Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting firm for corporations and governments.
After the recent Saudi-led airstrikes on Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, pressure on Western nations that sell weapons to Saudi Arabia is mounting. Recently, the United States Congress passed into law the Justice Against State Sponsors of Terrorism (JASTA) bill, aimed at the Saudis. These are the latest signs that they are becoming a little more isolated and losing some crucial allies.
The uproar in the West against the selling of weapons to Saudi Arabia has been growing louder, in particular in light of the escalating Yemen campaign – from Canada, where its government is under fire for a billion dollar contract; through Sweden, which is cutting off military co-operation that had been going on since 2005; to the UK, where there is talk of halting arms exports if humanitarian laws are broken in Yemen. In light of the historically close relationship with the UK, the Saudis didn’t take these threats well: for proof, their Ambassador in London hinted that there could be less co-operation on terrorism and a possible reduction of contracts and investments.
The situation is serious because even the United States take a tough stance on Saudi Arabia. The latter now understands this, and has hired an additional five lobbying firms in Washington since September to defend its interests in the US and alter its image. Whether as a PR stunt or as a real change of heart, the Saudis have acknowledged they misled the West regarding funding terrorism. In the meantime, they are pondering if and how to retaliate: will it make good on its threat to sell hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. assets?
This unfavorable treatment of Saudi Arabia would have been utterly unthinkable even two years ago. The Obama Administration’s decision to pivot towards the Shia world and Iran has left the Saudis in the dust. It looks as though their archenemy Iran has won the public relations war against Saudi Arabia, at least in the West. All of a sudden, Iran became the nice kid on the block because of the nuclear deal, and therefore Saudi Arabia became the bad one. An indication of this is how, after 15 years of preventing the publication of the 28 pages pertaining to the the Saudis in the 9/11 Commission report, the U.S. finally yielded. An additional sign of this meltdown in U.S.-Saudi relationship is that it took a full six weeks in February 2016 for Ashton Carter, the Defence Secretary, to return the call of Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister.
It is not only the West that has been distancing itself from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, tensions with close allies have increased especially since the arrival to power of King Salman in 2015. The main contention point is the renewed support of the kingdom to the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafi-Jihadi groups. First, the rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood is driving a wedge between it and both the UAE and Egypt. The latter view the Muslim Brotherhood as a mortal danger. A new lenient policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood under King Salman is all the more bizarre given that that the organisation is still on the list of terrorist groups in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has been the destination of choice for Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal, Tunisia’s Rachid Ghanouchi, Jordan’s Said and Yemen’s al Zindani.
Even more problematic is the alleged funding and material help that Saudi Arabia is providing to the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, the former al Nusra front. This de facto alliance is against all expectation since one of al Qaeda’s main enemies remain the Saudi regime. This fits with a new realpolitik in Riyadh that has embraced the Middle East policy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: in Syria, Assad is much more of an enemy than al-Qaeda. This policy that has angered several of Riyadh’s traditional allies.
The most hurtful recent challenge to Saudi Arabia status took place at a UAE-financed worldwide conference of Sunni religious figures that included leaders such as the Grand Imam of Al Azhar imam. The clerics concluded that Wahhabism – the principal tenet of the Saudi regime – was not part of Sunni Islam. This is very significant because it is jeopardising Saudi’s legitimacy as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites.
Pakistan, another historical ally of Saudi Arabia is also turning its back. Indeed, despite the huge Saudi investments including allegedly financing Pakistan’s nuclear program, Pakistan has refused to send soldiers in Yemen to participate in the Saudi-led coalition, and also didn’t take part in the large Muslim anti-Islamic State coalition.
While on the surface Saudi Arabia’s position has been stable, there is a growing opposition to the country in the West and even from allies in the Muslim world. While relations with some states have worsened, realism still prevails: for instance, the UAE still needs its Saudi brother to be a protector against the Iranian threat and for Egypt Saudi’s investments are vital for its declining economy.