Are we seeing Saudi Arabia taking steps to lead the region in world affairs? – Middle East Monitor

Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his second official visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, his first since the success of Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the end of the cold war between the two countries. The US was surprised by China’s success. Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during his trip.

Despite their disagreements — over accusations related to the events of 9/11, for example; energy production; the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA); energy security; Gulf security; Iran’s nuclear programme; the Yemen war; the Houthis; Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme; and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — there is much that unites Saudi Arabia and the US. Even though President Joe Biden administration’s encouragement of normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is unrealistic, given that Israel is working to make sure that the two-state solution is a failure, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan confirmed in a joint press conference with Blinken that, “We believe that normalisation [with Israel] is in the interest of the region, that it would bring significant benefits to all.” However, he also noted that, “Without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalisation will have limited benefits.” Blinken merely reiterated that, “The United States will continue to play an integral role in deepening and expanding normalisation.”

The Biden administration’s insistence on integrating Israel in the region and promoting normalisation between the occupation state and Arab countries is a hopeless process, not least because of the extremism of the Netanyahu government, the oppression and abuse of the Palestinians, and the continued expansion and construction of cancerous and illegal settlements that undermine the two-state solution, which remains Washington’s stated objective. Despite the latter, Biden is unable to force Israel to stop its violations in order to achieve that goal.

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Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, wants to support the Biden administration to get its backing for the development of its own its nuclear programme — “for peaceful purposes” — without restrictions. Developing bilateral relations with the US through economic, security and energy cooperation, are pillars of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 to reduce dependence on oil and energy revenues and boost other sectors to diversify its income sources. Saudi Arabia and the US are partners in the efforts to get a truce in Sudan, which the warlords have been violating. Moreover, the Saudis want the US to play an effective role in ending the war in Yemen.

Furthermore, the joint final statement after Blinken’s meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers and the GCC Secretary General stressed Washington’s permanent commitment to the security of the Gulf, support for the two-state solution in Palestine, the establishment of a Palestinian state using Security Council resolutions as references, the Arab Initiative, and the right of Palestinians to return to their land. The fact that normalisation with Israel was not mentioned in the closing statement is proof of the Biden administration’s failed efforts and its inability to rein-in Israel.

The statement welcomed and supported the restoration of diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It did not address Russia’s war on Ukraine; instead, it emphasised respect for the sovereignty of national borders and a rejection of violence and violations of such borders.

It seems clear that the GCC countries are now thinking outside the box and seeking to diversify alliances and involve allies from the major powers (China, Russia and even European countries) in Gulf security arrangements. However, everyone — the leaders of the GCC states, Russia, Europe and China — knows the limitations of China’s security and defence capabilities, along with those of Russia, and their inability or will to compete with the US in the foreseeable future in the latter’s traditional area of influence and fill the void left by its decline.

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Keep in mind that last summer we witnessed Bin Salman’s rejection of Biden’s request to increase oil production and reduce oil prices in a crucial election year in the US. Biden vowed to re-evaluate relations with Saudi Arabia after it increased rather than reduced oil production on the eve of the congressional elections last November.

The Saudis also hosted the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad, at the Arab summit last month, and Syria regained its seat in the Arab League, despite the reservations of the US. In a clever move, Saudi Arabia invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to participate in the summit as a guest of honour. Saudi diplomats have been busy, restoring diplomatic relations with Canada and opening up to Iran. And the while they mediated for a truce in Sudan, the Saudi navy evacuated thousands of Saudi citizens and others from Port Sudan.

Among the G20 countries, the Saudi economy achieved the largest growth rate at 8.8 per cent. This raised the Kingdom’s annual gross national product to more than 4.4 billion riyals, making the Saudi economy the largest in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Given the growing differences with Washington and the decline of the Arabian Gulf within US foreign policy, and the fact that China is now the region’s top trading partner and importer of Gulf energy, and the main investor in the Middle East thanks to its Belt and Road initiative, the calculations have changed and the rivalry has increased. This was reinforced by the Saudi-Gulf-Arab-Chinese summit and the visit of the Chinese president to Saudi Arabia at the end of last year,

It is clear, therefore, that Saudi Arabia has the capability and opportunity to lead the region in world affairs. Its military, security and defence cooperation and coordination with the GCC countries, and reconciliation with Qatar, strengthens this possibility.

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It is hoped that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries will invest in their achievements and alliances to develop an inclusive Gulf-Arab project that balances and deters regional powers and promotes equal dealings with the superpowers. The region can become a multipolar zone to enhance Gulf and Arab security and compensate for the decline, retreat and perhaps the end of US hegemony.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 18 June 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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