it first gained power in 1996. Fifteen of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals. By then, Saudi influence had already waned, as was evident in the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden before the attacks took place. 

    If proven correct, Quilliam’s prediction would amount to a break with the Taliban record of not operating beyond Afghanistan’s borders except in Pakistan, even though it tolerates al-Qaeda militants and others on territory it controls. Moreover, despite being strange bedfellows, the need to accommodate one another is unlikely to persuade the Taliban to do Iran’s bidding. “Iran has tried to increase its influence within the group by getting closer to certain factions, but it is still suspicious of the Taliban as a whole,” said Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

    Iran and Israel

    Moreover, the Taliban may want to steer clear of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. This is particularly if those who believe that US unreliability, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, leaves Saudi Arabia no choice but to escalate the war in Yemen and confront Iran more forcefully get their way.

    “We should take a lesson from the events in Afghanistan, and especially from the mistakes [that were made there], regarding Yemen. This is the time to crush the Houthis without considering the international forces,” said Saudi columnist Safouq al-Shammari, echoing other commentators in Saudi media. “Giving Israel a free hand regarding the Iranian nuclear issue has become a reasonable [option] … It seems like [Israel’s] extremist [former prime minister] Netanyahu, was right to avoid coordinating with the [Biden] administration, which he considered weak and failing.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Shammari’s notions fit into Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to replace the religious core of Saudi identity with hyper-nationalism. They also stroke with thinking among more conservative Israeli analysts and retired military officers. In Shammari’s vein, retired Major General Gershon Hacohen of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) walked away from the US debacle in Afghanistan, warning that “for all its overwhelming material and technological superiority, the IDF stands no chance of defeating Israel’s Islamist enemies unless its soldiers are driven by a relentless belief in the national cause.”

    By the same token, Major General Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser and head of military intelligence research, argued that the US withdrawal would drive home to the Gulf states the proposition that an “open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves.” He added that Israel could not replace the US as the region’s security guarantor, “but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme that will make it easier for them to contend with various threats.”

    By implication, Amidror was urging the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which last year established diplomatic relations with Israel, to forge closer security cooperation with the Jewish state. He suggested that Saudi Arabia may, in the wake of the events in Afghanistan, be more inclined to build formal ties with Israel. Yet while there is little doubt that Mohammed bin Salman would like to have an open relationship with Israel, it is equally possible that the victory of religious militants in Afghanistan will reinforce Saudi hesitancy to cross the Rubicon at the risk of sparking widespread criticism in the Muslim world.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Can Saudi Arabia Balance Social and Economic Change?

    The World Bank issued a stark warning in its 2018 outlook for the Saudi economy: “The Kingdom likely faces a looming poverty problem.” The bank has since noted in its 2019 and 2020 outlooks that “while no official information is available on poverty, identifying and supporting low-income households is challenging.” Dependent on world oil prices, the curve of gross domestic product (GPD) per capita in Saudi Arabia was never a straight line upward. Instead, it ebbed and flowed.

    Austerity for the Poor and Prosperity for the Rich


    In one example, Saudi GDP per capita dropped by almost half from a peak of $17,872 in 1981 to $8,685 in 2001, the year in which 15 Saudi middle-class nationals constituted the majority of jihadists who flew airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington. It was also the year in which many Saudis struggled to make ends meet amid depressed oil prices and then-King Abdullah’s efforts to introduce a measure of Saudi fiscal restraint. Many people held two to three jobs.

    “Prior to the Gulf War, we didn’t pay rent in student dormitories — now we do,” a Saudi student enrolled in Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Fahd Petroleum and Minerals University told this writer at the time. “In the past, it didn’t matter if you didn’t complete your studies in five years. Now you lose your scholarship if you don’t. Soon we’ll be asked to pay for tuition. Before the Gulf War, you had 10 job offers when you graduated. Now you’re lucky if you get one,” the student said referring to the US-led reversal of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    “There’s nothing to do here but sit around, watch television and smoke shisha,” added Abdulaziz, one of the student’s friends. “There’s nothing we can do to change things. That’s why we get married early, only to discover that it was a mistake.”

    Saudi GDP per capita has dropped again, although less dramatically, from $23,337 in the year that the World Bank warned about looming poverty to $20,110 in 2020. On a positive note, the bank reports that while “poverty information and access to survey data to measure welfare conditions have been limited,” Saudi Arabia has seen “gains in administrative capacity to identify and support low-income households.” It warned, however, that the middle class could be most exposed to the pains of austerity and fiscal restraint.

    A Different Saudi Arabia

    To be sure, the Saudi Arabia at the turn of the century is not the same kingdom as today. Saudis made up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in the Islamic State group that seized territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Despite this, Saudi citizens are unlikely to respond to a unilateral rewriting of a social contract that promised cradle-to-grave-welfare and potential economic hardship by drifting toward militancy and extremism at a time that a young crown prince has promised massive change and delivered some.

    Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has liberalized social mores, rolled back the influence of ultra-conservative clerics, created greater leisure and entertainment offerings, and enhanced women’s rights and professional opportunities. This forms part of his plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependency on oil exports and diversify the economy. He has simultaneously tightened the political aspect of the kingdom’s social contract involving the public’s absolute surrender of all political rights, including freedom of expression, media and assembly.

    In exchange, Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan promises, according to the World Bank, to protect citizens from the pain of economic change by “modernizing the social welfare system, redirecting price subsidies toward those in need, preparing and training those unable to find employment, and providing tailored care and support to the most vulnerable citizen.” In doing so, the government has sought to soften the impact of higher energy prices and the tripling of value-added tax and expatriate levy.

    Embed from Getty Images

    More than social protections, Vision 2030 is about creating jobs for Saudis in a country where unemployment was 11.7% in the first quarter of this year. In the last three years, the Saudi private sector reportedly created a third of the 1.2 million jobs the kingdom needs to generate by 2022 to meet its unemployment target. The country’s statistics agency said the first-quarter unemployment was Saudi Arabia’s lowest in nearly five years. But the decline was partly driven by people dropping out of the labor force rather than new job creation.

    Jobs for Saudis

    In May, Mohammed bin Salman asserted in a wide-ranging interview that “we have 200,000 to 250,000 people getting into the job market each year and public sector jobs are limited.” Taking tourism as an example, he said the development of the industry would create 3 million jobs, 1 million of which would be for Saudis who, over time, could replace expats who would initially fill two-thirds of the openings.

    “Once we create three million jobs, we can Saudize them in the future. There are also jobs in the industrial sector and so on,” Prince Mohammed said. He predicted at the same time that the percentage of foreigners in the kingdom could increase from a third of the population today to half in the next decade or two.

    Writing about the changing social contract in Saudi Arabia, Mira al-Hussein and Eman Alhussein cautioned that the government needs to manage rapid economic and social change, in part by providing clearer information to the public. The scholars identified issues involving rights of foreigners versus rights accorded children of mixed Saudi and non-Saudi marriages, the rollback of religion in public life and austerity measures as potential points of friction in the kingdom. “The ramifications of existing grievances and the increasing polarization within Gulf societies … as well as the extensive social engineering programs have pitted conservatives against liberals. Arab Gulf States’ ability to redefine their social contracts without turbulence will depend on their tactful avoidance of creating new grievances and on solving existing ones,” the authors wrote.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Personality and Ambition Fuel Saudi-UAE Divide

    Personality and the conflation of national interests with personal ambition are contributing to the widening gap between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was only a matter of time before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) would want to go out on his own and no longer be seen as the protégé of his erstwhile mentor and Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). By the same token, there was little doubt that the Saudi prince and future king would want to put to rest any suggestion that the UAE, rather than Saudi Arabia, called the shots in the Gulf and the Middle East.

    No doubt, MBS will not have forgotten revelations about Emirati attitudes toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s strategic vision of the relationship between the two countries. This was spelled out in emails by Yusuf al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of MBZ, which were leaked in 2017. The emails made clear that UAE leaders believed they could use Saudi Arabia — the Gulf’s behemoth — and Mohammed bin Salman as a vehicle to promote Emirati interests.

    Sultans of the Gulf (Podcast)


    “Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around,” Otaiba wrote. In a separate email, the ambassador told a former US official that “I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], at least with certain people there.”

    A participant in a more recent meeting with Otaiba quoted the ambassador as referring to the Middle East as “the UAE region,” suggesting an enhanced Emirati regional influence. In a similar vein, former Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan, blowing his ultra-nationalist horn, tweeted in Arabic, “It’s not humanity’s survival of the strongest, it’s the survival of the smartest.”

    To be sure, Mohammed bin Zayed has been plotting the UAE’s positioning as a regional economic and geopolitical powerhouse for far longer than his Saudi counterpart. It is not for nothing that it earned the UAE the epitaph of “Little Sparta,” in the words of former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

    Windows of Opportunity

    No doubt, smarts count for a lot. But, in the ultimate analysis, the two crown princes appear to be exploiting windows of opportunity that exist as long as their most powerful rivals, Turkey and Iran, fail to get their act together. The Saudis and Emiratis see the Turks and Iranians as threats to their regional power. Both Turkey and Iran have far larger, highly educated populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, significant natural resources and industrial bases.

    Embed from Getty Images

    In the meantime, separating the wheat from the chaff in the Gulf spat may be easier said than done. Bader al-Saif, a Gulf analyst, notes that differences among Arab states have emerged as a result of regime survival strategies that are driven by the need to gear up for a post-oil era. The emergence of a more competitive landscape need not be all negative. Saif warns, however, that “left unchecked … differences could snowball and negatively impact the neighborhood.

    Several factors complicate the management of these differences. For one, the Vision 2030 plan for weening Saudi Arabia off its dependence on the export of fossil fuel differs little from the perspective put forward by the UAE and Qatar, two countries that have a substantial head start.

    Saudi Arabia sought to declare an initial success in the expanded rivalry by revealing last week that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airline industry body, had opened its regional headquarters in Riyadh. IATA denied that the Saudi office would have regional responsibility. The announcement came on the heels of the disclosure of Saudi plans to create a new airline to compete with Emirates and Qatar Airways.

    Further complicating the management of differences is the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to compete for market share as they seek to maximize their oil export revenues in the short and medium term. This is particularly before oil demand potentially plateaus and then declines in the 2030s.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, economic diversification and social liberalization are tied up with the competing geopolitical ambitions of the two princes in positioning their countries as the regional leader. Otaiba signaled MBZ’s ambition in 2017 in an email exchange with Elliot Abram, a neoconservative former US official. “Jeez, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well, if the US won’t do it, someone has to hold things together for a while,” Abrams wrote to the ambassador, referring to the UAE’s growing regional role. “Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down,” Otaiba replied.

    The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas

    Differences in the ideological and geopolitical thinking of the princes when it comes to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood reemerged recently. Differing Saudi and Emirati approaches were initially evident in 2015 when King Salman and his son began their reign in Saudi Arabia. This was a period when Mohammed bin Zayed, who views political Islam and the Brotherhood as an existential threat, had yet to forge close ties to the new Saudi leadership. At the time, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, barely a month after King Salman’s ascendancy, told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom” and the Brotherhood.

    Just a month later, the Muslim World League, a body established by Saudi Arabia in the 1960s to propagate religious ultra-conservatism and long dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, organized a conference in a building in Mecca that had not been used since the banning of the brothers. The Qataris, who have a history of close ties to the Brotherhood, were invited.

    After King Salman and his son came to power, Saudi Arabia adopted a harder approach toward Brotherhood-related groups as Mohammed bin Zayed gained influence in Saudi affairs. The Muslim League has since become Mohammed bin Salman’s main vehicle for promoting his call for religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are portraying themselves as icons of a socially moderate form of Islam that, nonetheless, endorses autocratic rule.

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    Last week, the kingdom signaled a potential change in its attitude toward Brotherhood-related groups with the broadcast of an interview with Khaled Meshaal, the Qatar-based head of the political arm of Hamas. The interview was aired on Al Arabiya, the Saudi state-controlled news channel. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, maintains relations with Iran and is viewed as being part of a Brotherhood network. Meshaal called for a resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian movement.

    In 2014, Saudi Arabia designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. This was part of a dispute between Qatar, a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which had all withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. The Saudis were particularly upset by the close relations that Hamas had forged with Iran and Turkey, Riyadh’s main rivals for regional hegemony.

    A litmus test of the degree of change in Saudi Arabia’s attitude will be whether it releases scores of Hamas members. These members were arrested in 2019 as part of Saudi efforts to garner Palestinian support for then-US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quoting the Arabic service of Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Al-Monitor reported that Al Arabiya had refrained from broadcasting a segment of the interview in which Meshaal called for the release of the detainees.

    Despite Differences

    The Saudi–UAE rivalry and the ambitions of their leaders make it unlikely that Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will look at structural ways of managing differences. This includes areas like greater regional economic integration through arrangements for trade and investment and an expanded customs union. The latter would make the region more attractive to foreign investors and improve the Gulf states’ bargaining power.

    In the absence of strengthening institutions, the bets are on the crown princes recognizing that, despite their differences, “it doesn’t make sense for either one of them to let go of the other.”

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Saudi Seeks to Replace UAE and Qatar

    Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the commercial, cultural and/or geostrategic hub in the Gulf. The Saudis recently expanded their challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sports destination, once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The kingdom seeks to secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals, which have so far been dominated by the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Qatar.

    The kingdom kicked off its effort to cement its position as the Middle East’s behemoth earlier this year. In February, Saudi Arabia announced it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the country. 

    Arrest of Migrant Activist Puts Qatar in the Spotlight


    The UAE ranks 16th on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62. As a result, freewheeling Dubai has long been the preferred regional headquarters of international firms. The Saudi move “clearly targets the” United Arab Emirates and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

    Saudi Arabia is a latecomer to the port control game, which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World. That company operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus. The kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations. Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports, such as those related to food security.

    In January, PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20% stake in RSGT. The Chinese investment fits into Beijing’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which involves the acquisition of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

    Jens Floe, the chief executive officer of RSGT, said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to $500 million. “We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Floe said.

    Saudi Sports

    Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a possible bid to host the 2030 World Cup, serves multiple goals. First, it offers Saudi youth, who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population, a leisure and entertainment opportunity. Second, it boosts Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry. The Saudis believe this could allow the kingdom to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and challenge Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

    Embed from Getty Images

    A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that Riyadh has invested $1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events. These include the final games of Italy and Spain’s top football leagues, Formula 1 races, boxing, wrestling and snooker matches, and golf tournaments. So far, Qatar is the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events, followed by the UAE.

    According to Grant Liberty, further bids for events worth $800 million have failed. This did not include an unsuccessful $600-million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN Sports as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of the UEFA Champions League. Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from airing in the kingdom, despite the lifting of the Saudi-Emirati-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in January.

    Oil Exports

    Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington. “The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world.”

    The increased focus on sports comes as Saudi Arabia appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy. Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, saying “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” He went on to ask, “Why should I take [the report] seriously?”

    Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day. This is based on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in American and Russian production. The Saudis believe that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

    “Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said. He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of a strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, he was saying that diversification was likely to broaden Saudi Arabia’s energy offering, rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

    “Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    What Will It Take for MBS to Rehabilitate His Image?

    On April 10, the Saudi Ministry of Defense announced the execution of three soldiers after what it called a “fair trial” in a specialist court. The men were convicted and sentenced to death for the crimes of “high treason” and “cooperating with the enemy.” Aside from the men’s names, no further details were provided.

    Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based critic of the regime, tweeted a video — which has not been independently verified — of what appears to be soldiers burning and stamping on a picture of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). In the tweet, Ahmed says he was “told this video was behind executing the 3 Saudi soldiers.”

    Biden’s Policy Shift on Yemen Rings Alarm Bells in Riyadh


    Given the opacity of the Saudi regime, the soldiers could have been executed for any number of reasons, such as being involved in the illicit sale of weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen (the trial and executions were carried out in the military’s Southern Command close to the Yemeni border). Or it may have been a case of lèse-majesté — the burning of the photograph — that enraged MBS.

    If it is the latter, it gives further credence to the image of an unstable and violence-prone leader, whom the CIA blames for ordering the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Try as he might, Mohammed bin Salman cannot put that one crime behind him. He was angered that Khashoggi — at one time a close associate of senior members of the ruling family — had departed from the kingdom and had the temerity to criticize the prince in columns he wrote for The Washington Post.

    Throwing Critics in Prison

    Western businessmen and politicians, anxious to do business with Saudi Arabia, could set aside many of the actions of this unruly and impulsive prince. These include the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which MBS thought he would win in a few weeks but has now entered its seventh year; the blockade of Qatar in June 2017, which did not end until January 2021; the seizure and forced resignation of the then-Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, in November 2017; and the arrest and detention of more than 400 Saudi businessmen and senior members of the royal family, some of whom were allegedly tortured and only released when they signed over companies and surrendered millions of dollars in a mafia-style shakedown.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Even the imprisonment of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, caused barely a flicker of concern in Western boardrooms and corridors of political power. Hathloul and her family allege that since her arrest in May 2018, she was tortured in detention and subjected to electrocution, flogging, sexual abuse and waterboarding in secret prisons before she was finally brought to trial. Among those responsible for the torture, she claims, was Saud al-Qahtani, a confidante of the crown prince who was heavily implicated in the Khashoggi murder. Hathloul was finally released but under strict conditions in February of this year. The allegations of torture were never investigated by Saudi authorities.

    The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House took away the protection that his predecessor had provided to the crown prince. In February, President Biden released a declassified CIA report on the killing of Khashoggi. He has also withheld arms sales to the Saudis to pressure MBS to end the war in Yemen. Biden has also signaled that human rights issues — having been kicked into the long grass by Donald Trump, the former US president — are now back on the agenda. Thousands of political prisoners are languishing in the Saudi prison system. This includes the scholar and author Salman al-Odah, against whom the public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty, and the aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who in March was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of writing anonymous tweets critical of the regime.

    PR Will Not His Image

    Biden’s stance on Saudi Arabia is a problem for MBS, but just how much of a problem remains to be seen. Biden is, after all, a pragmatist who may, in the end, not exact much of a price on the human rights front before waving through the weapons deal. But with every step MBS takes to rehabilitate his image and rebrand the kingdom as a modern, open society where “moderate Islam” flourishes, he is shadowed by a remarkable and doggedly courageous woman: Hatice Cengiz, the fiancé of the murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

    When MBS attempted to use the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to purchase Newcastle United, a football club in the UK, Cengiz was there to challenge the takeover bid. It failed, to the great chagrin of the crown prince. When more recently he dangled a $100-million purse to secure the heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury for the kingdom, Cengiz used The Telegraph newspaper to express her anger. “I cannot believe after all this time, and all the evidence showing his guilt, that the Saudi Crown Prince is still being considered as a ‘host’ for such world sporting events, which he is using for political reasons and to clean his image,” she said in a statement. 

    Indications are that Saudi Arabia will host the fight, but MBS may have to pull even more than $100 million out of the PIF to do so. But sports events and expensive PR campaigns will not take away the stain of the killing of Khashoggi. To rehabilitate his image, MBS would have to give justice to Hathloul, drop the charges and release Odah, end the unjust incarceration of Sadhan and release thousands of other prisoners of conscience. Mohammed bin Salman would have to take responsibility for his actions and acknowledge his crimes — which he cannot do. 

    What he can and will do is to play for time and hope that Trump or one of his lackeys returns to the White House in 2025.

    *[This article was originally published by Gulf House.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    How the End of the Gulf Crisis Affects Sudan

    Sudan has been at the center of the diverging interests of wealthy Gulf states for many years. Having been close allies of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar had longstanding business, military and political interests in the country prior to the Gulf crisis in 2017. In June of that year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — known as the Arab quartet — cut diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar.

    Mohammed bin Salman’s Neom: A Case of Giga-Narcissism


    After almost four years of severed ties, reconciliation in January led to the subsequent lifting of the blockade against Qatar and the formal restoration of relations. The resolution of the dispute is a positive regional development. However, it remains fragile because the issues that sparked the rift in the first place were never resolved.

    It is therefore unlikely that the Gulf reconciliation will usher in a new beginning or bring about a return to pre-crisis normalcy. Deep-rooted mistrust between the Gulf countries, ongoing rivalries between them, divergence in their policies and geostrategic competition in Africa could trigger the next diplomatic crisis among member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

    Sudan’s Attempt to Play All Sides

    Most Arab and sub-Saharan African states tried to resist pressure to join the anti-Qatar coalition and delicately maneuver their way into neutrality. These states were uneasy about their move because they feared that the Arab quartet would use their economic might against them. As a result, some African states cut or downgraded ties with Qatar.

    Financial influence in Africa has helped GCC states capitalize on their geostrategic location, increase their food security and advance their diplomatic and security goals. By offering substantial economic incentives, they have been able to bolster peace agreements between warring factions. Some GCC states have achieved notable success, growing influence and African allies that support their policies. Sudan is a case in point. In 2019, Saudi investments in Sudan were estimated at $12 billion, the UAE at $7 billion and Qatar at $4 billion, as per the Sudanese Bureau of Statistics. 

    Due to Saudi Arabia’s large investments, Sudan supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen in 2015 by deploying Rapid Support Forces and severing diplomatic ties with Iran. However, Bashir’s relationship with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi began stalling in the last few years of his rule. As part of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s regional efforts to counter what they considered political Islam, Bashir was expected to root out Islamists in Sudan. However, since Islamists were deeply engrained in Sudan’s government, he could not risk alienating them and did not oblige.

    The Gulf dispute put Bashir in another uncomfortable position. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar were all key investors in Sudan and he could not afford to alienate any of them. Therefore, Bashir took the safest route of remaining neutral while offering to mediate between the opposing sides.

    The Sudanese leader’s reaction to the Gulf rift was not surprising. Historically, he cooperated with all regional powers, never fully aligning with any of them. His hands-off approach and ability to easily switch from the role of an army leader to an advocate of political Islam, enabled Sudan to simultaneously ally with rival GCC camps. It seems that Bashir’s key goal was to benefit economically from all Gulf states.

    Sudan Under the New Transitional Government

    Unfortunately for Bashir, Sudan’s economy collapsed, nationwide protests erupted in December 2018 and none of his Gulf allies came to his rescue. The GCC states were probably influenced by growing uncertainty regarding Bashir’s future. Their goal was to protect their investments, not Bashir. Without GCC financial support, the Sudanese president found his days in power numbered.

    In April 2019, Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed a military coup that ended three decades of Bashir’s rule and led to the creation of a Transitional Military Council (TMC). The GCC duo promptly promised a staggering $3 billion in aid to support the TMC. However, growing international pressure pushed the TMC to sign a power-sharing agreement with Sudan’s pro-democracy movement. The TMC transferred power to a sovereignty council for a transitional period. Elections to usher in a civilian-led government are planned in late 2023 or early 2024.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Saudi Arabia and the UAE have vested interests in backing the Sudanese military and ensuring it maintains control of the political transition. Consequently, they continue to offer economic and humanitarian support to Sudan. In return, the TMC has supported their war efforts in Yemen and, more recently, in Libya.

    After the 2019 revolution, Sudan temporarily cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamists. Qatar had a close relationship with Bashir’s former ruling National Congress Party that drew the ire of the TMC. However, Qatar has since rebuilt its influence by supporting Sudan’s removal from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST). In October 2020, Doha announced that a peace agreement had been brokered between the transitional government and rebel forces. Qatar has also provided much-needed humanitarian relief.

    Sudan remains a country of great economic and security importance to the world. It has an abundance of natural resources. The African Development Bank Group estimates that approximately 63% of Sudan’s land is agricultural but only 15-20% is under cultivation. This offers vast investment opportunities in agriculture. Sudan is also strategically located on the Red Sea just south of the Suez Canal, a key shipping passage for world trade.

    Major Challenges and Future Scenarios

    Sudan’s transitional government recently set its priorities for 2021, which include a focus on the economy, peace, security, foreign relations and the ongoing democratic transition. However, the challenges facing the transitional government are dire. Foreign debt has risen to over $60 billion and inflation has crossed 300%. The country faces massive unemployment and chronic shortages of bread, fuel and foreign currency. Sudan is in the throes of a complex power struggle between civilians and the military. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) threatens Sudan’s water security. Sudanese and Ethiopian troops have clashed at the border. If this was not daunting already, Sudan has registered nearly 32,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as of April 9.

    In response to some of these challenges, the transitional government has instituted seismic constitutional changes. After nearly three decades, the US removed Sudan from the SST list in January, eliminating a major hurdle to debt relief and bringing an end to the country’s isolation from global financial systems. However, the transitional government remains under pressure to deliver quick economic wins. If it fails, power may shift back toward the military. In these tough circumstances, the transitional government’s success and Sudan’s democratic future depend on outside financial support.

    For Sudan, the Gulf crisis served as a minor inconvenience. The revolution and Sudan’s removal from the SST list are more significant developments. GCC states are now encountering a growing number of new regional and international players who are looking at Sudan with increased interest. This could very well cause a shift in Gulf–Sudan relations.

    Although GCC states have a shared strategic interest in Sudan’s stability, this takes a back seat to alliances that promote the individual interests of these Gulf countries. They are all trying to increase their regional influence and are turning post-revolution Sudan into another theater of GCC rivalry. Given Sudan’s fragile economic and political situation, it needs financial support. Economic forces played a major role in the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime and will determine the survival of the transitional government.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More