- Biden is moving away from the Middle East and trying to get back on good terms with Iran.
- At the same time, Saudi Arabia has re-engaged with separate enemies like Iran, Turkey and Qatar.
- Experts say this shows Saudi Arabia feels it can no longer rely on the United States.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
Saudi Arabia has started reaching out to rivals in the Middle East, suggesting that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knows that US support for his country is no longer guaranteed.
In April, the Financial Times reported that Saudi Arabia and Iran, which severed diplomatic ties in 2016, were holding secret talks. They came as Saudi Arabia also began to reach out to Syria, Iraq and Oman, striving to overcome a ten-year rift with Turkey and improve relations with Qatar after the end. of their four-year blockade.
Indeed, in a rare interview broadcast on Saudi state television at the end of April, Crown Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, shocked viewers with his soothing tone, claiming that he “sought to have good relations with Iran ”.
The tone couldn’t be more different from the prince’s past attitude, exemplified in March 2018 when he compared Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.
Saudi Arabia’s new engagements with Iran and others indicate the kingdom knows it can no longer count on the United States to support its cause, experts told Insider.
Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has sought to stabilize and reduce the US presence in the Middle East, ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, announcing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and signaling a return to the Iran nuclear deal, from which President Donald Trump ripped the United States from in 2018.
The United States is Saudi Arabia’s foremost Western ally, and Riyadh has always enjoyed political and military support from the United States.
Over the past two decades, the United States has sold swathes of arms to Saudi Arabia, and Washington has regularly pledged to defend Saudi Arabia if it is threatened. With the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia has been encouraged to sever ties with its neighbors or attack its neighbors, as it has done with Turkey and Qatar.
United States considered “fundamentally unreliable” in Middle East
David Schenker, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department until January, told Insider the Saudis “don’t know what the United States’ commitment is in terms of security ”and, therefore, are“ more accommodating and seeking a modus operandi with Iran. “
Yasmine Farouk, visiting scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace program in the Middle East, agrees.
“They know they can no longer count on the support of the United States if they maintain the same regional policies that they have had from 2015 until now,” she told Insider.
“What Saudi Arabia has done with Qatar and Iran, rekindling even closer coordination with the Omanis and stepping up relations with Iraq, are all Saudi attempts to rekindle the network of friends that they have lost in recent years. “
“The loss of US support against Iran compounds the feeling of insecurity,” Farouk said. “The Saudis have no other power to fall back on. “
Hussein Ibish, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Arab States of the Gulf in Washington, DC, told Insider that Saudi Arabia is preparing for a future where US support is uncertain.
“One of the things Saudi Arabia is doing is initiating a strategic diversification effort, and all US-aligned countries in the Middle East need to move forward in a situation where the United States are seen as a fundamentally unreliable guarantor as before. be 25 years ago, ”he said.
In the past, the United States has most often led or moderated peace talks between warring factions in the region, but in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States says it is play no role.
“If they do speak, I think it’s generally a good thing,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf earlier this month. “If countries speak directly to each other without us in the middle, maybe even better. “
Farouk said, however, that the United States is unlikely to have been unaware of the content of the Saudi-Iranian talks because “the United States always wants to know what is going on.”
While uncertainty over U.S. engagement appears to be key to Saudi Arabia’s decision to engage with Iran, the three experts all pointed out that wider regional fatigue was also to blame.
“All the major regional payers in the Middle East are somehow exhausted,” Ibish said, “they’re overworked, they’re bogged down, they’re overwhelmed”.
Therefore, Riyadh’s wave of diplomacy might just be a hiatus, not the end of the story, he said.
“Very few of the underlying causes of the tensions and conflicts that we have seen in recent years have been resolved. It might just be a respite, ”Ibish said.