The United Arab Emirates’ recent decision to withdraw from the Yemen war has left Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) the sole key driver of that disastrous conflict. MbS’ star seems to be dimming, and his influence on the international scene is waning.
Frequent attempts by the United States Congress to halt American arms sales to Saudi Arabia and hold MbS accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have severely tarnished the Saudi leader’s reputation. Traditional American bipartisan support for Saudi Arabia has been reduced, because of MbS’ hubris and repression, to a personal relationship between the Saudi autocrat and the current U.S. president and his son-in-law.
The fading bipartisan support has left the Saudi crown prince dependent on the goodwill of the Trump administration. Once a new administration comes to Washington, demands to hold MbS accountable for his actions in Yemen and for Khashoggi’s gruesome murder will again resurface. The millions of dollars MbS has spent in Washington to burnish his image have not served him well.
The failure of Jared Kushner’s Israel-Palestine “Deal of the Century” plan at a Bahrain workshop in late June was another blow to the MbS brand. Kushner and MbS had hoped but failed to persuade Arab leaders to attend the Bahrain event and hail Kushner’s economic plan on Palestine. MbS must have been stung by his inability to deliver Arab support to his friends in the White House.
If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins next month’s national election, he will not be expected to push for a deal with the Palestinians along the lines of Kushner’s formula. It’s ironic that the three-decade old Arab Peace Initiative was initiated by another Saudi crown prince, MbS’ uncle Abdullah, and continues to be supported by his own father, King Salman.
If MbS truly believes in improving the lives of Palestinians, he should fund economic development in the West Bank and Gaza and prove to the Palestinians that he is committed to their well being. Otherwise, history will view him, like many other Arab leaders before him, as having fought the Palestinian cause to the last Palestinian.
The potential for restarting talks with Iran is another blow to MbS’ regional ambitions. Although it’s easy to disagree with Trump on foreign policy issues, one gets the impression Trump is not gung-ho about another war in the Middle East. Tough talk toward Iran doesn’t mean that war is imminent.
The Emirati delegation that is currently in Iran to discuss maritime security is keen on keeping commercial shipping routes secure and convincing international trade partners it is safe to conduct commerce with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
Dubai, the most commercially driven emirate within the UAE, has traded with Iran for decades and has a history of prioritizing business above all. When blacklisted items like Coca-Cola and Ford cars could not be traded in the Arab world because of the boycott, one could always find them at the Dubai port. For Dubai commerce always trumps politics.
The UAE delegation in Tehran could expand its maritime security agenda to include Yemen, the nuclear deal, sanctions, and other thorny issues. If the talks are successful, they could be the prelude to a new deal in which nuclear discussions would be a major component.
If this were to happen, MbS’ regional hostile machinations toward Iran and Shia Islam would have failed. His isolation would continue, and history would judge him as yet another failing corrupt, repressive Arab autocrat.
The redeployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia would arouse the anger of the kingdom’s Wahhabi-Salafi religious branch. Their opposition to the presence of “infidel” troops in the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques” in 1991 fueled Osama bin Laden’s terror campaign against the Saudi regime and the United States.
Radical Wahhabis believe that Muhammad said on his deathbed that only one religion shall exist in Arabia. Non-Muslim “infidel” troops, according to this view, should be expelled from the kingdom. In the early 1990s, this became the rallying cry for Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. This radical mantra could re-emerge as a terrible nightmare for MbS around which his opponents would coalesce.
In the aftermath of the UAE withdrawal from Yemen, MbS will be forced to re-examine the grand design he devised for himself and the region. The design, which has been fueled by his economic largesse and perceived support from the Trump White House, is fading. Will MbS internalize the ensuing failure and act on it before it’s too late?
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA.