Speaking before the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC on 30 October, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis took almost everyone by surprise by declaring that, “Thirty days from now, we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a ceasefire, based on a pullback from the border and then… ceasing dropping of bombs.”
Mattis was speaking about the futile and useless war that has been raging in Yemen for almost four years now. It sounded like an ultimatum to the warring parties, the Arab Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and the Houthis and their Iranian backers, on the other.
On the same day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a press statement issued by the State Department, followed suit and stressed that “the United States calls on all parties [in the Yemen war] to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen.”
The change in tone by Washington concerning the inconclusive war in Yemen could be ascribed to the fact that the growing political fragility of the House of Saud, as a direct consequence of the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October, and the admission by Saudi authorities that liquidating him was “premeditated”, emboldened the US administration to call for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen.
From the beginning of the Yemen war, on 26 March 2015, till the end of last October, two US administrations, the former Democratic White House under president Barrack Obama, and the current Republican White House under President Donald Trump, supported UN efforts to bring this war to an end without resorting to tough language such as that used by both Mattis and Pompeo.
Seemingly, the American call for a ceasefire in Yemen is part of a greater American strategy, capitalising on the aftermath of the Khashoggi assassination, and the resultant destabilisation — however momentarily — of the political regime in Riyadh to reduce regional tensions that have partly emanated from the Yemen war and the Gulf crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia and Qatar at loggerheads from June 2017.
There have been signs lately that the Saudis could be softening their position vis-à-vis Qatar.
In a panel discussion in the “Davos in the Desert” conference last month in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman praised the economic performance of Qatar.
The Yemen war and the human costs of the continuation of hostilities have raised alarm bells in the US Congress and in the executive.
Prior to the assassination of Khashoggi, some US senators and House representatives acted to pass congressional resolutions to stop exporting arms and ammunition to the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen.
However, the Trump administration opposed such moves. The said assassination has changed the political dynamics in Washington related to American-Saudi relations.
One principal motive is the desire of the White House to shield Crown Prince Bin Salman from a barrage of attacks, whether in the US Congress or in the American media, particularly The Washington Post, that hired Khashoggi as one of its columnists, and The New York Times as well.
The Washington Post has been leading the media offensive both against the Saudi crown prince and President Trump for his handling of the Khashoggi case. Surprisingly enough, The Post, which has been a staunch opponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opened its pages to the president of Turkey.
The US newspaper published on 2 November an Op-ed signed by Erdogan. The underlying theme of his opinion piece is that someone high up in the Saudi government is behind the order to assassinate Khashoggi. And lest he would be misunderstood, he ascertained that King Salman did not give the “order” to kill Khashoggi.
He wrote that, “We know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government.” The insinuation is quite clear as to whom was behind the order.
He went on to say that, “Our friendship with Riyadh… does not mean we will turn a blind eye to the premeditated murder that unfolded in front of our eyes.”
He stressed that, “As responsible members of the international community we must reveal the identities of the puppet masters behind Khashoggi’s killing and discover those in whom Saudi officials — still trying to cover up the murder — have placed their trust.”
On the same day, The Washington Post published an opinion by its Editorial Board, in which it complemented the Op-ed of the Turkish president and said openly what he refrained from saying explicitly.
From the point of view of the Editorial Board, The Post wrote that the most important “question in the case of Jamal Khashoggi is whether Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, will be held accountable for what his regime acknowledges was a premeditated act of murder.”
And with a high degree of enviable certainty the paper says that “Much of the available evidence points to the prince.” In conclusion, The Post’s Editorial Board believes that the “Trump administration appears to be cooperating with Riyadh in protecting Mohamed bin Salman.”
It seems that Erdogan’s Turkey will use The Washington Post as its main weapon to keep attacking both the US administration and Saudi Arabia to get the Saudi crown prince in a regional game that aims at restoring the status quo ante before the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Cairo, and after being routed in Syria, and declared a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Egypt had already designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in December 2013.
Whatever the end result of the great regional game developing right now as a direct result of the assassination of the slain Saudi-Islamist journalist, Egypt should brace itself for some surprises in the foreseeable future in terms of changing regional realignments.
The present balance of power within the Saudi royal family, and within the Gulf Cooperation Council, is not durable.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An unfolding regional drama