Saudi Arabia Tries the Waters of Retrenchment

Saudi Arabia’s future king tries to turn down the heat on his conflicts with Qatar and Yemen.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, March 16
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, March 16 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s new minister of defense, Mohammad bin Salman, sent the kingdom’s armies to Yemen. In 2017, shortly before usurping the position of crown prince, Salman organized a blockade on little Qatar, which had dared defy the kingdom’s geopolitical priorities.

Both were bold moves fraught with risk. The Yemen war was meant to roll back Iranian influence on the southern border, deny ever-dangerous Al Qaeda a base and prove Saudi Arabia was a capable, independent military power that could fight without mighty America.

The blockade on Qatar was meant to secure the kingdon’s backyard. Regime-rattling Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood both enjoyed Qatari state support and, in uncertain times of economic restructuring and inevitable cultural change, having those two wildcards in the mix was not a game the Saudis wanted to play.

Core and periphery

The Middle East has three regions when it comes to power: the core regions, the borderlands between them and the periphery beyond the borderlands. Left alone by the rest of the world, the core regions are the ones which, on a long enough timeline, always reassert themselves as the base of the region’s great states.

Those core regions have long been Persia and Anatolia — Iran and Turkey — while the periphery has always been Arabia.

The periphery is not a great place to be, geopolitically speaking. It’s a hard place to develop and, if it grows too strong, the core regions tend to conspire to knock it down.

But after World War I, the Middle East was no longer left to its own devices and the natural balance between the cores, the borderlands and the periphery was upset by French, British, American and Soviet machinations.

In fact, the Americans and Soviets viewed the entire region as a borderland between them, an important but not critical place to control.

Pretenders

A combination of the upset of the region’s original order and the discovery of oil to provide the capital for development gave Arabia’s states an opportunity to try to move from the periphery toward a core region. But they were hardly alone; after the collapse of the Ottoman and European empires, any state with the means tried to race toward becoming a core region. Cores are, after all, the safest places to be.

Many fell by the wayside. The Egyptians tried to do it with pan-Arabism but failed after repeated defeats by Israel. The Iraqis and Syrians tried it with Ba’athism but picked the wrong fights or lacked the right resources to overcome their own divisions. Now the Saudis are trying it with a combination of neoliberalism, royalist-cum-nationalism and the preservation of strict Arabian tradition.

It’s that second part — the royalist-driven nationalism — that has propelled Saudi Arabia to war and blockade.

Fight to unite

Saudi Arabia’s tribal monarchy undermines the formation of a national core. It’s hard to take on the tribes without risking the very monarchy the Saudi family wants to preserve, so instead the rulers have been tossing about trying to find new anchors to pull the young away from tribal allegiance and towards the Saudi flag.

And nothing builds national cultures like a good conflict. A geopolitical Other can spook otherwise divided peoples into one another’s arms.

The United States did this with its War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War; the Germans have the Franco-Prussian War, the Japanese the Russo-Japanese War. The right conflict, even if small, can be a big step toward reordering peoples into a new nation.

Yet there is great danger too, for if a ruler sends off an army that does not come home, the people will lose faith, perhaps even cause rebellion.

Turning down the heat

Thus Crown Prince Salman is quietly trying to turn down the heat on both conflicts. This isn’t the beginning of the end of the war in Yemen, nor the sure conclusion of the Qatar blockade. But it’s proof that Mohammad bin Salman worries he’s gone too far.

Leaked e-mails, published by Middle East Eye, reveal Bin Salman talked with American officials about trying to get out of Yemen.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s land border with Saudi has opened to allow pilgrims to pass to Mecca.

These moves, tepid though they are, are meant to test the waters of conflict resolution on Saudi Arabia’s terms. If Bin Salman can get the Trump Administration to pick up the war in Yemen, he could draw down some or most of his forces, keeping them out of harm’s way and reducing the risk to himself back home.

Additionally, Saudi forces are also trying to counter the propaganda war against it by rebuilding the southern Yemeni ports under its control.

As half a million Yemeni now have cholera, a nineteenth-century pestilence, and as the United Nations put the majority of the blame on the Saudis themselves, this is all the more critical. It’s hard to claim to be the true Custodian of the Holy Places when you’re inflicting mass suffering on fellow Muslims.

If he can make Saudi Arabia look like the good guy, or at least the non-bad guy, to global Muslims, Qatari citizens and Gulf Cooperation Council states by opening the road to Mecca, it will suck some of the victimhood wind out of the Qataris’ sails. It could convince the Al Thanis that conciliation is possible with compromise. And if it fails, Saudi Arabia can always blame Qatar.

Future king

It’s also revealing of a more reflective leadership than might have been supposed. Mohammad bin Salman may rule Saudi Arabia for decades after his father dies. His personality will matter.

For Saudi Arabia to survive external pressures, it needs buffers in as many places as possible. That means first putting its Arabian house in order so it can better concentrate on the ever-critical battleground of Iraq. It cannot hope to overthrow bigger, stronger Iran, so it instead it must have as much distance between it and Tehran as possible.

To get there will mean learning to back off conflicts it cannot win or may cost it too much. The longer the war in Yemen goes, the more risk to the military legitimacy of the king. The longer the blockade on Qatar goes, the more risk to the religious and political authority of the Saudis. Both must be resolved before they produce blowback.

Mohammad bin Salman is seeing if there are ways out. Time will tell if there are.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, August 18, 2017.