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Saudi Prince Mohammed’s Achilles Heel: Misreading tea leaves in Washington

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Emboldened by perceived White House support, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have stepped up his risky, so far faltering effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The kingdom, despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri complicating Saudi efforts to curb the political and military power of Hezbollah, the country’s Shiite militia, by putting on hold his decision to resign, is signalling that it is looking beyond Lebanon to fulfil Prince Mohammed’s vow in May that the fight between the two rivals would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia

Speaking earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned that “any way you look at it, they (the Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore.'”

Militant Iranian Arab nationalist exiles this week started broadcasting promos for an allegedly Saudi-funded satellite television station that would target Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan. It was the latest indication that Saudi Arabia was mulling an effort to undermine the government in Tehran by capitalizing on grievances among Iran’s ethnic minorities. Ahmad Mola Nissi, a 52-year old exile associated with the television, was mysteriously shot dead in The Hague earlier this month.

Pakistani militants in the province of Balochistan have reported a massive flow of Saudi funds in the last year to Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative groups while a Saudi thinktank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed published a blueprint for support of the Baloch and called for “immediate counter measures” against Iran.

Prince Mohammed’s track record in confronting Iran more aggressively is at best mixed. The kingdom’s 2.5-year old intervention in Yemen has driven Iran and the Houthis closer together and raised the spectre of the rebels organizing themselves on Saudi Arabia’s border with Hezbollah as their model.

Saudi backing of Syrian rebels failed to turn the tables on President Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally, while the kingdom reversed its 13-year boycott of Iraq in a bid to counter Iranian influence through engagement with Baghdad.

In Lebanon, the odds are against Hezbollah bowing to pressure that it disarms and halt its military involvement beyond the country’s borders even if the group appeared to want to avert a crisis by announcing that it was withdrawing forces from Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah also denied that it was supplying weapons to the Houthis, including a ballistic missile fired at the airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh earlier this month.

“So far, the Iranians have effectively won in Lebanon, are winning in Syria and Iraq, and are bleeding the Saudis in Yemen… There is precious little evidence to suggest that the Saudis have learned from their earlier failures and are now able to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East,” said researcher and Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Spyer.

If Prince Salman’s apparent strategy and track records risks escalating regional tensions and raising questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to successfully confront Iran, it also may be based on a misreading of the dynamics of US policymaking.

Prince Salman appears to believe that he can ignore signals from the State Department, Pentagon and members of Congress, who have been counselling greater caution, as long as he is backed by US President Donald J. Trump and Jared Kushner, a senior advisor and the president’s son-in-law. The Saudi crown prince appears to be reinforced in this belief by his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, with whom he coordinates closely.

The evolution of the US approach to the six-month old UAE-Saudi-led boycott of Qatar suggests a complexity of policy making in Washington that both princes have so far failed to take into account or effectively address.

Al-Monitor Washington correspondent Laura Rozen reported that UAE ambassador Youssef al-Otaiba in June called then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones in the middle of the night to give him advance notice of the boycott. “What are you guys doing? This is crazy,” Mr. Jones told the ambassador. To which Mr. Otaiba responded: “‘Have you spoken to the White House?'”

Despite Mr. Trump’s expressed support for the Saudi UAE position involving a refusal to negotiate or lift the boycott unless Qatar accepts demands that would compromise its ability to chart its own course, US policy administered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ has pushed for a negotiated resolution – a position far closer to that of Qatar.

Speaking at conference in the UAE, Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers urged Gulf countries to broaden their outreach in Washington from one narrowly focused on Mr. Trump’s White House to other branches of government as well Democrats in Congress. “I made the point that lobbying efforts and Washington should not ignore the Democrats in Congress and that they may be coming back in one house or another in 2018,” Mr. Rogers told Al-Monitor.

The US House of Representatives last week, in an indication of the risk of relying exclusively on the White House, set the stage for a debate of US military support for Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated Yemen by overwhelmingly adopting a non-binding resolution that recognized that the aid was being provided without Congressional authorization. The resolution noted that Congress had exclusively authorized operations against jihadist militants in Yemen, not against domestic rebel groups like the Houthis.

The Saudi and UAE reading of the lay of the land in the US capital and singular reliance on the White House is somewhat surprising given that both Mr. Al-Otaiba and Mr. Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, have a track record as savvy Washington operators, and the fact that a host of public relations and lobby firms are paid hefty fees to advise the kingdom.

Widely viewed as one of the most well-connected and influential foreign diplomats in Washington, Mr. Al Otaiba has been ambassador to the United States for almost a decade. Educated in the US, Mr. Al-Jubeir served in the kingdom’s Washington embassy, and years later became ambassador to the US before being appointed foreign minister.

The Saudi and UAE focus on the White House is rooted in Prince Salman’s efforts, dating back to his initial rise in early 2015, two years before Mr. Trump came to office, to counter President Barak Obama’s policy of reducing US engagement in the Middle East.

“The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” Prince Mohammed told The Economist in early 2016. He suggested that the sooner the US re-engages the better. Reengagement meant to the Saudi leader, aggressive US support for the kingdom’s efforts to shape the Middle East and North Africa in its image.

Mr. Trump’s policy priorities in the region, including confronting Iran, fighting extremism, and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a bid to open the door to overt Israeli-Saudi cooperation, stroked with those of the crown prince. Those goals are shared in Washington beyond the White House, but many in the administration and Congress worry that Prince Mohammed’s way of achieving them may either backfire or be counterproductive.

In a sign of concern, the State Department this week cautioned Americans travelling to Saudi Arabia. In a statement, it warned “US citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia due to continuing threats from terrorist groups and the threat of ballistic missile attacks on civilian targets by rebel forces in Yemen.”

Salman Al-Ansari, the head of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), advised Saudi Arabia, days after Mr. Trump was inaugurated, to reach out to different segments of American society in what he described as the kingdom’s real battle.

“One of Saudi Arabia’s glaring weak points is public diplomacy, especially with regards to communicating its economic and national security concerns to the American public. The Kingdom’s media efforts remain woefully behind where it needs to be… In an age where information is disseminated so rapidly, the Kingdom has no excuse but to reach out to the American people,” Mr. Al-Ansari said.

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Middle East

Priorities of Cyber Diplomacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran

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Although in terms of diplomacy priorities, it is usually viewed as a strategy, but in terms of tools, cyber-related developments require the diplomacy system to take this field more than ever before.

The space for policy and cyber interaction or, more accurately, the “cyber policy” environment, is considered to be the latest and most important area of ​​interest among policy and international experts in the field of theoretical and practical arena, the neglect of which could be serious and inescapable damage forecasts to countries as the most important actors in the field of international relations.

Today, cyber policy and cyber security are discussed in the field of international relations and politics. Cyberspace is a real space in the new arena for influencing and, consequently, friendship, cooperation, competition, hostility and even war between nations and other actors. These cases show well that the Internet and cyber space have created a new field for politics, a space in which individuals, groups and governments are acting and policy makers.

The theoretical framework and the most important effects of cyberspace on politics and international relations are three main issues. The first issue is the presentation of a “conceptual order” to explain the relationship between cyberspace and politics. The second issue is identifying and believing in the widespread connection between cyberspace and politics. The third issue is the explanation of the route and the important issues in this connection. In addition to the three levels of humans, governments and the international system, cyberspace requires a different level. At this new level, the global level, the impact of cyberspace is emphasized by the emphasis on the separation between the social system and the natural environment. At the global level, it is emphasized that the Internet space and its widespread impact on the world of politics cannot be discussed with the old levels that emphasize the individual or state or international arena. Internet space is the space for acting on the same time with non-state actors such as terrorists and private companies in terms of economic, cultural, security and even military, so it should be emphasized on the global level that, while combining the other levels, there is a broad interconnection between All levels and dimensions create the ability to analyze other political space, therefore, in lateral pressure theory, there is an attempt to establish a relationship between the level of individual, state and international as the old levels and the level of global analysis.

Based on the experience of past decades, the Internet and cyberspace have affected the relations between countries, especially the United States and Iran. Therefore, cyber policy and cyber security in the present situation are considered by the international relations experts as the main issue along with the older issues of war, economics, women and the environment, and even consider it more important than other areas because the cyberspace covers all the domains and the old stuff. In the same vein, in the next government, the foreign policy apparatus is expected to pay more attention to cyberspace and advance revolutionary diplomacy in the form of cyber diplomacy.

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Salafi mission calls into question Saudi concept of moderation and policy in Yemen

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Plans to open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia raise questions about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salah’s concept of a moderate form of Islam.

The questions are prompted by the fact that Prince Mohammed has so far put little, if any, flesh on his skeletal vow last October to return his ultra-conservative kingdom to “moderate Islam.”

The crown prince has created expectations of more social liberalism with the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, a residual of Bedouin rather than Muslim tradition, as well the granting of female access to male sporting events; the legitimization of various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music; and the stripping away of the religious police’s right to carry out arrests.

While removing Saudi Arabia as the only Muslim country that didn’t permit women to drive or allow various recreational activities, Prince Mohammed has yet to conceptualize what a rollback of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism would mean in a nation whose public life remains steeped in a puritan interpretation of the faith. (The lifting on the ban of women entering stadiums leaves Iran as the only country that restricts female access to male sporting events.)

The disclosure of the plan for a Salafi mission suggests Prince Mohammed may only want to curb ultra-conservatism’s rough edges. It also calls into question Saudi policy in Yemen that is reminiscent of past failures.

Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s.

The plan harks back to the creation of an anti-Shiite Salafi mission near the Houthi stronghold of Saada that sparked a military confrontation in 2011 with the Yemeni government, one of several wars in the region. The centre was closed in 2014 as part of an agreement to end the fighting.

Prince Mohammed’s use of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam in his confrontation with the Houthis was also evident in the appointment as governor of Saada of Hadi Tirshan al-Wa’ili, a member of a tribe hostile to the Shiite sect, and a follower of Saudi-backed Islamic scholar Uthman Mujalli. Mr. Mujalli reportedly serves as an advisor to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled, kingdom-backed Yemeni president.

“Over the past forty years, the Saudi government has invested heavily in Salafi-Wahhabi-style madrasas and mosques in the northern areas, only to realise that this programme was jeopardised by the Zaydi revival movement. If the Houthis were to be defeated in their home province, it is likely that the Salafi-Wahhabi programme will be revived, and implemented more fiercely than in previous years,” said Yemen scholar Gabriele vom Bruck.

The disclosure of the Al-Mahrah plan coincided with a damning 79-page United Nations report that condemned Saudi, Iranian and United Arab Emirates interventions in Yemen. The report concluded that Saudi and UAE proxies threatened peace prospects and that a secession of South Yemen that includes Al Mahrah had become a distinct possibility.

The questions about Prince Mohammed’s concept of a moderate Islam go beyond Yemen. The arts, including cinema, remain subject to censorship that is informed by the kingdom’s long-standing ultra-conservative values. A soccer player and a singer are among those who face legal proceedings for un-Islamic forms of expressing themselves.

The government last year introduced physical education in girls’ schools and legalized women’s fitness clubs, but has yet to say whether restrictions on women competing in a variety of Olympic disciplines will be lifted.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it has yet to indicate whether male guardianship, gender segregation, dress codes that force women to fully cover, and the obligatory closure of shops at prayer times will be abolished. Also, the government has still to declare a willingness to lift the ban on the practice of non-Muslim faiths or adherence to strands of Islam considered heretic by the ultra-conservatives.

The example of Yemen suggests that little has changed in Saudi Arabia’s four-decade-old, $100 billion global public diplomacy campaign that promoted Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to revolutionary Iranian ideology.

Yemen is but one extreme of the spectrum. The Saudi-funded and operated grand mosque in Brussels is the other. Saudi Arabia, responding to Belgian criticism of the mosque’s ultra-conservative management, last year appointed as its imam, Tamer Abou el Saod, a 57-year polyglot Luxemburg-based, Swedish consultant with a career in the food industry. Senior Saudi officials have moreover responded positively to a Belgian government initiative to prematurely terminate Saudi Arabia’s 99-year lease of the mosque so that it can take control of it.

In contrast to Yemen, where the use of ultra-conservatism is a deliberate choice, Prince Mohammed may feel constrained in his moderation quest in the kingdom by the fact that his ruling Al Saud family derives its legitimacy from its adherence to ultra-conservatism. In addition, the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment has repeatedly signalled that the views of at least some its members have not changed even if it has endorsed the crown prince’s policies.

Saudi Arabia last September suspended Saad al-Hijri, a prominent scholar in charge of fatwas in the province of Asir, for opposing the lifting of the ban on driving because women allegedly had only  half a brain that is reduced to a quarter when they go shopping. Sheikh Saad made his comment after the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, had approved the move.

By the same token, no public action was taken against Sheikh Salih al-Fawzan, a member of the council, who declared on his website that “If women are allowed to drive they will be able to go and come as they please day and night, and will easily have access to temptation, because as we know, women are weak and easily tempted.” A video clip of Sheikh Salih’s view was posted on YouTube in October. It was not clear when the scholar spoke or whether he had approved the posting.

A main thrust of Prince Mohammed’s drive to return to moderate Islam is the fight against extremism, involving among others the creation of a centre to oversee the interpretations of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings in a bid ensure that they do not justify violence.

There is indeed little doubt that the kingdom is serious about countering extremism. Opposing extremism, however, does not automatically equate to moderation or concepts of tolerance and pluralism. Prince Mohammed has yet to clarify if those concepts are part of his notion of moderation. His track record so far is at best a mixed one.

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Iranian protests expose contours of leadership in the Muslim world

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If week-long anti-government protests in Iran exposed the Islamic republic’s deep-seated economic and political problems, they also laid bare Saudi Arabia’s structural inability to establish itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

The responses to the protests of major Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrated that none of the contenders for regional dominance and leadership that include Turkey and Egypt were willing to follow the Saudi lead.

In fact, the responses appeared to confirm that regional leadership was likely to be shared between Turkey, Iran, and Egypt rather than decided in a debilitating power struggle between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic that has wreaked havoc across the Middle East and North Africa and that the kingdom has so far lost on points.

Uncharacteristically, Saudi Arabia under the rule of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has refrained from commenting on the protests. The kingdom has also been silent in the walk-up to US President Donald J. Trump’s decision what to do with American adherence to the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

While Saudi media, oblivious of the potential for dissent in the kingdom, gloated about the exploding discontent in Iran, Saudi leaders stayed quiet in a bid to avoid providing Iranian leaders with a pretext to blame external forces for the unrest. (That did not stop Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leaders from laying the blame at the doors of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States).

Similarly, Saudi Arabia, whose regional prominence is to a significant extent dependent on US, if not international containment of Iran, stayed publicly on the side lines as Mr. Trump deliberated undermining the agreement that for almost three years has severely restricted Iran’s nuclear program and halted the Islamic republic’s potential ambition of becoming a nuclear power any time soon.

While the Saudis would welcome any tightening of the screws on Iran, they have come to see the agreement as not only preventing Iran, at least for now, from developing a military nuclear capability but also as avoiding a regional nuclear arms race in which Turkey and Egypt as well as potentially the United Arab Emirates would not be left out.

The agreement gives the kingdom in the meantime an opportunity to put in place building blocks for a future military nuclear capability, if deemed necessary. Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to ease restrictions on Saudi enrichment of uranium as part of his bid to ensure that US companies play a key role in the development of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy sector facilitates the Saudi strategy.

In contrast to the Saudis, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was vocal in his support for the Iranian government and call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to express his solidarity. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has not commented on the protests but has been studious in avoiding being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, including its multiple proxy battles in Yemen and elsewhere.

The different responses to the Iranian protests represent more than a difference of evaluation of recent events in the Islamic republic. They represent the fault lines of two, if not three, major alliances that are emerging in the Middle East and North Africa and adjacent regions like the Horn of Africa around the contenders for regional leadership.

They also highlight Saudi Arabia’s inability to garner overwhelming support for its ambition and/or multiple efforts to achieve it by among others declaring an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, intervening militarily in Yemen, and failing to force the resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri.

Turkey has effectively sought to counter Saudi moves not only by forging close ties to the Islamic republic despite differences over Syria, but also by supporting Qatar with a military base in the Gulf state and the supply of food and other goods whose flow was interrupted by the Saudi-led boycott.

Turkey has further established a military training facility in Somalia; is discussing creating a base in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa’s rent-a-military base country par excellence with foreign military facilities operated by France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan; and recently signed a $650 million agreement with Sudan to rebuild a decaying Ottoman port city and construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels on the African country’s Red Sea coast. Saudi Arabia sees the Turkish moves as an effort to encircle it.

Turkey, to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, and its closest regional ally, the UAE, as well as Egypt has supported the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other strands of political Islam. Egypt this week launched an investigation into embarrassing leaks from an alleged intelligence officers that were broadcast on the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based Mekameleen tv station and published in The New York Times. Egypt has denied the accuracy of the leaks.

If Saudi Arabia, backed by the UAE and Bahrain and Israel as an officially unacknowledged partner constitutes one block, Turkey forms another that could either include or cooperate with the region’s third pole, Iran. Egypt, conscious of its past as the Arab world’s undisputed leader, may not be able to yet carve out a distinct leadership role for itself, but has worked hard to keep the door open.

Underlying the jockeying for regional dominance is a stark reality. Turkey, Iran and Egypt, to varying degrees, have crucial assets that Saudi Arabia lacks: large populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, resources, and a deep sense of identity rooted in an imperial past and/or a sense of thousands of years of history. Saudi Arabia has as the custodian of Islam’s most holy cities, Mecca and financial muscle. In the longer run, that is unlikely to prove sufficient.

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