Tag Archives: Saudi

Bad deal or opportunity?

Bad deal or opportunity?

Saudi Arabia believes Iran’s nuclear deal increases Tehran’s regional reach, but this is not necessarily the case, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after the P5+1 Group of world powers and Iran announced their historic agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme last week, Saudi-led coalition troops stormed the south Yemeni city of Aden to help Yemeni fighters drive Iran-backed Shia rebels out of the strategic port city.

The spectacular ground offensive, bolstered by coalition warplanes and naval units, succeeded in pushing the Houthi militias and their allies back to the ragged surrounding mountains, putting the city under the control of Saudi-backed fighters.

Saudi planes then flew several members of the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government-in-exile to Aden, these immediately starting efforts to assert their authority over the former South Yemen capital which they hope to use as a base for battling the Houthis in the rest of Yemen.

Saudi-led coalition spokesman Ahmed Al-Asiri said the aim of the operation was to take back the rest of Yemen from the Houthis who have exploited a power vacuum in order to take over much of the country.

However, retaking Aden is far from being a major military success in the war in Yemen, which in the eyes of Saudi Arabia and many other Sunni-dominated Arab countries is only one of several conflicts that involve Shia Iran and its regional proxies.

For the Sunni heavyweight and its Gulf allies, last week’s nuclear deal is a game-changer that will increase Tehran’s regional influence, making it time to recognise the gravity of the Iranian threat and counter it. The Aden incursion was a message of how far the Gulf alliance is likely to take the offensive to encounter Iran’s increasing ambitions.

“Aden is the answer to Vienna,” wrote Saudi commentator Mishari Al-Thaidi in the Saudi Royal Family owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, referring to the Austrian capital where the nuclear deal was signed on 13 July.

While many Arab governments have cautiously welcomed the landmark deal and expressed hopes that it will pave the way for a nuclear-free Middle East, the agreement has jangled nerves in Riyadh and inspired a partial strategic rethink.

The official Saudi response to the deal was a brief statement that said the kingdom backed any agreement that would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons but stressed the need for strict inspections and the ability to re-impose sanctions.

Saudi media with close ties to the ruling family, however, have railed against the agreement as likely to help Iran expand its geopolitical influence in the Middle East and embolden it to give more backing to its regional allies.

It is no secret that the oil-rich kingdom, which sees itself as being the leader of the Muslim Sunni world, has always opposed the Iranian talks with the United States and five other world powers that were intended to end the 13-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme and that it has done its best to thwart a deal.

Having failed to convince the United States and other world powers to scrap a deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia now faces the daunting challenge of dealing with the consequences of the agreement in a new Middle East that Iran is expected to play a pivotal role in shaping.

What worries Saudi Arabia most is not that the deal will fail to halt nuclear proliferation or that Iran might be able to cheat on the deal and continue to enrich uranium in order to make an illicit atomic bomb.

Instead, it is worried that the new geopolitical climate that the agreement will create will allow Iran to expand further in the region.

What also worries the kingdom is that the lifting of the financial and oil sanctions imposed on Iran will provide the country with some $100 billion in sanctions relief. This might be enough to enrich Iran and embolden its Islamic government’s expansionist tendencies and support for militant movements across the Middle East.

The primary concern for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies is that Iran will begin to mend its 36-year feud with America and re-open broad political and diplomatic relations with the United States and Europe, possibly even establishing closer trading partnerships.

To underscore its fears about the agreement, Riyadh dispatched its foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, to Washington to convey to US President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials the kingdom’s staunch opposition to the deal.

On arrival, Al-Jubeir warned that Saudi Arabia was committed to “resolutely confronting” Iran should it try to cause mischief in the region after signing the nuclear deal with the six world powers.

Obama and his aides tried to ease Saudi fears and promised to follow through on commitments made earlier this year to provide them with new military and security guarantees.

Washington has also sent US Defense Secretary Ash Carter to Saudi Arabia, to be followed by Secretary of State John Kerry early in August, to meet with his Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts in order to reassert the US commitment to defending the energy-rich countries, including by providing them with new military and security guarantees.

The fears of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies may not be groundless, but the question is what alternative do they have to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The deal offers the chance of holding back Iran and makes it less likely that the country will acquire nuclear weapons.

Continuous inspections will help make sure Iran does not violate the terms of the deal.

In addition, a verifiably non-nuclear Iran means that the Gulf countries will have long-sought safety reassurances from Iran about its nuclear plants across the Gulf.

Most importantly, a nuclear weapons-free Iran means that the ongoing regional political conflicts and proxy wars between the Persian-Shia nation and its Sunni Arab neighbours will not escalate into a nuclear crisis situation.

Among the key advantages of the pact for the Arabs is the fact that Iran’s behaviour will now be under global scrutiny and it will become a responsible member of the international community with attendant obligations.

Now that the deal has been done and endorsed by the UN Security Council, Saudi Arabia should not lapse into unrealistic thinking and give way to its obsession with Iran. It should not allow its resentment at the nuclear agreement to determine the course of action it needs to take to define a post-deal regional strategy.

While the deal will fundamentally change the nature and dynamics of the region and involve Iran more fully in Middle East issues, the country’s influence will remain limited by political, geostrategic, historical, religious and economic factors.

Saudi Arabia would be well-advised to abandon its rigidity and exaggeration of the Iranian threat and focus its efforts instead on a regional perspective that promotes engagement, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation between Iran and the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Iranian deal that strips Iran of its capability to produce nuclear weapons is not shared by the rest of the Arabs, including many of its GCC allies who have publicly welcomed the agreement.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes between Iran and the GCC countries. Oman, a member of the organisation, was even a key mediator in the deal. With some $11.5 billion in non-oil exports, the UAE, another GCC member, is one of Iran’s top trading partners.

The Arab League praised the deal as historic and described it as “a first step towards ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.” Egypt also expressed its hope that the deal “will eventually be a step forward to the ultimate goal of a Middle East free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.”

Both the Arab League and Egypt were referring to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which the Arabs have always considered to be their biggest security threat.

In the light of all this, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers could be an opportunity for the Arabs to address other regional challenges, including settling the long-running rivalry with Iran.

One lesson Saudi Arabia could learn from the deal is that the deal itself and subtle diplomacy and compromise can bridge huge gaps and resolve lingering and complex issues.

There are numerous proposals and ideas in the deal which could be used as the basis to end outstanding disputes between the Arabs and Iran. The experience provides countless successful examples of how to resolve regional conflicts peacefully.

On the broader regional front, cooperation forums could be a good way of starting to build mutual trust for more solid political and security arrangements.

Regarding individual conflicts, in order to confront Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, solutions must be found based on non-interference, national reconciliation and consensus instead of proxy wars or direct military intervention.

This article appeared first on Al Ahram Weekly on July 23, 2015

Kingdom at crossroads

Kingdom at crossroads

Speculation in Saudi Arabia is growing over who will succeed the ailing King Abdullah, writes Salah Nasrawi

For more than two weeks now Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz has been battling for his life. As the days pass, there is growing concern surrounding the inevitable power struggle between members of the Saudi royal family.

Abdullah was admitted to a military hospital in the capital Riyadh on 31 December for medical tests. A statement from the court two days later said the king was suffering from pneumonia and needed help breathing.

Though the statement described the condition of the 91-year-old monarch, whose health has been in decline for years, as being stable, international attention has focused on the expected power shift in the oil-rich kingdom.

With Abdullah hospitalised, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, who is also the first deputy prime minister and minister of defence, appears to have taken taking charge of the day-to-day running of the government.

Last week the 80-year-old prince delivered the monarch’s traditional address to the Shura Council, an advisory body whose members are appointed by the king. Salman warned that Saudi Arabia is facing unprecedented challenges resulting from several regional conflicts, but assured Saudis that their “leadership is aware of these challenges and their consequences.”

With wars raging in neighbouring Iraq and Yemen and lower oil prices casting a shadow over domestic policies, Salman sought to reassure Saudis that the government is responding to the critical position the country now finds itself in.

On 5 January, four gunmen attacked a Saudi security patrol near the Iraqi border, killing three soldiers and wounding at least three more. The daring assault was the first deadly attack on Saudi Arabia since it joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) militants.

Plummeting oil prices are the kingdom’s other major challenge. In his speech, Salman said Saudi Arabia will deal with the challenge posed by lower oil prices “with a firm will.” The collapse in the price of oil has raised the alarm about the prospect of budget cuts that could impact the kingdom’s policy of “buying loyalty.”

Abdullah’s failing health, the crown prince’s old age, as well as the unpredictable generational turnover in the leadership, have raised concerns about the future of the kingdom in the face of domestic and regional threats.

Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005 as the country’s sixth king and named his half-brother, defence minister Sultan, as crown prince.

When Sultan died in 2011, Abdullah named another half-brother, Nayef, the minister of the interior, as heir apparent.

The current crown prince, Salman, was appointed in 2012 after the death of Nayef in 2012. He is 80 years old and believed to be suffering from dementia.

According to Saudi tradition, and unlike in most other monarchies where sons usually inherit the throne, the monarchy passes down the line of sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdel-Aziz ibn Saud, who died in 1953.

While age was the main qualification for succession, Abdel-Aziz’s older sons were sometimes passed over due to their low profile or a lack of the ability or willingness to take on the role.

As most of Abdel-Aziz’s 45 sons have now either died or are aging, the unstable and unprecedented conditions confronting Saudi Arabia today have come as the prolonged hold of this second generation comes to an end.

In March, Abdullah took Saudis and the world by surprise by naming his youngest half-brother, Mugrin, as deputy heir. In a royal decree, Abdullah also prevented Salman from rescinding the move. The successor is traditionally picked by the new king. Abdullah’s early appointment of a deputy heir left long-time observers of Saudi politics puzzled.

The appointment of Mugrin as second heir has prompted speculation about Abdullah’s intentions. Though there has been no public dissent, rumours on social media abound about strains within the House of Saud over Mugrin’s nomination, casting doubt on prospects for a smooth handover of power.

In addition to the generational problem and the imminent passing of the elder royal power-holders, there are other factors central to the Saudi succession.

The origin of the mother also plays a role in choosing a successor, as is the tradition in Arab tribal societies. While Abdullah’s mother belonged to a powerful Saudi clan, Salman’s mother was a member of the prominent Sudairi tribe and also gave birth to Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd, and former crown princes Sultan and Nayef.

While a remaining Sudairi, Ahmed bin Abdel-Aziz, a former interior minister, could still be considered a contender for the throne, Mugrin’s status could also be challenged because his mother was Yemeni.

All this has raised the question of why Abdullah chose Mugrin as deputy crown prince and sidestepped the Allegiance Council, an official body tasked with choosing the crown prince. Some rumours have suggested the move was designed to pave the way for Abdullah’s eldest son, Mitab, to become crown prince after Salman dies or abdicates.

Abdullah promoted Mitab to minister of the National Guard in 2013 and made him a member of the cabinet. The National Guard is a formidable force in Saudi Arabia and is larger and better equipped than the regular army.

He also appointed another of his sons deputy foreign minister and two other sons provincial governors of the capital Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca, moves seen as an attempt to enable his children to consolidate their grip on power after his death.

Whether Abdullah is grooming Mitab or simply trying to arrange for an orderly transition, his appointments have suggested that it is virtually impossible to assess the dynamics of the Saudi succession struggle and the kingdom’s future political evolution without analysing the role of the third generation in politics.

Whoever becomes the next Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines is likely to name his own brothers as future heirs, thereby cutting out multiple cousins from access to the throne and the political advantages it provides.

Based on this analysis there are several possible scenarios for succession in the post-Abdullah era, during which the incoming leadership could serve as the facilitator of political, social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia.

One possibility is that the succession will go smoothly, with Salman becoming the new king and Mugrin his successor, but with Salman not appointing Mitab as second deputy, a post traditionally his in the succession line.

Another scenario is that Salman may wish to nominate his own crown prince after taking the throne. He could either name his brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdel-Aziz, the youngest Sudairi who was removed as interior minister in 2012, or one of his own sons as heir apparent.

A third scenario is for both Abdullah and Salman to abdicate and for the Mugrin-Mitab plan to be implemented but with a powerful Sudairi, such as interior minister Mohammad bin Nayef, nominated as deputy crown prince. This scenario envisions that both Abdullah and Salman would agree to abdicate or would both be declared unfit by the Allegiance Council.

But many in Saudi Arabia anticipate an uneasy transition following the deaths of Abdullah and Salman. One main problem is that a fraught succession could lead to sharp divisions within the House of Saud and ignite a power struggle.

The next leaders of the country will also have to deal with serious challenges internally and externally. Inside the country they will face threats from Islamist Sunni militants. There is a high risk of attacks similar to the assault on the border with Iraq, or the November attack on a Shia mosque in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, which killed five people.

They will have to cope with increasing Shia resentment against exclusion and discrimination. In recent months, clashes between the members of the Saudi Shia community and security forces in the Eastern Province have left many people, including policemen and activists, dead.

Tensions rose in October when a Saudi court sentenced the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr to death for encouraging “foreign meddling” in the kingdom, “disobeying” its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.

Significant drops in revenues due to sliding oil prices have forced the government to cut spending. The state budget for 2015 has registered a $39 billion deficit and the growth forecast for 2015 is expected to be down to 2.5 from last year’s 3.6 per cent.

Though the government has said the deficit this year will be covered by its huge foreign reserves, the financial pressures will force Saudi Arabia to cut back on salaries, wages and allowances, which contribute to about half of budgeted expenditures.

That could spark resentment among low-income families, who make up a majority of the population and are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.

Ostensibly, there is common agreement between Saudis and Saudi watchers that the succession of either Salman or Mugrin will go forward. In the long run, however, the emerging leadership faces the problem of managing the transition of power to the new generation.