Turning the Page: Saudi Arabia’s New Diplomatic Approach

Diplomatic shifts: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab League summit on 19 May. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

The Arab League meeting earlier this month was one of the more interesting in the last couple of decades, mostly due to the host, Saudi Arabia, using it for messaging the West, particularly on Israel and Syria. More recently, Riyadh has engaged in new diplomatic moves towards Canada, a country with which it has had a rocky relationship. All of these moves follow a particular pattern, and we are likely to see more of the same. Jonathan Eyal (JE) asked our Senior Associate Fellow, H A Hellyer (HH), about the significance of these events.

JE: What do you think Saudi Arabia was looking to accomplish in this latest flurry of diplomatic engagement at the Arab League? Is it an isolated move?

HH: Riyadh was the host for this particular Arab League summit, so it’s natural enough that the meeting might take something of a Saudi flavour to it. But Riyadh went beyond that, and that’s down to the current Saudi leadership’s overall foreign policy agenda matching its domestic policy agenda. Foreign observers will be looking at the impacts on relations with the West, Israel and so on – but really, Riyadh’s focus is on the domestic arena, and its geopolitical relationships – alongside its formulation of its own regional position – are critically linked to that focus. So, no, it’s not an isolated move, and it’s very much about the leadership’s overall vision for the Kingdom. For lack of a better expression, one might call it the ‘turning the page’ approach, which is closely connected to Riyadh’s ‘Vision 2030’, a phrase that came out of Saudi Arabia’s comments at the Arab League.

JE: So, there is a macro-level strategy at work here, this ‘turning the page’ approach – can you lay out what this means more generally?

HH: Riyadh has been on a geopolitical offensive, after dealing with the fallout from its (admittedly rather brief) pariah status in the West which followed particularly from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as to some extent the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The leadership has been keen to build bridges with Western capitals, especially Washington, and has clearly banked on the idea that if it waits it out, Western leaders and elites will eventually move past their antipathy towards the Kingdom. There’s been a lot of attention towards all of this, and it perhaps reminds us that in international relations, there are no permanent allies or permanent enemies, but permanent interests, as Lord Palmerstone famously said.

This geopolitical offensive is most interesting in terms of regional dynamics, though. The Khashoggi affair led to strained relations with Turkey, where the murder took place; but the Saudi leadership took up the opportunity to mend ties with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once an overture was made, presumably due to Turkey’s economic woes. The Saudis had led efforts to isolate Qatar in 2017, but they were also the ones who ended the GCC-wide spat, despite objections within their own camp. The Saudis have expressed incredible antagonism vis-à-vis Iran and its regime, but despite no change in Tehran’s behaviour, Riyadh has recently de-escalated with the Iranians too. More moves have taken place with regards to Yemen as well.

None of this means that the Saudis have been perfect in how they’ve engaged regionally, or that they’ve suddenly done a 360 in terms of their view of the world. Rather, it means they’ve decided that it is in the Kingdom’s interest to have fewer conflicts to deal with externally, and I think that’s because they want to focus their energies internally as much as possible. The Arab League meeting was more evidence of this strategy playing out. And then there was the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Canada, following the fallout in 2018 over Canadian diplomatic representations in favour of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia; an agreement to return ambassadors was reached in late May. ‘Turning the page’ indeed.

JE: What did Riyadh seek to accomplish with regards to the West and Ukraine at the Arab League?

HH: It’s interesting. Saudi Arabia is no doubt aware that there is antipathy vis-à-vis Ukraine in much of the Global South, while at the same time there is full support for Kyiv against the Russian invasion in the West. Riyadh didn’t invite the Ukrainian president as part of a joint decision by various Arab League member states – it took the decision pretty much unilaterally, which seemed to ruffle a few feathers due to some Arab states’ alignments with Russia.

Holding off from normalisation with Israel makes Riyadh stronger in the regional and international context, because it means there is still a bargain to be struck

But Riyadh gained substantial and significant credit with Western capitals by doing so. Zelensky is iconic now; he is the only Western leader involved in a direct military conflict with a competitor of the West (Russia) on the global stage. Moreover, he is involved in that conflict as the result of a defensive action – Ukraine didn’t invade Russia, Russia invaded Ukraine – and that makes him a resistance leader of great stature across the West. It was Riyadh that brought Zelensky into direct conversation with senior representatives from across the Arab world, to make his case and state his purpose. No one else has done that in the region, and as such the Saudi move is going to play quite well in Western capitals – not least in Washington and anywhere where solidarity with Ukraine is perceived as a crucial and critical Western interest. It doesn't hit the reset button on Saudi-Western relations, but it certainly helps.

JE: But the West is also concerned about other issues with regards to Saudi Arabia, particularly the Abraham Accords – how has this played out?

HH: There has been a push in parts of the DC ‘Beltway’ to get Riyadh to accede to the Abraham Accords, despite Saudi Arabia's repeated refusal to do so. Maybe one day Riyadh will sign up, but the current mood in the Kingdom is not remotely sympathetic to such a step.

Of course, from the Israeli perspective, normalisation with Riyadh would be an achievement of epic proportions, and Netanyahu is clearly trying to find any way to make it happen. This is perhaps because he hopes that massive economic investment will follow, which would serve as a ‘great diversion’ from Israel’s domestic political woes.

There’s just one small issue with this strategy: there is little upside to acceding to the Abraham Accords that Riyadh cannot already attain. Normalisation would not strengthen Riyadh's regional position. On the contrary: holding off from official normalisation makes Riyadh stronger in the regional and international context, because it means there is still a bargain to be struck – thus giving the Kingdom a modicum of leverage.

DC correctly understands that while the region is not made up of democratic regimes, public opinion does have an impact (even if it's not remotely as critical as in electoral systems). Normalising with the most right-wing government in Israeli history is hardly attractive to Riyadh. The most stalwart of the Abraham Accords signatories is the UAE, and a prominent Emirati figure recently declared that no more Arab states would normalise ties with the Israelis, as the Israeli government was ‘putting everyone off’ – indeed, she went as far as to say that her own government was ‘embarrassed in front of the Arab people’. Riyadh is certainly not interested in being put in the same position.

Syria’s reintegration may come back to haunt Riyadh. Assad hasn’t changed, and his regime continues to be unstable, even with Russian and Iranian backing

Again, there may be a time when the calculus changes for Riyadh, but it's not now – especially not with continued US congressional antipathy towards Riyadh, which makes it unlikely that DC could provide sufficient incentives to Saudi Arabia that would also be able to pass through Congress. It’s a bit peculiar that the idea of normalisation keeps being raised, especially when a US official said this month – albeit off the record – that recent statements by Saudi officials should ‘put to rest talk of a major US push for Saudi-Israeli normalisation’, and that the talks were ‘a campaign full of hot air blown by well-meaning folks mostly in Israel’. Ideological aspirations aside, I think the trend is pretty clear, hence Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's repeating of demands for an end to the Israeli occupation and for the general parameters of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 – which was itself a Saudi enterprise – to be adhered to.

JE: The event that was all too evident in advance was Bashar al-Assad’s appearance. Saudi Arabia backed his exclusion from the League for years, but recently that’s changed. What are you seeing there?

HH: On Syria, Riyadh didn't begin the push for normalisation with Assad's regime. But it did run with it, and hard. This is all part of Riyadh's calculation that its domestic agenda requires de-escalation in its regional policy, so that its full attention is focused within.

But Assad’s reintegration may come back to haunt Riyadh. Assad hasn’t changed, and his regime continues to be unstable, even with Russian and Iranian backing. There are millions of Syrians who view Assad as the most brutal leader in their history, and that isn't a recipe for good times.

Assad's Syria is often described as a new 'narco-state' in the Middle East, and that is also a source of societal instability for regional states. Yes, the Arab League suggested 'conditions' for reintegration, but this conditionality isn't going to be taken seriously at all.

It was Riyadh that pushed the normalisation through, going over the heads of a number of states that were not ready for this step. Even its former adversary in the GCC (Qatar) has fully accepted Riyadh's pole position in the region, and is keen not to take steps that would cause tensions.

JE: How does this all bode for the future?

HH: The Turkish AK Party promulgated its ‘Zero-Problems’ approach to regional dynamics some two decades ago, including in its electoral platform a promise to ‘improve relations with Turkey’s neighbours’. Of course, Ankara faced a lot of problems in trying to uphold this pledge, and in recent years it has engaged in far more confrontational moves. To draw another parallel, the ‘ethical foreign policy’ approach of the early years of the Tony Blair government in the UK gave way to the Iraq War in 2003; political events often take on lives of their own which go far beyond expectations.

With all that being said, I suspect we will see further moves towards de-escalation from Riyadh. In Sudan, where the Sudanese army is engaged in a power struggle against an assorted group of militias, Riyadh is trying to de-escalate the situation; in Lebanon, I think we’ll also see moves by Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions. It’s less about Riyadh trying to cast itself in a new role of regional mediator, in my opinion, and more a reflection of the fact that as Riyadh focuses more of its energy internally, it wants fewer distractions or spoilers externally.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr H A Hellyer

Senior Associate Fellow

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