A key feature of the development of the Middle East, from the mid-1970s to the present, is its direct dependence on the global hydrocarbon market. Nevertheless, based on the new geopolitical reality and the existing uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MENA states are forced to significantly reduce their costs and abandon projects related to ensuring regional interests. Saudi Arabia, which for a long time positioned itself as the leading donor for the overwhelming majority of states, is also forced to experience economic difficulties. Such a picture can negatively affect the kingdom’s ability to ensure the realization of its own regional interests and forces it to reconsider its relations with former enemies and allies. First of all, this concerns Iran and Syria.
The main stumbling block between the countries is the draft political settlement of the Syrian crisis. Official power in Damascus remains in the hands of the Nusayrite Alawites, who are loyal to the Iranian Ayatollah regime. Riyadh, especially since the beginning of the period of the so-called “Arab Spring”, has been pursuing the goal of reducing Tehran’s influence in the region, but it no longer regards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an ideological adversary. Differences in views with Iran are the main source of existing problems on the path to normalizing Syrian-Saudi relations. However, there is a huge possibility that the kingdom will nevertheless reconsider some of the directions of its foreign policy, given that the new US President Joe Biden and the head of the American State Department Antony Blinken began to exert tremendous pressure on Riyadh, demanding, in particular, to complete the war in Yemen. It is quite clear that such a requirement is deliberately impracticable, primarily for political reasons. Thus, the withdrawal of Saudi troops from Yemen may cause another escalation of the conflict, which, in principle, is already clearly visible in the situation in the province of Marib. Of course, this development of events does not meet the interests of the Saudi monarchy, which is especially sensitive to attacks carried out by the Ansar Allah movement both inside and outside Yemen. It should also be noted that the withdrawal from Yemen risks undermining the position of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In addition, Washington is seeking to re-establish a nuclear deal with Iran, thereby placing the kingdom at a real threat. In such conditions, Riyadh needs to urgently transform its foreign policy, including towards Syria.
On March 1, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov became the first “extra-regional” high-ranking diplomat to make an official visit to Riyadh and meet in person with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the United States announced a series of anti-Saudi sanctions. Moscow is highly counting on the kingdom’s assistance in recognizing the new Libyan government and resolving the Syrian crisis. According to Russia, this would serve as an international guarantee that the region can soon return to a peaceful life and forget about the time of the protracted Arab Spring. In turn, Riyadh is interested in using Moscow as a mediator in negotiations with Damascus. In addition, the kingdom pursues the goal of determining the direction of its further path in the international arena and finding a “spare ally” in the person of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Initially taking an irreconcilable position in relation to official Damascus, Saudi Arabia is gradually beginning to change its mind and is ready for a dialogue with Bashar al-Assad, including within the framework of the League of Arab States, from which Syria was excluded in 2011. Now Riyadh is considering the possibility of resuming Damascus’s membership in the “Arab family”, but the timeframe for the implementation of this plan is still unclear. So, according to a former employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kuwait, retired Colonel Abdullah Mohsen Lafi al-Shammari, this may not happen before the presidential elections in Syria to be held in December 2021. In addition, the question of whether Damascus will want to return to the Arab League raises great doubts. In any case, now Russia and Iran are almost completely compensating Syria for all the costs that could be borne by the member countries of the international Arab organization.
One can, of course, consider that the starting point of such a sharp turn in Saudi diplomacy is the “destructive” policy of US President Joe Biden, who, having attacked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with harsh criticism, called this approach a “recalibration.” However, a former member of the General Staff of the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad al-Harbi, said there is an understanding in the Saudi court that the American “condemnation strategy” is part of a larger geopolitical game. Kuwaiti expert Abdul Mohsen al-Shammari is of the same opinion. At least no one in Riyadh views the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as a serious reason for breaking off relations with Washington. Based on the principle of “real politics,” the Saudi court will not revise the format of cooperation with the White House in the next 30-50 years, even if force majeure circumstances arise in the form of a global conflict.
By putting pressure on Mohammad bin Salman, Washington, apparently, hopes for his categoricality, primarily in issues related to Iran and Russia. Joe Biden dislikes that Riyadh has questioned the US plan to reopen the nuclear deal with Tehran. In addition, the royal family’s interest in developing a constructive dialogue with Moscow also raises concerns in the White House administration. At the same time, Washington’s anti-Saudi rhetoric can be viewed as a kind of manifestation of jealousy.
Recently, US President Joe Biden sanctioned strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. This was a kind of signal for Saudi Arabia, which the US administration thus asked to join its military campaign. And, apparently, in Riyadh they are in no hurry to welcome this “invitation”, preferring to renew good relations with Damascus, but at the same time not to offend Washington. This opinion was confirmed by the Saudi expert Mohammed al-Harbi and his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdul Mohsen al-Shammari.
It is also worth noting that Russia and Saudi Arabia are trying to put pressure on the United States to ease sanctions on Syria in accordance with the “Caesar’s Law.” Our countries agree that Caesar’s Law is generally toxic to regional security and stability. In particular, due to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria, the parties to the conflict may attempt another escalation and shift the field of armed struggle to other states. Recent negotiations between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, touched upon, among other things, this problem.
Saudi Arabia is ready to reconsider its relations not only with Syria, but also with Turkey, the political tension with which has become especially aggravated after the events of October 2018. Ankara and Riyadh actually took diametrically opposed positions in the international arena. In just two years, more than 20 Turkish schools have been closed in Mecca and Medina, and imports of Turkish goods into the kingdom in December 2020 reached an all-time low of $13.5 million, about 9 percent of imports in the same period in 2019. However, the situation began to change. Paradoxically, the reason for this was the results of the Second Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At least Riyadh positively assessed the use of Turkish drones during the conflict as a tool for enforcing peace and in March 2021 expressed its intention to purchase 8 Bayraktar TB2 complexes from Ankara, which was officially confirmed by Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
Saudi expert Mohammad al-Harbi, speaking about the transformation of foreign policy approaches in the Middle East, noted that Riyadh is ready to forget about grievances and start building friendly relations with many regional and non-regional players. According to the Saudi general, under the influence of the global economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, the kingdom’s foreign policy has undergone dramatic changes. Ideological differences with many states are a thing of the past. There is a huge need for the development of a regional anti-crisis communication system. As a first step on this path, Riyadh is pursuing the goal of normalizing relations with Syria, as well as trying to neutralize the “sharp corners” in the dialogue with Turkey with the obligatory mediation of Russia.
The increased Saudi interest in the peace process in Syria certainly plays a defining role in bilateral contacts. Riyadh intends to contribute to the achievement of peace in the Syrian Arab Republic and agrees to a leading position in the country of Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, according to Muhammad al-Harbi, the process of revising the Saudi policy towards official Damascus is still at a starting level, and therefore, it is not yet clear what such a policy can lead to. Nevertheless, Riyadh intends to clearly and consistently implement the Syrian-Saudi “warming” project. It is noteworthy that the regime of Bashar al-Assad quite adequately responds to the good aspirations of the kingdom. At the very least, Damascus is showing international sympathy for the Saudis to become guarantors of security in the MENA region, while maintaining Moscow’s mediating role. However, now the main obstacle is the pro-Iranian and pro-Turkish armed formations that have occupied a significant part of Syrian territory. These “unwanted forces” act as a trigger in regional politics and significantly complicate the implementation of the peacekeeping project under the auspices of Saudi Arabia.
It is possible that following the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Riyadh, direct talks may be organized between the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad already directly in Moscow. In any case, the Saudi court feels a great need for such a negotiation process to take place. The Russian Kremlin, apparently, is working out the details of this plan, hoping, thereby, to strengthen its own positions in the region. After all, if Bashar al-Assad and Mohammed bin Salman really meet directly and can shake hands, then this will generate a global resonance, and this act in terms of its geopolitical impact can be comparable to the conclusion of the Versailles Peace Treaty. At the very least, Riyadh and Damascus, through the resumption of bilateral relations, will be able to end the protracted armed conflict that has led to the deaths of more than 2 million ordinary Syrians.