King Salman and prospects of Saudi foreign policy shift

An important question being asked is whether the new king will seek reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong presence in many countries in the region

King Salman and prospects of Saudi foreign policy shift

Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami

The accession of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah was part of a pre-determined succession process in the kingdom. The event was widely covered across the world, and its ramifications discussed extensively.

Will the new king herald a new regional policy? Over the years Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has alarmingly gone in a direction that has angered people in the region and across the Muslim world. Riyadh’s ominous support for Egypt's military junta, all-out hostility towards Muslim Brotherhood and the failure to counter Iran's military advances in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have exposed Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy to a great disdain. For strange reasons, a tiny country like the United Arab Emirates, which doesn't even have its own population, became a key driver of Saudi foreign policies.

An important question being asked is whether the new king will seek reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a strong presence in many countries in the region.

The House of Saud and the Muslim Brotherhood have a mixed history, especially in Egypt. In the fifties and sixties, Riyadh supported the Brotherhood against Egypt’s Jamal Abdul Nasser, but turned against it when it began to gain influence inside the Kingdom and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. More recently, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's sheikhs helped the bloody ouster of Egypt's first-ever democratically elected president Mohammad Morsi and handed over the most populous Arab country to military dictator Abdul Fatah al-Sisi allied with Israel.

Signs are emerging from the kingdom that the new leadership seeks a rapprochement with the Brotherhood, but the suspicion remains that the anticipated change may be a cosmetic one as it looks difficult for Riyadh to make a major shift in its relationship with the Brotherhood, especially in Egypt.

The UAE chieftains as well as Sisi were absent from the funeral of the late King Abdullah whereas Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strong critic of the Egyptian coup, was present.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made an open comment on February 10 interview where he stressed that “Riyadh has no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood”.  A former member of Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Assembly, Ahmed al-Tuwaijri, said the Brotherhood was a "natural ally" for Saudi Arabia. This is a sign of policy shift.

Though the Saudi foreign policy failures in recent memory started with its support for the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, where the post-invasion regime allied itself with Iran, the Saudi response to the Arab spring and its open backing of counter revolutions showed that either there was no right thinking person left in the policy establishment or the Foreign Ministry was taken over by bad elements who acted clandestinely under the influence of a global mafia.

Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has not served its interests in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Saudi government has lost the strategic depth in these countries and suffered a massive setback in its popularity and prestige. Saudi Arabia cannot behave like other Shiekhdoms of the peninsula which do not have to bother about any public image or national interests as long as they enjoy the support of the world’s war merchants and mercenaries.

The long protracted civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the Houthi take-over of Yemen's capital Sana, the widening conflict in Libya may further backfire for Saudi Arabia and create an unmanageable situation subsequently. Such developments have already eroded Saudi influence in the region where the previous King ostensibly failed to assess the regional upheaval and could not gauge the mood and determination of the Arab masses to attain dignity, equality and democracy.

The Middle East is now on the threshold of change, and will ultimately achieve the democratic transition. For long, Saudi Arabia has been a major player in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League, enjoying good support on regional and broader issues in the Muslim world. Its influence these days has shrunk to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Even in the GCC, Qatar has tried to challenge Saudi Arabia's hegemony on the Muslim Brotherhood issue.

The worsening Saudi relationship with Turkey is a direct result of the kingdom’s support for the Egyptian coup. Sisi is an unpleasant dictator who can only find legitimacy through massacres and repression. Saudi Arabia has now to decide whether it wants to continue investing so much in its alliance with such petty men allied with the west’s war industry. Its wrong focus will only strengthen the position of its regional arch-rival, Iran.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also emphasised the need for Saudi Arabia to determine the future direction of Egypt, as evident from his statement during his recent visit to the Kingdom: “Steps by Riyadh may change things in Egyptian administration.”

Thus, in order to restore the lost image of its own as also the regional stability, the new King will have to adopt a pro-people regional policy in the countries where Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates are most trusted and liked. The most crucial question arising is whether King Salman would be able to gather the needed courage to undo the anti-Brotherhood policies of his predecessor. Doing so will be a gigantic challenge for the new king as the U-turn may jeopardize his own position with the counter revolutionary faction of the ruling family. The war industry of the US and Europe will also oppose such a policy change.

On the other hand, the Brotherhood will not, however, acknowledge any superficial change in the kingdom’s policy. The Brotherhood is a highly disciplined organization that has a devoted following. Its support for Saudi Arabia has benefits that no opportunistic European or US leaders can offer. The new king can provide regional stability through a meaningful policy shift.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 13 Mart 2015, 21:49