The Ukrainian state flag had to be lowered quickly, because after the departure of Ukrainian President Zelensky, the Saudi hosts did not want to cause any inconvenience to the new visitor. Because the plane of the Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev landed in Riyadh. The intimate of the Russian ruler is known for the suppression of independent media in Russia and brutally suppressed all demonstrations against the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. He has been on the West’s sanctions lists since 2018, among other things because of Russia’s military intervention in Syria. At the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and Great Britain also imposed sanctions on him. This does not seem to bother the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, although they are aware that such a visit will certainly not be appreciated by their (former?) partners in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London.
The new foreign policy of the Gulf state under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to further emancipate itself and confidently puts its own interests first, not those of the West. It was already clear at the Arab League summit, when the 21 member countries welcomed Syrian President Bashar Assad back into the club after 12 years of exclusion. That was satisfaction for the dictator and war criminal from Damascus. For the Saudi crown prince, better known by the acronym MBS, morality doesn’t seem to matter. It was he who, with his influence, took the Syrian pariah back into the “family”.
The resumption of Syria, one of Russia’s most loyal allies, was just one signal. The Crown Prince also warmly welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Arab summit. The Ukrainian head of state was able to use the stage to promote Ukraine in the defensive war against Moscow and even criticized the Arab states, which were neutral in the conflict.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, which is often interpreted as contradictory, should rather be seen as an indication of a new “pragmatics” approach to asserting national and regional interests. Perhaps it is a copy of the “multi-vector policies” of the states in Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan. It is therefore about a new leadership role and order structure in the Middle East. Bin Salman, who is considered the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, had already indicated this in 2022. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will look very different in five years,” he said at the time at a large forum in the Saudi capital. He is the driving force behind Riyadh’s Vision 2030, a plan for economic and social reform. His ideas not only focus on an economic and social reorientation, they include a new foreign policy: “I think the new Europe is the Middle East and if we succeed, other countries will join us,” he said.
In the meantime, Riyadh has also found a direct partner in its neighborhood. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to work together “to advance the consolidation of what can only be described as a new regional security architecture”. This is how the renowned Brookings Institute from Washington summarizes this alliance. It is “a new framework for dealing with rivalries that represents perhaps the most significant shift in regional dynamics since the US invasion of Iraq.”
Until now, relations between the countries of the Middle East have been characterized by ideological, religious and political trench warfare. A long list of conflicts shook the region. These included the rivalry between Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the civil wars in Libya and Yemen. And then there was the tense relationship between the Arab states and Türkiye, and above all with Israel. These sometimes long-standing and stubborn regional discrepancies are far from settled today. But there was a de-escalation.
Saudi Arabia and Iran surprisingly decided in March to normalize their relations. This rapprochement between the two states paved the way for the longest ceasefire to date in Yemen’s decades-long civil war. Saudi Arabia also reconciled with Türkiye and signed agreements on large-scale economic projects. And then there was the historic Abraham Accord, under which four Arab states – the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan – normalized relations with Israel.
According to Saudi Arabia, it is not yet ready to make peace with Israel, but relations with the Jewish state have eased considerably. It remains to be seen whether Riyadh will support reconciliation with Israel in the long term, or whether it rather sees an opportunity not only to play the role of the new regulatory power on the Arabian Peninsula, but also to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. The current political and social instability in Israel may be helpful for MBS.
Riyadh is taking advantage of the geopolitical changes. This includes the dwindling influence of the US in the Middle East and a Russia weakened by the Ukraine war. The world is increasingly transforming itself into a multipolar international order that is no longer characterized by an antagonistic relationship between two powers, as was the case in the Cold War. Türkiye has advanced to become a regional power in the past ten years. A rise that Saudi Arabia wants to emulate in the Middle East. The financially strong and oil-rich royal family no longer wants to leave alliances and decisions in the region to others, but wants to actively shape them themselves. It remains to be seen whether it will be successful in doing so.
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