Jeddah, Friday August 25, 2017
Has Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman finally realized that his policies have failed? He has suffered defeat at every turn except perhaps in engineering the ouster of his cousin and former crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef who is currently under house arrest.
Reports from the kingdom and Washington indicate that he is about to sack the baby-faced Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Khalid bin Salman, younger brother of Bin Salman (BS), is expected to replace al-Jubeir.
The current foreign minister was appointed in March 2015 immediately after the Saudis launched their disastrous war on Yemen. The war is still raging but the Saudis have got bogged down.
While Bin Salman is the architect of all the disastrous policies whether in Yemen, against Iran or recent internal moves, he wants to find scapegoats. Al Jubeir, an outsider is an easy target although not without fault. He is a vicious man but ultimately he follows the policies formulated by his boss.
Al Jubeir’s anticipated sacking is meant to serve two purposes. First, to signal to Iran that the Saudi regime wants to change course vis-à-vis its relations with Tehran and the person hitherto managing this portfolio is being replaced.
Second, it opens the post for Bin Salman’s own choice to fill: younger brother Khalid bin Salman (KBS).
KBS was appointed ambassador to Washington earlier this year to consolidate the Bin Salman clan’s control over important levers of power in the kingdom. The US being ‘Saudi’ Arabia’s godfather and protector, the few months of training KBS received in Washington are believed to be sufficient to make him foreign minister!
We must, however, dig deeper into what is underway.
It started with the Saudis backing down on Iranian demands for the safety and security of their pilgrims. Last year Iran did not send any hujjaj because the Saudis failed to provide guarantees for their safety following the crush in Mina in 2015 when more than 7,000 pilgrims were killed. Among them were 465 Iranian pilgrims.
Iran’s Hajj quota has also been increased to 86,000 for this year.
There are reports that both Iran and Saudi Arabia have issued visas to the diplomats of the other country to visit their capital cities to inspect their premises. This is seen as an indication that the Saudis would like to resume diplomatic contacts that they had severed in January 2016.
On August 23, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran and Saudi Arabia would likely exchange diplomatic visits after completion of the Hajj pilgrimage.
The Saudis cut diplomatic ties when thousands of people protested outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran following Saudi beheading of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr in January 2016. Some protesters also threw stones at the Saudi embassy building.
The prominent Saudi Shi‘i scholar, Sheikh Nimr’s only ‘crime’ was to demand that all Saudi citizens including Shi‘is be treated fairly and equitably. This resulted in accusations that he was undermining the regime and therefore, deserved to be killed.
Bin Salman has also let it be known that he would like to end the disastrous war in Yemen that is draining the Saudi treasury. He has sought US help in doing so.
Dr Zarif may provide a face-saving climb down for the arrogant Saudi crown prince. He referred to Yemen as one of the areas where Saudi Arabia needed to change its policies.
The Saudis have been bombing this impoverished country for nearly 30 months killing thousands of people and starving an estimate 18 million Yemenis. Two days ago, the Saudis bombed Sana‘a killing scores of people among them children. Cholera epidemic has also ravaged the country, again as a result of Saudi policy.
Dr Zarif expressed the hope that Saudi officials would adopt “rational” policies towards Syria and Bahrain. Are the Saudis listening?
Earlier this week, the Saudis told the Syrian rebel groups they are sponsoring that they must have a “new vision for Syria”. This was a clear indication that they have reconciled to the fact that the plot to dislodge Bashar al Asad from power by force has failed. The rebel groups were meeting in Saudi Arabia to try and create some unity in their ranks.
The American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also said that the US was leaving Syria for ‘Russia to handle’. Since Moscow is a strong supporter of Asad, it means the US has also realized the futility of its policy to overthrow al Asad by using mercenaries.
These Saudi moves must be seen not as a realization in Riyadh that their foolish policies have failed but that they are faced with multiple crises they cannot handle all at once. BS is busy trying to overcome serious internal challenges for which he needs some respite from challenges abroad.