As the world swirls, Saudi Arabia repositions itself as a global linchpin

The writer is author of ‘Black Wave’

A dictator invades his smaller neighbour and is placed under sanctions. The American president tries to rally a coalition against the invader and in support of democracy. A foreign army withdraws from Afghanistan and the Taliban rise to power. The Saudis and the Iranians announce a surprise reconciliation. The Assad regime makes its way back into polite company. If you think I’m describing the last two years, think again. 

Back in 1990, it was Saddam Hussein who invaded Kuwait, leading to sanctions on Iraq before the tiny emirate was liberated thanks to Operation Desert Storm. In the wake of this, the Saudis and the Iranians suddenly announced they were resuming diplomatic ties. The Taliban took over in Afghanistan a few years after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. And after a decade in which Syria stood accused of various terror attacks against the west, then president Hafez al-Assad participated in the military coalition of 35 countries that US president George HW Bush rallied to liberate Kuwait. 

Despite these echoes with today, there are some key differences with the 1990 inflection point. While the son of Assad, Bashar, may have returned to the Arab fold in recent weeks, he is still no ally of the west. Missing from the tableau is also an Arab-Israeli peace summit similar to the 1991 Madrid conference. Finally, while US president Joe Biden speaks often about the battle between democratic forces and authoritarianism, the announcement of a new world order will have to wait. 

But it is clear that the old world order is definitely dead and that we are in the fractured interregnum of shifting powers. As Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, put it: a great variety of morbid symptoms may now appear. In our times, this includes polycrisis, authoritarianism and deglobalisation. And Saudi Arabia has carefully positioned itself as a linchpin for whatever comes next. Just look at Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy flying into Jeddah to attend the Arab League summit, before jetting off to speak to the G7 to rally the rest to the west.

Back in 1990, Saudi Arabia was the launch pad for the liberation of Kuwait, becoming home to half a million American troops. Today, the kingdom is a less malleable US ally. Shunned recently because of its aggressive foreign policy moves, such as the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh is now being courted again assiduously with a flurry of American officials flying in, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan last month and secretary of state Antony Blinken this week. 

Zelenskyy himself asked to attend the Arab League summit and Saudi Arabia agreed. The Ukrainian president knows he needs more support from the Arab world — especially oil-producing countries — if he is to further isolate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But Saudi Arabia is also making moves: its foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was the first Arab diplomat to visit Kyiv since the war began. Zelenskyy’s Jeddah address came amid friction between Riyadh and Moscow over oil production cuts and Russia’s pumping of cheap oil into the market. How Washington and Kyiv build on this moment could prove crucial. 

Saudi Arabia also finds itself part of the new holy grail of peacemaking: the normalisation of ties between the kingdom and Israel, which Sullivan called a “national security interest of the US”. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is putting a high price on his signature to the Abraham Accords, including, reportedly, a civilian nuclear program with domestic uranium enrichment. Short of a full accession to the accords, the Biden administration could seek more public co-operation between the two countries — anything that builds bridges in a difficult region.

Saudi Arabia is also busy forging better ties in the neighbourhood — from resuming relations with Qatar to making up with Iran. The longevity of the latter detente is doubtful: the Saudis are mostly buying breathing space with Tehran in the hope it shields them from Iranian retaliation if there is an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, Washington is exploring an interim nuclear agreement with Iran to stave off such a move. This could provoke an adverse reaction, accelerating Israeli action to pre-empt a deal.

Right now, the risk of confrontation between Israel and Iran’s proxies is also rising. In both cases, Saudi Arabia will find itself once more at the heart of things, probably pressed further to normalise ties with Israel. However the next global phase takes shape — the new that is not yet born — the Middle East will again prove key.

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