by Eldar Mamedov
On December 14, the European Parliament adopted a report on the E.U.’s common foreign and security policy, which expresses the assembly’s views on key issues in the E.U.’s external relations. Among other positions, the E.P. condemned the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, demanded investigation of the coalition’s alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and called on the E.U. to withhold any support for the coalition until such an investigation is carried out and the perpetrators are held accountable.
This report caps off a year that has seen a continued erosion of Saudi-Western relations. In February, the E.P. adopted a strongly-worded resolution demanding an E.U.-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. While non-binding, it still rankled Saudi officials, who believed it reflected an E.U. unwillingness to appreciate the Saudi role in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region.
The executive branches of the E.U. and its member states increasingly echo the E.P.’s views. In unusually blunt remarks, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, called Saudi Arabia an “odious regime”, with which the E.U. had to maintain relations. U.K. foreign secretary Boris Johnson provoked a storm by criticizing Saudi Arabia for its support for extremism. And there is now a consensus among the European intelligence services that the Saudi-sponsored and promoted Wahhabism, a particularly fundamentalist strand within Sunni Islam, has directly contributed to the emergence of the terrorist threat in Europe.
Things are not much brighter on the other side of the Atlantic. The adoption of the JASTA law has damaged U.S.-Saudi relations. A well-informed Washington-based observer of the Middle Eastern politics went so far as to suggest that the Saudi “brand” has become toxic in the U.S., to the extent that the kingdom now outsources much of its lobbying efforts to the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi shares much of Riyadh’s strategic outlook, especially in terms of their aggressive anti-Iranian stance, but enjoys a much better image in Washington.
These developments are occurring against the backdrop of the failure of a more assertive foreign policy espoused by Deputy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Saudi Arabia is stuck in a damaging stalemate in Yemen, and is far from achieving its military goals there. Yemen’s internationally recognized, Saudi-backed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s is increasingly becoming a liability, due to the diplomatic inflexibility, corruption, and mismanagement of his administration. Riyadh’s military difficulties were compounded by a diplomatic snub, when recently the outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Muscat with representatives of Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Saudis saw this as granting the Houthis an international legitimacy they don’t deserve. In sum, the Saudi performance in Yemen is very far from projecting the image of a strong regional power that it was meant to convey in the region and inside the kingdom.
On other fronts, the situation is not better for the Saudis. In Syria, the fall of Aleppo to Syrian government control means a strategic defeat of the Syrian rebels, long supported by Riyadh, which strengthens the hand of Iran, seen as an arch-enemy by the Saudi rulers. Also, Saudi attempts to reach out to Russia have not paid off.
With a growing isolation and deteriorating international image, there are some signs of realism creeping into the Saudi foreign policy. One example recently took place in Lebanon. After a two-year stalemate, Hezbollah-backed candidate Michel Aoun was finally elected president in a power-sharing deal that saw the Saudi-backed Saad Hariri assume the post of prime minister. While it was clearly internal Lebanese dynamics that made the deal possible, it is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia didn’t do anything to sabotage it, even as it was seen as further consolidating Iranian influence in Lebanese politics via Hezbollah.
Another example is a recent deal at OPEC, a rare occasion when the world’s major oil producers–Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Russia–were able to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement on reducing oil production, despite their sharply divergent geopolitical agendas.
It’s too early to say whether these steps augur an era of more restrained Saudi policies. Recently, for example, Saudi Arabia announced that it has sentenced to death 15 alleged “Iranian spies.” Executions, if carried out, would provoke a fresh crisis in relations with Iran, of the sort that Riyadh ignited by executing a Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016. It’s possible that the Saudis would use the executions and ensuing crisis to test the Trump administration’s resolve in the face of an expected Iranian over-reaction. But the Saudis should be aware that the professed Iranophobia of some key members of Trump’s emerging foreign policy team does not necessarily translate into Saudophilia. In fact, for some of them a hatred of Iran strongly correlates with a broader Islamophobic agenda, and it’s difficult to see how such policies could benefit Saudi Arabia even as they harm Iran. Moreover, under Trump, Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf states, could be made to pay a price for aligning themselves squarely with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
According to high-ranking European diplomats who engage with Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, a cumulative effect of foreign policy failures, notably in Yemen and Syria, growing domestic fiscal difficulties due to a slump in oil prices, and a deterioration of the kingdom’s international image is prompting a strategic re-think in Riyadh. Some influential voices are now more accepting of the idea, actively promoted by the E.U., that the interests of Saudi Arabia may be better served in a new, more inclusive security architecture in the Middle East. Uncertainty associated with the Trump administration could be another factor pushing the Saudis towards more restraint, including even some sort of accommodation with Iran.