The growing Saudi isolation.

            Apart from the recent developments in Sudan, as we saw, there are also rapid changes in the Arab world in these days. Syria is about to return to the Arab League, as major diplomatic steps were made towards it. The war in Yemen came to a major turn. There is an unfolding regional cooperation helping Lebanon. Though the situation between Morocco and Algeria is turning to worrisome, overall the Arab world is heading toward recuperating and calm.

            Interestingly there is one country, which is not only not being part of these positive changes, but even chose to complicate matters. Saudi Arabia almost two weeks ago started a diplomatic-economic war against Lebanon, following some statements by Lebanese Minister. It is also losing its war in Yemen, where there are major changes about to happen.

            While there is a major transformation in the Arab East, Saudi Arabia seems to sink to yet another political turmoil. Which reveals the very desperate inner state of the kingdom. But why is that?


The row with Lebanon

            As we have dealt with it several times, in the last two years Lebanon lives in a desperate political and economic crisis, mostly even without a functioning government. We also saw that recently a government was put together. And even though clouds of a possible new civil war appeared the new government started put the country into order.

            The recent relief projects, one by Iran and one by Egypt, Jordan and Iraq collectively started to ease the problems, when on 30 October Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Beirut and expelled the Lebanese ambassador. It pressured its Gulf allies to do the same, while blocked all Lebanese imports. But what is the reason for that?

            The official reason is one member of the new Lebanese government, Information Minister George al-Qurdāḥī. Not much after him taking office it was recently picked up that al-Qurdāḥī, himself being a famous media personality, even before becoming a minister gave an interview to a Lebanese channel, in which he called the Saudi war on Yemen “futile”, while also saying that the “Anṣār Allah Movement is only defending itself”. At least officially that ignited the fury of Riyadh prompting swift action.

Lebanese Information Minister George al-Qurdāḥī

            Strangely, Riyadh not only disregarded the fact that al-Qurdāḥī made these comments even before becoming a minister, but blamed the whole government for it. And even after two weeks it is still pushing this agenda, though Beirut signaling readiness to talk is not about to back down. Riyadh is not even giving demands at this point, so it is unclear what would be the satisfactory reaction, or compensation, though al-Qurdāḥī himself has announced that he will not apologize. And just to make sure it will not be easy to end this row, on 6 November Saudi government paper ‘Ukāẓ published an article, in which called Lebanese officials – specifically including the Lebanese Foreign Minister – as “toilet paper”, only to be used.

            Even more revealing that on 31 October Saudi Foreign Minister Fayṣal ibn Farḥān gave an interview to the state media, in which he signaled that the main concern of the kingdom is not about these comments, but Ḥizb Allah’s alleged “hegemony” over Lebanese politics. Even though Saudi Arabia expressed no immediate concerns when this Lebanese government was formed, and al-Qurdāḥī does not belong to the Shia party, but to a smaller Christian movement.

            Since this dispute started it caused massive shockwaves both within Lebanon and in the region, but there is no end on the horizon. It has become a sensation in the Arab world, but very little is understood from it. As we will see, it is part of a much bigger picture.


Breakthrough in Yemen

            The war in Yemen also witnessed major changes in the last two weeks. We don’t have a capacity to deal with it in details, and we might do it soon, there are to significant changes on the horizon.

            The first is that battle for Ma’rib, the last major stronghold still not in the hand of Sanaa’s forces in Northern Yemen. Almost a year ago the city was about the fall into the hands of the Yemen Army, but for still unclear reasons the fronts here froze almost completely, and the forces of President Hādī supported by Riyadh even managed to make some advances.

            In result of the recent offensive most areas to the south of Ma’rib fell to the forces of Sanaa, and as great indicator of change in early October several tribes in Ma’rib changed sides and made peace with Sanaa. This is a region rich in oil and gas, which would mean a huge moral and economic victory for Sanaa, though progress is relatively slow for several reasons. There are still frequent airstrikes by the Saudis here, there is considerable resistance in the city itself and the Yemeni forces want a triumphant march in, not a long and devastating street war. Nonetheless, by now all officials of Sanaa claim that the liberation of Ma’rib is only “a matter of time”.

            While this was happening on 11 November suddenly the Saudi forces withdrew from vast areas around al-Ḥudayda, the most important port in Northern Yemen, which for long Riyadh claimed to be the main route of Iranian support, and for which waged a desperate war, never gaining the entire city. It was claimed that this withdrawal came as a goodwill gesture to start ceasefire negotiations, or to reinforce the fronts around Ma’rib the result is that Sanaa secured this crucial port and huge areas opened up towards the south.

            The war in Yemen is a very complex picture, but for now it is suffice to say that with the fall of Ma’rib and securing al-Ḥudayda Sanaa practically won the war. At least in the north, where it doesn’t have significant foes anymore. But the routes towards the rest of the country will also open up, as in the south there are major divisions between the Saudi and the Emiratis forces, those of President Hādī and the Southern Transitional Government, and the most radical extremist groups.

The current rough estimate of the fronts in Yemen.
In red the areas under Sanaa’s control are indicated. (Source: al-Mayadeen)

Yemen for Lebanon?

            Considering all these developments the question is very pressing. Why does Riyadh waste time with Lebanon now, while there are all these major transformations at every direction? What would a humbled Lebanon, a Lebanese government forced on its knees could benefit Riyadh now, even if this diplomatic war would succeed?

            First of all, can Saudi Arabia win this war, which it considers to be waged against Ḥizb Allah and the Iranian presence there? What we see in the last month or so around Lebanon is that after almost two years of its possibly biggest ever economic and existential crisis Saudi Arabia could not offer a solution. Two separate solutions were put forward to end Lebanon’s most direct problems. One of by Iran almost unilaterally, though largely favoring Syria, while the other is a joint Iraqi-Jordanian-Egyptian project also with little to none Saudi involvement. And also benefitting Syria. The result is, very logically that whatever influence the Saudis had in Lebanon, which was essential in the early 2000’s and even a decade ago was massive is rapidly evaporating. That might cause frustration, but considering now Riyadh offers no solution, no carrot, only the stick, the question is logical. What is the goal here? Surely Riyadh wants to improve its position in Lebanon, but can it really hope to change the equation for its own benefit? Surely not entirely without massive economic help, which at this point Riyadh can neither afford, nor willing to give.

            The answer lies in the context. We should not forget that parallel to the developments in Yemen, around Syria, and the the transformation in Lebanon’s interior there are also two major set of negotiations, both concerning Saudi Arabia’s main perceived rival Iran. The first is the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation negotiations mostly conducted in Baghdad, while the second is the renewed talks in Vienna about Tehran’s nuclear project, the possible return to the JCPOA.

            The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has already yielded some remarkable results, as in a token of good will Riyadh reopened its market for Iranian exports in late October, though so far that is very limited. That comes after years of total trade boycott against Iran.

            Within this very process we came to learn that the Saudis asked Tehran to return the favor and negotiate a ceasefire, or even pave the way for a comprehensive peace roadmap with the Yemenis. Since it would have been humiliating to negotiate directly with Sanaa, after years of waging war and considering the Anṣār Allah Movement as a terrorist organization, nothing more than an Iranian extension, an indirect peace deal could have the solution to the problem now Ma’rib poses. This was recently acknowledged indirectly in a speech by Ḥasan Naṣr Allah, Secretary General of Lebanese Ḥizb Allah, saying that such attempt was made, only to be responded by Tehran that if Riyadh wants peace in Yemen, it must address the Sanaa directly. In other words Tehran refused to bargain the influence it has in Yemen, or to included it into the negotiating framework. Though this was rapidly portrayed as Iran’s lack of willingness to end the war in Yemen, it is a logical step for many reasons. Tehran always held the policy that it is not part of the war in Yemen, only giving diplomatic support. We know already even by statements of Iranian officials that this support went way beyond that, surely Tehran is not willing to give such concessions, nor could it really stop the Yemenis now, with the battle for Ma’rib so close to its end.

            We should also not forget that Ma’rib was equally close to fall roughly a year ago, when for some reason the battle came to halt, and even the forces of Sanaa were pushed back from the immediate vicinity of the city. It is not entirely clear why that happened, but Iranian mediation at that time, when rapprochement with Riyadh was only starting to form is probable. Given that Riyadh did not use the opportunity to develop the situation to a more comprehensive peace package and direct engagement with Sanaa, it is logical to assume that Tehran does not wish to make the same favor twice.

            We don’t really know when exactly Riyadh asked for the Iranian mediation and when it was turned down, but given the timeframe of the negotiations it has probably happened around mid-September, early October, when the battle for Ma’rib started to take a very serious turn for the Saudi Coalition. Not much later the row with Lebanon started.

            The connection is that while Riyadh surely cannot hope to turn the table in Lebanon completely against Iran now, nor to regain its former influence, it can still cause trouble. A diplomatic-economic blockade, not only by itself, but by most of the Gulf can cause once again huge problems for Lebanon. That is very clear from the Lebanese reactions, as now the government took huge efforts to appease the Saudis, even though Riyadh was not offering any help, nor even reconciliation in case Minister al-Qurdāḥī resigned.

            From this we can deduct that Riyadh exploited this opportunity to use Lebanon as a bargaining chip with Iran. Help me out in Yemen, and I let you move more freely in Lebanon! In simpler terms, Lebanon for Yemen. It is hard to find better explanation for what happened, and why Riyadh is still pushing this case, regardless of its overall failure at this time. That is why the Saudis are not offering any solution. Because they are not waiting from a positive answer from Beirut, but from Tehran.

            The matter of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna at this stage is also important. Not because Riyadh would be a major part of these talks, nor that it could specifically influence it. But turning away from the rapprochement and once again causing turmoil could irritate the Iranians and turn public opinion against it once again. The talks in Vienna are the most critical ones for the new Iranian government. To triumph where its predecessor, though mostly not by its own mistakes, had failed. In this context Tehran might get frustrated with Riyadh causing trouble and give concessions.

            Whatever was the idea with the “war” on Lebanon, it has already backfired, and it is not even over. Not because the Saudis haven’t achieved their goals. They didn’t even articulate specific demands, so it is officially unclear what would calm their fury. But because it dragged the whole Gulf into this conflict, and though it was logical, it was also a mistake. It resurfaced the old, still unhealed wounds within the Gulf camp. Kuwait and Bahrein joined the blockade, even the Emirates with some reluctance. But Oman expressed opposition, and Qatar, though condemned the Lebanese position, not only did not join the punitive measures, but it offered mediation and sent its Foreign Minister to Beirut. So now even if concessions are forced out of Lebanon, the beneficiary would be Doha, not Riyadh. And it shows a great deal of shortsightedness by the Saudis to once again create an opportunity to Qatar to expands its relations, even in a country where it largely lost it. It is indeed very hard to comprehend why the Saudi leadership keep fighting the same diplomatic-economic wars on even smaller scales, which have lost already before.

            The same very tactic was used against Qatar, only to be given up in January 2021, which troubled its formerly excellent relations with Egypt and the Emirates. And as we saw, since than Egypt paved a way for itself away from the Saudi interests, in certain cases even to Riyadh’s expanse.


The return of the Syrian lion

            This week also witnessed the undoubtedly historic step by the Emirates, as Emirati Foreign Minister ‘Abd Allah ibn Zāyid leading a high ranking delegation made a visit to Damascus, and met with Syrian President Baššār al-Asad. There were indications even before by several Arab countries to end the isolation of Syria, return it to the Arab League and reopen economic ties with it. In this regard Algeria, but also Iraq and recently Egypt played a huge role, while the real tiebreaker was the reopened ties with Jordan and the energy relief package to Lebanon.

            The real significance of these measures that they would directly break the blockage Washington created with the Caesar Act suffocating the Syrian economy. But so far no Arab leader visited Damascus, nor met openly with the Syrian President admitting him as the lawful leader of the country.

            That is why the recently visit by the Emirati Foreign Minister is so significant, especially coming from the Gulf, as this step symbolically ended the war on Syria, which started exactly a decade ago. It was pointed out accurately by several Western and Arab analyses that such a step by the Emirates could not have happened without the approval of Washington, which might oppose a rapprochement with Damascus openly, but would not block it effectively. The failure to topple the Syrian government by Washington was even recently admitted by Robert Ford, former American ambassador to Syria, who said that “the American policy failed to set up a Syrian to government”. And the recent massive pullout from Syria, though still a partial one, might be an indication that Washington is seriously considering leaving Syria.

            Yet even if the American pullout did not come any time soon, the diplomatic, and most importantly economic reconciliation with Damascus, and Syria’s return to the Arab League means that Syria won the war and the economic blockade against it is over. And since there was no bigger symbol of the “Arab Spring” than the war on Syria, this development means that this whole project, the gamble of Gulf domination over the Arab world came has ended.

            There has been several indications for that in the last couple of years. Egypt toppling the Muslim Brotherhood government was probably the first sign. The recent elections in Morocco, where the very same Muslim Brotherhood lost miserably, which came to power by the “Arab Spring” also showed this. Tunisia turning away from the whole political establishment created in 2011 is the same sign. Ending the war on Syria is the final major step in this direction.

            But why is that such bad news for Saudi Arabia? It is not necessarily a bad thing for Riyadh directly. That is why the Saudis did not object to it, though they did not even really reacted to it. But it is a symptom of the Saudi diplomatic paralysis. By previous Qatari statements we know that back in 2011 Qatar was the leading Arab power behind the war, but by the same confessions we know that it all happened with Saudi approval and coordination. Now that the tides have changed and the war came to the end Riyadh is not part of the reconciliation process at all. And while it many Arab states openly push for mending fences with Damascus, staying out of this trend now isolates Riyadh, leaves it out of the major developments. Which logically will not favor it.

            Here the comparison with the Emirates is very significant. Why does the Emirates now lead this reconciliation attempt? Why does Abū Zabī makes the step, especially by offering economic support as well, what so far no Arab states dared to do? At least not so openly. Surely not for enthusiasm for Syria or for its government, but for smart tactical evaluation. Facilitating these negotiations, which is pushed for by many Arab states, the Emirates improves its standing both with Washington and in the Arab world.

            The Biden administration was looking for a way to ease the tension with Damascus, but cannot do it openly. Yet in a form that it is advocated for by some of its most crucial Arab allies it can present an argument that “Washington simply has no alternative”. So it will tacitly “let it happen”. This the Emirates also scores a victory against Qatar, its main rival. Because in the ongoing rivalry it does what Qatar cannot, as the Emirates never went so far in the war, as Qatar did and even in 2018 reopened its embassy. But even more importantly, after the normalization with Israel, and especially that the process by now came to a halt, diplomatically the Emirates ended up in a very inconvenient position in the Arab world. Now taking sides with Syria, a state gaining popularity in the Arab world, Abū Zabī manages to improve its standing significantly, making many “forgive” the normalization. Thus Abū Zabī is just as much a beneficiary of this reconciliation process with Syria than Damascus itself.

            And here lies the question about Saudi Arabia. Was it Riyadh to do what the Emirate just did, especially that it did not normalize with Israel officially, it could have led this process. It could have gained a better standing gaining possibly one, or several new allies. Yet instead it chose to engage in an insignificant war with Lebanon, which causes just the opposite, turning public opinion against Riyadh in the Arab world. It could have been a huge opportunity, yet it was exploited by an other state, with which Riyadh’s relations are worsening now.


A struggle for a public image

            There are several warning signs that the current Saudi leadership is on a very worrying path. The reluctantly accepted rapprochement with Iran, the losing war in Yemen, the diminishing roles in Tunisia, Libya, or Sudan, the lack of influence over the recent Iraqi election results and the very futile conflict with Lebanon are all signs of Saudi weakness.

            Yet all these events, with the possible exception of Yemen, where the war is directly linked to Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān, are insignificant compared to the threat recently emerged from America. After the arrest campaign in 2017 in which Muḥammad ibn Salmān practically took over the country and eliminated most of his internal rivals he had very few enemies left within the country. And since then all were purged, who could by any means mean threat to him, especially the followers of the former Crown Prince, Muḥammad ibn Nāyif. One such figure, however, the former right hand man of Muḥammad ibn Nayif, a former intelligence chief called Sa‘ad al-Ğabrī did manage to escape to Canada and built up quite a support base for himself. The most worrisome in him is that he was part of the most inner Saudi circles before 2017, surely knowing many secrets. Even more, as a former intelligence chief, he has very intimate relations with the American services, the only thing the current Crown Prince truly fears.

            Sa‘ad al-Ğabrī poses a very serious problem for Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān now. For one, he filed a lawsuit against the Crown Prince in America, which might have little direct effect on him, but is a huge embarrassment and might be something to be exploited against him when his father dies and he wants to officially take over the country. On the other hand, al-Ğabrī has excellent connection within Saudi Arabia, and was the right hand man of Muḥammad ibn Nayif, so he can argue for his release. Which would mean a catastrophe for the current Saudi leadership.

            On 25 October 2021 al-Ğabrī gave an interview to one of America’s most prestigious political programs, 60 Minutes on CBS. In that interview he made several bombastic claims, like that Muḥammad ibn Salmān wanted to assassinate former king ‘Abd Allah with a Russian poison that he has voice records against him, and that he is made several crimes, like kidnapping Lebanese Prime Minister at the time Sa‘ad al-Ḥarīrī. Who was actually a close Saudi ally. Even more, al-Ğabrī used such phrases about the Crown Prince as “psychopath”, “murderer”, or “without mercy”. Interestingly these comments caused almost no reaction by Riyadh, unlike those of Minister al-Qurdāḥī. This is a major threat for the current de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, as the very fact that this was allowed in the American press and signals that at a given point the former Saudi intelligence chief might be used an asset for his disposal. But that is not his biggest concern. His problem is the public image, the negative publicity al-Ğabrī creates for him in the West.

            Ever since Muḥammad ibn Salmān came to power in 2017 he strived to show himself as a visionary. A modern leader opening up his country for the modern age. This image was sold by hosting music festivals, launching tourism projects, or leading the campaign for meeting women drive in the kingdom. Which allegedly he achieved. The continuing arrests campaigns officially fighting corruption while eliminating his rivals also served attempt, showing him a modern leader and breaking with the old ways. This image managed to hide his role in the war in Yemen, or his brutal tactics to eradicate opposition at home.

            After the camping for women’s driving practically came to an end, he plunged himself into a bigger, even more ambitious project, the so called Neom city. A vision of a modern city close to the Egyptian and Jordanian borders at the Red Sea, which allegedly would be a zero carbon emission city once finished. A city with all the most advanced technologies would provide job opportunities and would boost the Saudi economy far from the traditional fossil energy sells. Even more, it would be a whole region with partial autonomy and separate laws, a liberal enclave in a notoriously conservative country. 

            Such an image is clearly inconsistent with the biggest oil producing and selling country in the world. It would also surely raise huge worries within the kingdom creating an autonomous region, as for long there has been paranoia in Saudi Arabia about the kingdom begins carved up to separate states, either by Western or Iranian attempts.

            The Neom city plan, being part of the comprehensive “The Way” project is surely beyond everything else a publicity campaign for the globally strong “climate change” lobby groups. Saudi Arabia could be the game changer in the global push for stopping climate change, all under the wise and liberal leadership of this visionary Crown Prince. With such a public image his succession would be unchallenged. Yet this is seriously undermined, if the public sees him as a “psychopath murderer”, as in this case his removal is only logical.


The end of the “Arab Spring”

            In short, the main problem of Saudi Arabia today is that it lost, or proved not to have the very capability it it mostly desperately wanted. That is to lead. This is now true not only about the whole Arab world, but even within its most direct realm it always considered to be its sole and unique real, the Persian Gulf. The way the gamble in the so called “Arab Spiring” failed today, which was not a primarily Saudi project, but its leaders believed to make them the biggest beneficiaries, the direct attempt to rule Yemen failed as well. The recent news about Syria proved not only that Damascus withstood the pressure, but also that the upcoming and now inevitable reconciliation with it is also not led by Saudi Arabia. Might not even be a part of it. The imminent liberation of Ma’rib in Yemen and the withdrawal from al-Ḥudayda also proves that Riyadh is incapable of forging the new realities and correct the mistakes it made. And here we are not even talking about Sudan, North Africa or the relations with Egypt. All those matters into which Saudi Arabia had invested heavily with its most direct allies in the last decade. Yet now in all these cases, like that of Sudan, Tunisia, or Libya we see Riyadh to be far from the negotiating table. Yet still wasting time with a diplomatic war with Lebanon.

            That is, however, while some celebrate it, is a major problem for the whole region. Given it size, its economic capabilities and moral-religious role Saudi Arabia should by any means play a central part in the regional equation. Yet this role is rapidly diminishing. Which will increase desperation within the ruling elite to change the course the kingdom took. Which is unlikely to happen with the current leadership.