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Games of the throne


The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia is carefully tailored to fulfill their goals and ambitions. 

With the beginning of the “Arab Spring” the monarchy of Saudi Arabia along with Qatar and Turkey came out as the main players, striving to reform the Sunni Islamic world. This caused a confrontation with Shia Iran in Bahrain, in Yemen, Iraq and Syria it displayed Riyadh’s influence on the USA and the EU countries, politicians and militaries who are interested in the Saudis.

Experts call for close attention to Saudi politics in the oil markets and the KSA’s relations with the radical Islamic organisations, some of which (such as Al-Qaida and its many clones) the kingdom supports, and others (Islamic State) are afraid of and try to resist them.

However, there are many important nuances of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies and foreign economic trends, often playing a key role for understanding the plans of the monarchy and its prospects for their realization. This article is to clarify these nuances, based on the materials from experts of the Middle-East Institute, G.G. Kosach and Y.B. Scheglovin.

Asian anabasis of the throne

On August 29 began the official Asian tour of the Heir to the Crown (official title), Minister of Defence, Second Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and head of the Council of Economics and Development of the KSA, Prince Mohammad bin Salman. As noted in the statement published previously by the royal office, the prince left on official visits to Islamabad, Beijing and Tokyo, answering to “personal invitations” from the president of People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Japan and on the basis of a “personal order” from King Salman bin Abdel Aziz. At the Hangzhou G20 summit in China, the Prince by “personal order” of the monarch (his father) headed the Saudi delegation.

In Islamabad, the prince met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Saudi press noted that the main topic of the talk was the discussion of “strong” bilateral relations and “ways of their further development and deepening”, when the heir to the heir to the throne gave to N. Sharif a personal messages from King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Naef, related to the “elaboration of common positions of both countries” regarding the “urgent problems of the Muslim world”. The leading topic on the agenda of the meeting was the discussion of the problems of Yemen. After having spent a few hours in the Pakistani capital, the third leading person of the Saudi hierarchy flew to Beijing.

Prince Muhammad bin Salman was accompanied by a representative delegation: the Minister of Finance Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al Assaf, the Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi, Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Falih, the Minister of Culture and Information Adel bin Zaid Al Toraifi, the Minister of Environment, Water and Agriculture Abdurrahman Abdul Mohsen Al-Fadli, the Minister of Housing Majed bin Abdullah Al Hogail, the Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mohamed bin Ibrahim Al Suwaiyel, the Head of the General Intelligence Service Khalid Al-Homaidan and the Minister of Foreign Affaires Adel Al Jubeir. In Riyadh, commenting on the future visit to Beijing, Prince Mohammed bin Salman talked about the importance of strengthening the Saudi-Chinese “strategic partnership”, having two prongs: the plan for socio-economic restructuring “Vision 2030” of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Chinese programme the “Silk Road Economic Belt”.

On the eve of the arrival of Muhammad bin Salman in the Chinese capital, work began on the Saudi-Chinese business forum “Towards the integration of “Vision 2030” and the Silk Road”. Saudi Arabia is China’s main trade and economic partner in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2015 the level of mutual trade turnover reached 50 billion dollars, and the number of joint Saudi-Chinese economic projects reached 175, primarily in the services sector and industry. Approximately 150 Chinese companies work in Saudi Arabia; investments of the KSA in the PRC’s economy amount to 15 billion, volumes of return of investment reached 5.6 billion dollars. The KSA is one of the main suppliers of oil to China.

Implementing one of the most important provisions of “Vision 2030”, as the Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi noted in the progress of the Saudi-Chinese business forum in Beijing, is the removal of restrictions for work of foreign enterprises in Saudi Arabia; he handed to the representative of the largest Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., specializing in information and communication technologies, an official permit to conduct commercial activities with one hundred percent foreign capital on the territory of Saudi Arabia. This is a landmark event for all foreign Saudi partners.

In Beijing, Prince Muhammad bin Salman and members of the representative delegation held meetings with the heads of Chinese ministries and agencies, as well as leaders of the Ministry of Defence. As the Saudi press reported, at this meeting the Prince-Minister of Defence stated that for his country is it mainly a “strategic partnership” with China, arising from the “mutual political trust” between two states and having “a solid foundation of military cooperation.” According to him, the KSA aspires to become more efficient and practical. In the situation where Syria announced the appearance of Chinese military advisors in the Assad government, despite the fact that Riyadh supports the anti-government opposition, it appears a bit ambiguous.

The round of meetings between the Prince and the Chinese representatives of the business community included the largest developer and supplier of telecommunication equipment ZTE, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., Aluminum Corporation of China Ltd, the leading construction company of the PRC, the China Communications Construction Company Ltd., steel companies, the Chinese national petroleum corporation and the multi-disciplinary team POLY. The Saudi newspaper noted that the meetings were initiated by the Chinese side, interested in the expansion of investment in the economy of the KSA in the project “Vision 2030” and the “Silk Belt Economic Road”. Along with that, they aimed at the expansion of mutual economic activities in Western Asia and Africa.

The trip resulted in the signing of 17 mutual agreements and memorandums of intent at the government levels. They included cooperation in energy, oil storage facilities, information technology, housing construction and metallurgy. Along with this, the discussion was about cooperation in the use of water resources, bank and financial sectors, science and technologies (significantly expanding the Chinese participation in the activities of the Saudi King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology). The field of culture was not bypassed – the parties signed agreements on the development of translation activities, aimed at promoting both Arab and Chinese classical literature, the development of “Saudi-Chinese strategy in the field of culture”, providing support for young ventures.

On August 31, 2016, Prince Muhammad bin Salman received the president of the PRC Xi Jinping. As the Saudi information agency noted, they discussed ways of strengthening the Saudi-Chinese strategic partnership, as well as international and regional problems. The result was the statement by the Prince (having in view China’s position on Syria) about the “importance of mutual consultations and coordination of positions on issues, significant for both sides” that are not an obstacle for “the positive strategic partnership between two states”. This streamlined formulation is suitable for the current state of Russo-Saudi relations; however, disagreements between Moscow and Riyadh at least on Syria and Yemen have not disappeared.

Syria: the Islamists are pushed towards a secular path

As for the Saudi’s policies towards Syria, experts point to the problems in the camp of the banned in Russia Jabat al-Nusra, which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This step was to mark, according to the organisers of the action, the transition of the group from the position of jihadism to conventional secularism. If it is easier, the position of Sunni nationalism with emphasis on the mantra for the overthrow of President Bashar Assad. This option, according to the main sponsor of Jabat al-Nusra, Saudi Arabia, needs to secure the participation of this group in the political process and support, including financial, on the part of Western governments. Riyadh believed that this would give the West, especially the USA, the opportunity to put in front of Moscow (and Damascus) the question of the need to incorporate this “new” entity in the political process, to be included in the negotiations in Geneva, as well as to strengthen the pressure on them to stop the military actions in Aleppo.

The Saudi logic was built on the following scheme: the Americans cannot change the decisions of their State Department and Justice Department on the recognition of Jabat al-Nursa as a terrorist organisation, which means that this new player must be presented under a new name. The fact of these manoeuvres, very late in the game, show that Saudi Arabia is experiencing pressure on their resources. The operation in Aleppo is the means to bleed the enemy to the maximum, and it is not a classic military offensive. The Syrian army has the advantage with its aviation and artillery, and it is a war of attrition. The use by Islamists of gas cylinders as mines and bombs testifies to the impoverishment of their arsenal.

The Islamists threw all their might to breach the blockade of Aleppo (up to 8000 fighters), who are slowly but surely slaughtered by the government forces. It will be extremely difficult to fill the growing shortage of manpower, especially given the dual policies of Ankara, which is working to establish relations with Damascus on intelligence matters. Riyadh is trying to urgently increase its forces in Syria, which organises the recruitment of additional recruits. The recent explosion in Aden carried out by Yemeni volunteers, who were officially recruited for the protection of the Saudi-Yemeni border were to be smuggled to Syria.

The changing of the name of Jabat al-Nusra, initiated by the Minister of Internal Affairs and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Naef with the help of the head of the General Intelligence Service (GIS) of the KSA Khalid Al-Homaidan, should be considered, among other things, as a manifestation of a competition between him and the king’s son, Minister of Defence and Heir to the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Mohammad bin Naef, who is considered close to the Americans, made, as he believes, an important step towards the legitimisation of the jihadist group in trying to achieve its recognition by the West as an independent political force. As Minister of the Interior he oversees the charitable foundations of Saudi Arabia, therefore, has direct access to the religious conservatives, who oversee Al-Qaida in Pakistan and Jabat al-Nusra in Syria in the framework as a minimum for the enrolling of new recruits. This eased his task of summarising the necessary ideological basis under the apostate step of the Saudi protégés in Syria.

The role of K. Al-Homaidan is extremely important in bringing this process to its logical conclusion among the leadership of Jabat al-Nusra through operatives of the GIS of the KSA, which are present in its composition for the rights of the financiers and advisors. Both Crown Princes strive to bring to their side Al-Homaidan, regularly taking him on foreign tours with them. So far Muhammad bin Naef has more success, he was able to “curb” through the leaders of Jabat al-Nusra, forcing them to publicly abandon the ideology of Al-Qaida. Mohammad bin Salman, accompanied by Al-Homaidan during the visit to China, was not able to persuade Beijing to distance itself from direct military support to Damascus.

Let us note that the change of name and the moving away from the formal union with Al-Qaida did not come cheap for Jabat al-Nusra, where differences began between the Saudi wing, the Syrian associates and the Jordanian fraction, retaining allegiance to Al-Qaida. This disrupted the activities of the group and sometimes led to outright sabotage from the Jordanian Islamists’ side. Experts point out that the situation leaves an imprint of serious morale and physical fatigue on the Jordanian fighters, who are deployed on the front lines and do not wish to act as “cannon fodder” any longer. The change of name for them is just an excuse to distance themselves from further participation in the fights.

Oman is not a friend

With regard to the situation in Yemen, a growing campaign is gaining momentum in the KSA to discredit the position of the Oman leadership, which Riyadh accuses of supporting “too trusting relations” with Tehran and the secret support of the Houthis. The initiators and main organisers of the campaign are the heir to the Crown Prince, the Minister of Defence of the KSA Mohammad bin Salman and people from his entourage. Riyadh has been annoyed for a long time by the balanced position of Muscat in relation to the events in Yemen, its refusal to support the format of the League of Arab States actions of the Arabian coalition and the special relations with Tehran, which made several attempts to compromise the Omani leadership in the hope of forcing it to change its course and walk away from contacts with Iran. However, Muscat strongly refused to do so.

Oman did not even react to the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to the execution in the KSA of the Shia preacher Nimr al-Nimr. For Riyadh this is a declaration of a cold war. For similar acts in Beirut, Saudi Arabia refused to support the plan for the modernisation of the Lebanese army. In the end, the Omani venue for conducting internal Yemeni negotiations the KSA is blocked and the most recent round of consultations were held in Kuwait.

Saudi military and the leadership of the GIS of the KSA are convinced that an Iranian lobby works in Muscat, which uses the Omani territory for subversive activities against the forces of the Arabian coalition in Yemen. One of the main Iranian henchmen in Oman, Riyadh considers is a member of the most influential Omani family of General Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Naamani, Minister of the palace office of Sultan Qaboos and Curator of the State Security Service (SSS) which operates in coordination with the British MI-5, whose staff are permanently in its headquarters. The SSS, in addition to monitoring the Omani-Yemeni borders, works on establishing trusting relations with various Yemeni political forces and fractions. In South Yemen these relations are particularly close, since in its own time South Yemen maintained a training camp of rebel Dhofar, and in the process of national reconciliation many of them occupied leading position in the government agencies of Oman

The GIS of the KSA believes that the SSS supports the Houthis from the territory of Dhofar, including supplying weapons through the Omani-Yemeni border in the airport of the capital of Dhofar Salalah, which are distributed through warehouses on islets in the coastal zone and from there are transferred to Yemen. The main smugglers here were and are the Zaidis from Saad through the mediation of the merchants from Hadhramaut. Not only Iranian armaments pass through this channel, but Ukrainian and Bulgarian as well. The Omani authorities tried not to interfere in these processes, assuming that this state of affairs is the main guarantee from unrest from the local elite. However, the control of the border guards of Oman in this region is missing.

Muscat continues to adhere to the traditional equidistance from regional conflicts, positioning itself as the main intermediary for all matters of relations between the Persian Gulf countries and Iran. To Riyadh’s pressures it reacts harshly. The leaders of the Houthis are frequent guests in Oman; maintain regular contacts with them on all levels. From the moment of the collapse on July 31 of the Kuwait negotiation format these contacts intensified. Muscat is not happy with Riyadh’s policies of pushing it aside from the role of main negotiating platform in the internal Yemeni settlement and shows it openly. Suffice it to say that by order of the closest ally of Sultan Qaboos, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Oman Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, entire floors at the luxury hotel of Muscat “Al Bustan” are dedicated as residence of the representatives of the Houthis. The emissaries of the ex-president A.A. Saleh, allies of the Houthis, live there permanently as well.

The adamant position of Muscat was demonstrated when the Saudi military, controlling the Yemeni airspace, prohibited the departure of Sultan Qaboos’ airplane with members of the Houthis delegation, returning home after talks in Kuwait, which stopped in Muscat, demanding to board the plane on the Saudi base for inspecting luggage and “identification of passengers”. They received a categorical refusal. As a result of this incident Oman officially refused to cooperate with Saudi Arabia on questions of security. It shows that Muscat intends to continue the previous line of conduct and will not give in to Riyadh’s pressure. There are no methods of influence on Ibadi Oman from Salafi KSA. What it demonstrates once again is the regional hegemony of Saudi Arabia, which its leadership is trying to build, but even the Cooperation Council for the Arab States neighbours, the monarchies of the Person Gulf, resist.


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