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Feature Article
2021-01-08

Shock Therapy: Confronting a New Reality?

Saudi's haste to patch up relations with neighboring Qatar, rush to prosecute dissidents, and a volte-face on oil production cuts all come as U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on January 20. Is the Kingdom's crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, only now realizing the extent to which relations with its American ally will fundamentally change?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

After being relatively out of sight for most of the year, holed up at futuristic mega-city NEOM on the Red Sea coast, Muhammad (MbS for short) triumphantly appeared alongside Qatar's Amir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at the Maraya Hall in the historic city of al-Ula to announce an agreement to end a three-year blockade and restore full diplomatic relations between the countries. The occasion was the 41st summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), at which the Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (with some cajoling) agreed to drop their economic blockade of Qatar. Saudi, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, had severed all diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, and imposed a land, sea and air blockade, in the spring of 2017, accusing it of financing terrorism, undermining Sunni Arab efforts to marginalize ran, and supporting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. The blockade had come as a surprise, but seems to have been at the instigation of the new administration of US President Trump, in particular Trump aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It followed only weeks after Trump's visit to the area, during which he was feted like royalty and given the flattery he craved. In return for what turned out to be an umbrella shielding the crown prince from accountability, MbS had promised massive weapons contracts, investments in the US and stable oil prices.

In the end, the Qatar blockade was manifestly unsuccessful, leading only to Qatar's inching closer to Turkey and Iran. While the Americans eventually began pushing for a resolution, seeing the unanticipated result, MbS resisted until the bitter end, not wanting to seem to have been outmaneuvered by a smaller rival. An out was provided when Kushner intervened, hoping a detente would be seen as an additional victory for Trump's Middle Eastern policy and buttress his credentials as a deal maker. Additionally, patching things up with Qatar allows Saudi to position itself as a go-between in the soon-to-follow negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Given that the blockade had failed to accomplish much of anything, MbS (who is effectively in charge of policy, despite King Salman's nominal role) welcomed the opportunity.

Biden's upcoming inauguration looms large over any decisions taken. The appropriately-timed GCC accord fulfills two goals - continue to eke out whatever gains may be had under the outgoing administration with Trump, and position the Kingdom as a responsible power broker to be closely involved in whatever steps the Biden White House takes next. Saudi has been losing regional influence for nearly a decade, a trend which has only accelerated under the misguided foreign policy adventures of MbS (the Yemen war, a mismanaged involvement in Syria's militia resistance), and a reset may generate the perception that Saudi is part of the solution, rather than a problem - an angle which forces the Americans to engage directly. Biden had warned of making Saudi a "pariah", and was clear that no free pass would be given. Biden has vowed to suspend US arms sales to the Kingdom over the Yemen campaign, and while campaign rhetoric is typically toned down once in office, positioning Saudi as an indispensable middleman wards off the consequences of a "pariah" branding.

At the same time as MbS was hugging Qatar's Amir in a spectacle of new-found amity, the Energy Minister, his brother Abd al-Aziz, was working to secure a cut in oil production. A meeting of the OPEC+ group of producers on January 5 ended with an agreement to lift oil production by 75,000 barrels per day, but Saudi announced that it would voluntarily cut an additional 1 million barrels per day above its current quota, while still allowing other members to ramp up production, a gesture which will in fact cost the Kingdom $3 billion per month in lost oil revenue.

Related articles: Competing Narratives: Changing the Tune or Evolving Chaos?
An Election Dilemma: Moving Forward or Nursing Wounds?
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Past Feature Articles
Competing Narratives: Changing the Tune or Evolving Chaos?

Ever since Prince Bandar bin Sultan's headline-grabbing interview in which he angrily denounced the Palestinian leadership, speculation has been rife over a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But with Prince Turki al-Faysal's more recent verbal lashing of Israel, assumptions about a coming rapprochement have been consigned to the dustbin. Does the confusion reflect second thoughts about engaging with Israel, or is it a symptom of a broader rift within the royal family?

An Election Dilemma: Moving Forward or Nursing Wounds?

As world leaders rushed to send congratulatory messages to US President-Elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory, Saudi Arabia was notably silent. It was no surprise that the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, had his hopes pinned on a Trump win, but has the apparent snub already set the tone for future relations for the new administration?

Disruption Top to Bottom: The Reappearance of Bandar bin Sultan

In what many are calling a "writ of divorce", the Saudi royals have blasted the Palestinian status quo and let it be known that henceforth, foreign policy will not be driven by traditional considerations. Does this represent a victory for the reformist views of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, or is it a strategic shift based on a pivot away from American leadership in the region?

Ambition Meets Reality: The Crown Prince's Dilemma

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, now effectively in charge of policy, has gambled that the support of the younger generation and a pragmatic approach to foreign and domestic affairs will win out over the traditional pillars of the Saudi state in his quest for major reform. His over-reliance on an American ally may jeopardize his ambitions, however, if a change in Washington comes to pass.

An Unpredictable Prince: Realpolitik Or Royal Politics?

The juxtaposition of two events over the past month throws into focus the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia as the country nears the end of an era. First, the aging king was hospitalised; then news broke that his son and heir was alleged to have sent a hit squad to Canada in pursuit of a settling of scores. The timing of the announcements highlights the fragility of the current structure, wherein the monarch drifts towards the periphery, and policy depends on the whims and hidden motives of the crown prince.

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