Regional transformations under Saudi Arabia's Mohamed bin Salman

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 7 Mar 2018

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is seeking a stronger alliance with Egypt as he pushes for new forms of regional engagement

al-Sisi, bin Salman
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) and the Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority Mohab Memesh, visiting the Suez Canal in the city of Ismailia on March 5, 2018 (Photo: AFP)

Today Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is to meet with UK Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street.

Bin Salman arrived in London on Tuesday for a three-day visit that includes lunch with Queen Elizabeth II and dinner with Prince Charles.

The UK is the second stop on a three-leg visit that began in Egypt on Sunday and ends in the US where Bin Salman is expected to spend over two weeks meeting with US officials, congressmen, entrepreneurs and opinion makers.

It is the first international trip undertaken by 32-year-old Bin Salman since becoming heir to the Saudi crown in July. The aim of the tour, according to Riyadh-based and Western diplomats, is to underline that the new crown prince is committed to transforming his own country and the region.

“He is trying to present himself as the man who will modernise Saudi Arabia. He is also offering himself as an influential regional leader who can bring real change to the dynamics of the Middle East,” says a Cairo-based Western diplomat who recently visited Riyadh.

Bin Salman is a revolutionary within the Saudi context, certainly when it comes to women’s rights. The image he promotes is of a man who is committed to wider reforms, social, economic and political.

“Even when the Saudi authorities arrested leading Saudi business figures, confining them to a hotel in Riyadh and forcing them to make lavish financial donations to the state in what was presented as a fight against corruption Bin Salman received support from many people in Saudi Arabia, and particularly from the young,” says the diplomat.

“It is an open secret that the rise of the crown prince has caused resentment in some quarters within the royal family as well as in the wider power elite in Saudi Arabia. If Bin Salman is to win international support for his ultimate ascent to the throne he will need stronger credentials than allowing Saudi women the right to drive or ending a 35-year ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia. He needs to make a regional imprint,” comments one Arab diplomat.

Bin Salman has yet to score on the regional front. The Saudi war in Yemen is entering its fourth year with no end in sight and without the Saudi-led coalition being able to claim the upper hand though Bin Salman did tell the Egyptian media on Monday the war was nearing its end, having achieved its goals.

Yet concerned diplomats and international aid organisations say the war has turned into a human rights catastrophe. A European diplomat familiar with the preparations for Bin Salman’s visit to the UK says he will have a thorough discussion in London on the management of the situation in Yemen.

“The UK has been blocking any serious criticism of Saudi Arabia in the UN Security Council and will be offering some ideas to the crown prince who is hoping for a face-saving opportunity to close this file,” says a New York based Arab diplomat.

During his talks in Cairo Bin Salman was reassured of continued Egyptian commitment to Saudi security and reminded of possible Egyptian diplomatic interventions that might allow for the better management of the situation in Yemen.

“I am not saying we have a plan for Yemen but we have kept channels of communication open and can use them to promote a possible political settlement,” says an informed Egyptian official.

Syria and Lebanon also feature high on Bin Salman’s agenda during his three-leg tour. Before leaving Bin Salman and his father, the Saudi king, invited the prime minister of Lebanon for a courtesy visit. There were smiles all around and a selfie taken by Saad Al-Hariri who Lebanese officials claim was held hostage in Riyadh just a few months ago and allowed to leave only after what some Arab and European diplomats qualify as “firm French intervention” strongly supported by Egypt.

It is clear, according to Beirut-based political sources, Bin Salman has come to terms with the fact it is not possible to reduce the influence of Iran-supported Hizbullah by pressuring leading Lebanese Sunni figures to withdraw from the political coalition.

What is not clear yet, according to concerned diplomatic sources, are the terms upon which Riyadh will accept Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, another Iran-supported political adversary of the Saudis, remaining in power after four years of what has turned into a proxy war in Syria between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia.

During his visit in Egypt Bin Salman was reminded, according to the same informed official, of the need to prioritise the stability and territorial integrity of Syria over settling differences with Al-Assad. The source then continued: “It is in the US that Bin Salman will make a final decision on Syria and it all depends on how far Washington is willing to go in pressuring Iran.”

Egypt, which has a close alliance, though there are differences, with Saudi Arabia is willing, according to what Bin Salman heard in Cairo earlier this week, to support Riyadh in keeping a close watch on Iran but is wary of starting a diplomatic showdown with Tehran, especially at a time when Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the US are working closely on a plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in Washington earlier this week for talks with US President Donald Trump who reaffirmed his commitment to offer a plan for negotiations.

According to a widely shared narrative in regional diplomatic quarters what Trump will offer is “a slightly different version of the Arab peace plan” presented by the Saudis at the Beirut Summit in 2002. But according to one Palestinian source, “what the Americans understand the Arab peace initiative to be is basically a settlement that grants Palestinians some rights in return for Arab normalisation… this is not what we understand the initiative to be and we cannot accept what is being suggested to us.”

According to this and an Arab source in Washington, the idea being circulated as the basis for a Trump initiative is wide Palestinian autonomy coupled with a strong economic support scheme. The details of economic support have been subject to thorough discussion among Egyptian, Saudi, UAE, Israeli and US officials.

Saudi Arabia not only has the resources to fund the economic support, Riyadh is also expected to chair the Arab Summit scheduled for the last week of March when delegates are likely to adopt a resolution that could pave the way for the beginning of a new phase of Palestinian-Israeli talks.

But the timetabling of the summit, say Arab sources, is proving problematic. In the words of one: “There is the inevitable delay because of presidential elections in Egypt and also because of the foreign trip of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia which is not expected to end before the first week of April. There is also the issue of Qatar. The Saudis do not want the emir of Qatar at the summit but cannot avoid inviting him given Qatar is a member of the Arab League.”

Talking to reporters on Monday, Bin Salman addressed the Qatar crisis. “I do not occupy myself with it,” he said. “The person handling the file is not even a minister. Qatar’s entire population is less than the number of residents in a street in Egypt.”

The US has been trying to push for a solution to the crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours and Egypt. A US mediation team was in the region this week and was received in Cairo by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri. Concerned diplomats in the region and in Washington expect a deal to be brokered while Bin Salman is in Washington.

* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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