Istanbul: The foreign policy of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia centers around survival and the safety and stability of the Al-Saud family, experts noted during an academic session at Istanbul Zaim University (IZU) on Wednesday.
Professor Majed Al-Ansari, Assistant Professor of Political Sociology at Qatar University, and IZU Professor Sami Al-Arian discussed the “Political Assassination on The Bosphorus and A Siege in The Gulf: A Geopolitical Perspective” organized and hosted by Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA).
For the United States, the academics noted, control over Saudi Arabia has been a main concern in the region irrespective of who is in power. This explains Donald Trump’s unwillingness to punish the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, for his likely role in the recent death of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
The only real player that has been pushing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable thus far is Turkey.
“This [murder] of Jamal Khashoggi is quite unprecedented,” asserted Professor Majed Al-Ansari during his talk. “It is something very blunt which we did not see before, but there is a pattern in it.”
Professor Al-Ansari remarked that the murder of Khashoggi is very difficult to understand in isolation. “The conspiracy was systematic with a clear agenda,” he said.
Professor Al-Ansari further noted that the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia has been that of a “survivor’s attitude”, and that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia became especially concerned with its survival. “That is why there is an alliance with United States, which is its largest ally: for protection and survival,” he explained.
However, Professor Al-Ansari said that Saudi Arabia does not realize that it has antagonized almost all of its neighbors in the process of securing itself. “Saudi Arabia enforced a blockade on Qatar, it interfered in Lebanon’s politics, and is [actively] pressuring Kuwait and Oman” to abide by its rules.
“[MBS] does not play by the rules; [he is] not a stable person when it comes to decision making and he does not have institutional checks, nor does he want them,” Professor Al-Ansari explained.
In Professor Al-Ansari’s view, MBS committed a number of mistakes since he took power which undermine him. “He jumped into Yemen which is an occupation; he made Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon announce his resignation live…and he (miserably) failed in that as well.” Among other mistakes, MBS has also failed to maintain allies and has exacerbated the effects of his mistakes through the killing of Khashoggi, he added.
“No one can claim moral high ground when it comes to punishing dissidents,” Professor Al-Ansari said in reference to Russia, the U.S. and the UK. “But there are guidelines about how one does it. One needs to get approval from U.S., do it discreetly; and be ready for the ramifications.’’
In Khashoggi’s murder, Professor Al-Ansari remarked that MBS failed to play by the unwritten rulebook. Furthermore, “Turkey sabotaged every plan of Saudi Arabia to save itself…the Turks came with new bombshells and they still have a lot in their punch-bag of recordings.”
Despite these difficulties, Professor Al-Ansari does not believe MBS will be removed from power. He noted that figures like Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad have committed worse crimes but still managed to maintain their power in the immediate aftermath.
In his geo-political assessment of the Khashoggi murder, Professor Sami Al-Arian concurred with Professor Al-Ansari that Saudi Arabia has been advancing a policy of self-survival, especially through “religious legitimacy” by being the custodians of two holiest cities for Muslims. He added that Saudi Arabia lacks a project. “It has no vision!”
Professor Al-Arian, who has been at the forefront of raising political, social, and cultural consciousness among Muslims in the United States until he left the country in 2015, noted that in the Middle East, Turkey and Iran have been the only two players with a clear vision and project.
“Iran and Turkey know what they are doing and what they want,” he asserted citing Turkey’s soft power policy in Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia. “Historically, Palestine has been the only project for Saudi Arabia, in order to maintain its viability across the Arab World.”
Explaining the hegemonic character of Israel in the region, Professor Al-Arian said that the Zionist project is an extension of American hegemony in the Middle East. “Most of the resources [of Arabs] are controlled by the U.S. and as much as 54% of America’s arms sales are with the Arab world.”
He said that it has been the policy of the U.S. to look for enemies, create splits among them, and make allies with the weaker in order to fight the stronger.
After 9/11, Professor Al-Arian noted that the U.S. had three options: either to invade the whole Middle East (which was impossible for it), or to wash its hands from the whole region (which was also not a viable option), or to continue doing what it usually does: “find the fault lines in the enemy, divide make allies with one side, and fight the other after the divide’’.
Professor Al-Arian identified the main regional adversaries of the U.S. as: Major Sunni groups or so-called “political Islamist” in the Sunni world (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) which have been challenging the autocrats and monarchies in the Arab World as well as all those who were behind the Arab uprisings, Iran, Groups which are enemies with Israel, Countries which are potentially helpful to these groups including Turkey, Qatar, and others, NGOs, colleges, scholars, and schools who engage and help these groups or people associated with them.
“Israel was fanning all this because it thought that the Arab Spring phenomena was an existential threat to it, so it started making tacit alliances with counter-revolutionary regimes in the Arab World,” Professor Al-Arian explained. “If a state is nourished for democracy and the rule of law is ensured, that would constitute a challenge to Saudi Arabia, and that is why for example we saw the coup of 2013 in Egypt.”
He said that the U.S. has army bases in 70 countries and there are 45 bases based in Middle East that are currently surrounding Iran. “On top of it, under its foreign assistance program, the U.S. is supplying arms to Egypt, Jordon, and Lebanon, all of which border Israel. This makes it an environment of confrontation, but also one where the U.S. has the upper hand as it is influencing all these states.”
Describing its divide and rule policy, Professor Al-Arian said that the U.S. was arming around thirty thousand Kurdish armed militia members, which Turkey says have ties with the PKK — a terrorist group in the eyes of both Turkey and the U.S. “Again, the U.S. is finding a regional challenger, and exploiting a fault line and in this case it is using fomenting the Turkish-Kurdish ethnic divide,” he said.
Explaining the monopoly of the dollar in international markets, Professor Al-Arian said that those who try to do business in local currencies are undercut. He said that the U.S. has many objectives in the Middle East including protecting Israel and ensuring its legitimacy, controlling oil, currency, and the stability of the region, maintaining military bases and sea lanes in the region, monopolizing arms sales and opening markets, containing or suppressing political Islam or any independent political actors, and asserting cultural and political hegemony.
“It does not matter to the U.S. as who in-charge of Saudi Arabia, but its main concern is as how to maintain its control over the country,” he said.
Professor Al-Arian, who is known for his grass-roots activism in the U.S. until he was detained under false charges in 2003, explained that the Israeli lobby was working for MBS to influence the U.S. administration, while the Crown Prince is pushing Palestinians to accept a deal with Israel which is not acceptable to the Palestinians or the international community.
Professor Al-Arian concluded his remarks by echoing Professor Al-Ansari’s view that it will be very difficult to remove MBS from power. “A few weeks from now, when G20 meets, we will see how MBS will be treated by world powers, or if he shows up at all.”
Complementing Turkey for its role in the investigation of Khashoggi’s murder, Professor Al-Arian said that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government had set an example in the international relations area. “It is a playbook of how international relations could be played,” he said, “calm, calculated, and with clarity and patience.”
“Turkey’s choice of words and actions regarding the Khashoggi case will likely be taught in political science courses in the future as an example of how diplomacy is done,” he noted.