by Jim Lobe
Given the fast-moving events in the Persian Gulf region over the past two weeks, LobeLog decided to consult Chas W. Freeman, Jr., whose occasional lectures on key foreign policy issues have been featured on this site for several years. Washington’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, Freeman has a wide range of contacts in the region. One of the most highly decorated foreign service officers of his generation, he also served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, among many other posts. We conducted this interview by telephone Monday.
Jim Lobe: The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman clearly has major implications for Saudi Arabia? What do you think about his latest elevation?
Chas Freeman: This is actually the third of three concentrations of power within the royal family since his father, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, became king in January 2015.
First, King Salman narrowed the process of consultation within the family to his own lineage, called the al-Sudairi because of their common descent from Hasa Sudairi. This alarmed many in the royal family, who felt disempowered. It was followed within three months by the dismissal of then-Crown Prince Muqrin and the elevation of one of the Sudairis, namely Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince, and the appointment of the king’s young son, Mohammed bin Salman, as his understudy.
It quickly became apparent that the main decision-maker in the new regime was the king’s son. He proved very bold, not to say rash, with initiatives like the Vision 2030 plan to transform Saudi Arabia’s political economy away from reliance on oil. He proved willing to risk the use of military force in Yemen to try to restore the ousted pro-Saudi government there.
What has now happened is that Mohammed bin Nayef has been dismissed as crown prince; that position has now gone to Mohammed bin Salman. The king’s son has consolidated his position and now enjoys a monopoly of power under his father.
No one knows the precise reason for the timing of this: whether it has to do with some issue with the king’s health; whether it’s because of a policy difference between the two Mohammeds over Yemen or the crisis with Qatar; or whether it’s a step towards the king’s abdication and his replacement by his favorite son. Nonetheless, this marks an unprecedented concentration of power in the kingdom in the hands of the new crown prince.
This has happened in circumstances of considerable difficulty for the Kingdom: falling oil prices, budgetary austerity, and intensified rivalry with Iran. This rivalry has various dimensions including the wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as the crisis with Qatar and a falling out with Turkey. So, both at home and abroad, the young crown prince faces really extraordinary challenges. I think young people in Saudi Arabia identify with him and are enthusiastic about his accretion of power. But many of the elders and the religious establishment in the kingdom are not. So this raises a lot of questions.
JL: Can we talk about the current confrontation with Qatar in particular?
CF: This has deep roots. The Qatari royal family, the al-Thani, trace their ancestry to Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab. Qatar is a Wahhabi state like Saudi Arabia, but it’s one that has a very different vision of the direction of history and the future. The Qataris have chosen to ally themselves with Islamist democratic movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia’s ally, Egypt, considers terrorist, and Hamas, which Israel abhors.
So, we now have 13 demands from a group that includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. These are so extensive that they amount to a demand for the complete capitulation of Qatar to its neighbors and a total rewriting of its foreign policy. There is some suspicion that these demands were formulated to be unacceptable. Qatar’s failure to comply with them would, at a minimum, justify its expulsion from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It might even justify invasion by its neighbors. This is a crisis in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Qatar in which the new crown prince clearly played a leading role.
The Saudi frustration with Qatar is longstanding and has a basis in fact, but whether this particular high-risk approach is sensible or not is another question. The ultimatum starts with the demand that Qatar reduce its diplomatic representation with Iran—in other words, that it join the anti-Iranian coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But Qatar’s wealth is based on a gas field that it shares with Iran, and it needs cooperative relations with Iran to continue to prosper.
The ultimatum also demands the expulsion of the Turkish garrison in Qatar. This amounts to a demand that Qatar abjure relations with outside powers other than Saudi-aligned powers like the United States.
Then there are a whole series of demands about severing relations with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, curtailing any funding to these groups, handing over anybody the four countries have designated as a terrorist, freezing their assets, and so forth. There’s also a demand that they shut down Al Jazeera and all its affiliated channels, which amounts to an effort to make the region safe for government-managed news media.
So, broadly speaking, this amounts to a demand for the severe curtailment of Qatar’s independence and a fundamental reengineering of its foreign policy to bring it to heel. Qatar has always wanted to balance its relations between Iran and its Arab neighbors. This is a demand that it cease doing so and cleave to one side.
The Qataris and the Turks and others have said that these demands are unacceptable. So, we are clearly in a crisis with the potential to lead to armed conflict. And of course both Saudi Arabia and UAE have larger and much more capable militaries than Qatar, so the outcome of any military conflict confined to those three would be a Qatari defeat.
But Qatar is not without leverage. Of course, it could seek Iran’s protection, and, in fact, the Iranians have broken the blockade by replacing Saudi Arabia as a key source of foodstuffs. And Turkey is not an unformidable military power either.
Moreover, a Qatari airbase at Al Udeid is where the US armed forces coordinate all their military activities from Iraq to Afghanistan. There are roughly 10,000 US military personnel there. That base is in territory previously disputed between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s role as the mainstay of the American military presence in West Asia makes it of great interest to the United States. The Saudis, were they to attack Qatar, would risk confrontation with the United States.
And there is clear awareness of this on the part of members of the Trump cabinet who say things quite different from what the president says and who are obviously looking at the strategic stakes for the United States in a different light than the president. There’s a critical question here that ironically goes back to the loss of American credibility in the region that the Saudis and their allies have so vociferously complained about. That is, if the United States doesn’t defend Qatar, what basis is there for assuming that the cooperation of the United States can gain American protection?
To bring this back to Mohammed bin Salman, what we’ve witnessed so far this century is the collapse of Saudi confidence in America as a protector and the birth of an assertively independent Saudi Arabia, now including policies that the Qataris and some others certainly regard as bullying. The Saudis, who were once prudent to a fault, have ceased to be risk-averse and are willing, as they have shown in Yemen, to use force against their neighbors to secure their interests as they see them.
And Saudi rivalry with Iran has intensified. You can understand the objections that Qatar’s neighbors have to its policies even if you don’t agree with them. They are not irrational, but the level of confrontation that now exists has no obvious off-ramp. So, no one can tell you at this point how this ends.
And we shouldn’t forget the Russian dimension. Russia probably shares some of the Saudi and Emirati concerns about Qatar because of its own fear of radical Islamism and the involvement of Chechens in some Islamist groups that Qatar has aided. That complicates any Russian effort to exploit Qatar’s need for support from outside the region. Russia and Qatar are also competitors as exporters of natural gas.
There are also other interests entwined with Qatar’s. China has an interest in retaining access to Qatar’s natural gas supplies.
And remember that Qatari natural gas operations are managed by ExxonMobil, which has also been the largest foreign investor in Saudi Arabia, quite aside from its historic relationship with ARAMCO. We now have a secretary of state who is dealing with a conflict between two states that he knows quite well.
The crisis over Qatar is a complicated thing with too many moving parts to be easily described. It is one of those situations that reminds us that, if you don’t understand the complexities of the past, you cannot hope to comprehend the realities of the present.
JL: Let’s go back a bit to Yemen. This war has gone on for two years now and, until the Qatar crisis, seems to have been Mohammed bin Salman’s major foreign policy initiative. But it’s clearly not going anywhere good. How does it continue?
CF: The Saudi grievances and interests in Yemen are pretty clear, but the way the Saudis have chosen to address them does not include an obvious war-termination strategy. So, what this resembles at this point as much as anything is the Israeli use of force against Gaza and Lebanon for the purpose of terrorizing the neighboring population. It doesn’t connect to any way of producing a stable peace. It’s also reminiscent of the habitual American use of force without clear political purposes, which has led to unending conflict. The objectives may be clear, but the means chosen seem unwise. All of this is without getting into the international reaction to the humanitarian disaster. Arguably, that does serious damage to the Saudi image.
Saudi Arabia has a professional army; there’s no conscription. The pain of war is not widely felt in Saudi society. And the assertion of Saudi power is popular. Nationalists are pleased by Saudi Arabia’s demonstration that it can act on its own. The internal pressure to do anything to bring fighting to a halt has not been great.
JL: The UAE’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyen, who, according to the early Wikileaks documents, seemed especially hawkish toward Iran, appears to have acted as something of a mentor to Mohammed bin Salman. Of course, UAE foreign policy under his direction has been quite aggressive in the region for some years now.
CF: Yes, the UAE has been notable in recent days for its willingness to use its military at some distance from its territory, as in Libya. It has been militarily quite effective in Yemen. Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman have been kindred spirits.
JL: It’s no secret that the UAE has also drawn closer to Israel, even to the extent of participating in multinational military exercises with the Israeli Air Force. This raises an important question: in the strongly anti-Iranian stances of both UAE and Saudi Arabia, do you see evidence of collusion between them and Israel in maneuvering the US into a conflict with Iran?
CF: It’s not impossible. Some elements of the Israeli propaganda apparatus—the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example—have been very heavily involved in promoting confrontation with Qatar. The Netanyahu government, like the Saudis, has always looked for ways to isolate Iran and made it clear that it would be happy to see the United States act militarily on its behalf against Iran. This has hardly been a secret. So it’s entirely possible that indeed what the campaign to bring Qatar to heel represents is a desire to provoke a crisis that would enlist the United States militarily against Iran.
Your question is apt. I note that Mohammed bin Salman is quoted as saying that Saudi Arabia will not wait to do battle with Iran on its own territory but will wage it instead in Iran. So that tends to underscore the appropriateness of your question.
There was quite an explicit UAE-Israeli connection that, however, fell apart due to the bungled assassination [of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in 2010] in Dubai, but it’s clearly back now. What you have with Israel is increasingly open collusion on two fronts: one in the region against Iran, which is an intelligence and coordination relationship, and the second in the use of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and other instruments of Israeli political power in the United States to preclude any US rapprochement with Iran.
Israel has no political clout in the region of its own but it does have the ability to enlist American power in causes where it shares common interests with countries like Saudi Arabia or UAE. This is important because, while the average Saudi or Emirati will understand the realpolitik logic of cooperating with Israel against Iran whether in Yemen or Qatar, they won’t tolerate ignoring the Palestinian issue in dealings with Israel. It’s not that they love the Palestinians. They don’t. But the Israeli brutality toward Palestinians is a domestic political issue that severely limits the ability of these regimes to have open ties with Israel. (Which is why this “outside-in” strategy that people in the White House talk about is nonsense.)
I think these three countries clearly share an interest in ensuring that the US is very hardline on Iran. And being hardline on Iran is something some in the White House and [Defense] Secretary Mattis clearly find congenial. In some respect, they’re pushing against an open door.
There is at present an ongoing escalation of military tension with Iran. We have the real possibility of Syria becoming not just a civil conflict, but something much wider and more dangerous. And Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in a better position than Israel to provoke something in the Gulf region.
Of course, the Israelis have long been the most insistent of all in the region about the use of force against Iran. Previous governments in Saudi Arabia held back from advocating that. They wanted the US to do something, but starting a war was not their preferred course.
Mohammed bin Salman has shown no reluctance to throw Saudi military weight around in other conflicts. At the same time, however, he has not neglected diplomacy. He has done something that the Kingdom should’ve done long ago. He has reached out to the government in Baghdad in an attempt to attenuate its dependence on Iran. The Saudis have abandoned their effort to ostracize the Shiite regime in Iraq and are trying to find common ground with it. So it’s not that they’re inert on the diplomatic front.
Chas Freeman served as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the war to liberate Kuwait and as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1993-94. He was the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “diplomacy” and is the author of five books, including “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East” and “Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige.” He is currently a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Photo: Chas Freeman