Analysis: At World Cup, Saudi crown prince moves back on to global stage

  • The Saudi leader has been deemed immune from US prosecution.
  • Attended summits around the world.
  • Defeated Argentina and burnished his image with Saudi youth.

Doha Nov 22 (Reuters) – When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took his seat next to the FIFA president at the World Cup opener in Qatar, his fate was dramatically overshadowed even before the Saudi team kicked off. He holds his hat-trick in Tuesday’s win over Argentina.

Sitting in the most prominent position of any guest at a global sporting event, the Saudi leader looks like a man at the top international table.

With the teeth of global energy concerns and tensions between superpowers the US and China focused on the war in Ukraine, geopolitical gravity has reasserted itself for the world’s top oil exporter.

Crown Prince Mohammed has eased American anger by last week acquitting him of prosecution over the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and by publicly showing his commitment to Saudi security as a reminder of the Iranian threat.

Weeks after US President Joe Biden accused Prince Mohammed of not having confidence in the oil talks in July, US President Joe Biden warned the meeting was going down under the US after vowing to make the Saudi leader a pariah. .

Prince Mohammed will attend the COP27 climate summit in Cairo this month. He arrived at the G20 summit in Bali and the APEC summit in Bangkok before heading to neighboring Qatar, which was seen as an enemy invader in 2017, according to previous statements by Qatari authorities.

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The actor, popularly known as MbS, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July and will soon host Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh.

MbS for youth cinemas, A shock 2-1 win over Argentina on Tuesday seemed to burnish its image even more in a small country that has opened up gigs and job opportunities.

It is too early to say that MbS has won political rehabilitation in the West – he would be a welcome guest in the US or most Western European countries.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday’s amnesty decision did not speak to a review of Washington’s ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.

But as winter approaches the Northern Hemisphere, the West’s rush for energy stability cannot avoid its role in every aspect of relations with Saudi Arabia.

Immunity

Abdulaziz al-Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah, said MbS saw Western anger over Khashoggi’s killing as a politically motivated way to pressure the kingdom in Riyadh’s ruling establishment.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and critic of MbS who lived in the United States and wrote for the Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

US intelligence said it believed MbS ordered the operation, but said lower-level officials in Riyadh were put in charge.

Sager said the Justice Department’s opinion in Riyadh last week that MbS was eligible for immunity as head of government after being appointed prime minister was viewed as political.

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“The United States has tried to limit the country’s importance and role in the region and internationally, but this goal is impossible to achieve, and secondly, it appears to be harming its own interests,” he said.

“So there is a process of American withdrawal from taking negative positions on the state.”

When the U.S. said this month it was concerned about the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia and would not hesitate to defend the kingdom. Some diplomats interpreted this as a message of American reassurance to Riyadh.

Colin Kahl, a senior Pentagon official, told reporters that Iran was ready to attack Saudi oil facilities as early as 2019, but that U.S. action, including the redeployment of missile defense systems, would be evasive.

“The U.S. actions accompanying the warning may indicate a belated awakening to the U.S. approach to Iran’s aggressive and expansionist policy in the region,” Sager said.

Historically low

Saudi relations with the US and the wider West remain at historic lows.

As demand for Saudi oil has declined over the past decade, the United States has found it easier to put distance between itself and an ally whose domestic policies are unfavorable.

Its stance on the Arab Spring and its push for a nuclear deal with Iran in defiance of Saudi fears of regional threats have led Riyadh to believe that Washington has abdicated its Gulf security throne.

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Saudi Arabia sees Western criticism as hypocritical when it puts its security in its own hands because of the war in Yemen.

Meanwhile, in the West, Saudi fears of Iran are often overstated, with MbS describing its war in Yemen as a gleeful assault on an impoverished neighbor, and MbS as a tyrant after the murders of Khashoggi.

It seems doubtful that those views will change much.

But as superpower competition and energy scarcity return once again to define world politics, they can now be considered politicized to put grudges aside.

Saudi Arabia still wants to hold the US security umbrella. “A distinct comparative advantage of the United States” is the integrated security architecture it can build in the region, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk said at a recent conference in Bahrain.

“This is a capital-to-capital demand,” he said.

For the West, it may mean dealing with an influential figure in Saudi Arabia.

“Especially in a hereditary monarchy, dealing with the state is impossible to separate from dealing with the leadership,” Sager said.

Reporting by Angus McDowall in Tunis and Maya Gebeily in Doha. Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Idrees Ali in Washington. Written by Angus McDowall, edited by Nick Macfie.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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