Saudi Arabia has been quietly pursuing a foreign policy aimed at strengthening ties with major actors in the region. It is conducting a balancing act and aims to maintain cordial ties with USA on the one hand and Russia on the other. It is also looking at fostering working relations with Iran while gesturing willingness to forge cooperation with Israel. Similarly, Riyadh is making an effort to mend ties with Turkey along with continuing stronger ties with Egypt.
Warming ties with USA and Russia
Saudi Arabia and USA share a strong partnership in security, counterterrorism, military, diplomatic, and financial spheres. However, the ties have been rocked by the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen aggravated by Saudi-led military intervention. The fact that then presidential candidate Joe Biden referred to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) as the dictator of a pariah state gave a glimpse of coming hurdles in bilateral relations.
President Biden resisted the real-politik compulsions to make up with Riyadh initially, but bilateral ties are warming up and he is visiting Saudi Arabia in July for the US-GCC summit. The two leaders are to discuss the means for expanding regional economic and security cooperation, including deterring threats from Iran.[i] Saudi Embassy in Washington has denied reports of strain in ties and stated that disagreements have never stopped the two countries from finding a way to work together.[ii]
It is interesting to note that while re-working on ties with USA, Saudi Arabia is strengthening bilateral relations with Russia. Riyadh’s response to the Russian military operation in Ukraine is not aligned to the Western response. It reaffirmed commitment to the stability and balance of oil market and refused to produce additional oil even as the Biden administration requested for enhanced production in the wake of rising oil prices.[iii] MbS has made a positive gesture to Russia proclaiming support for de-escalation of the situation[iv] and expressed willingness to act as a mediator in the crisis.[v]
Balancing Israel and Iran
Saudi Arabia has neither recognised Israel nor has diplomatic relations with Israel; however, the ties with Tel Aviv are warming up. Considering the positive Saudi public opinion on normalisation of ties with Israel and the recent visit of Israeli businessmen and tech entrepreneurs to Riyadh for advanced level talks[vi], there is optimism regarding Riyadh’s normalisation with Tel Aviv without necessarily signing the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia did not express opposition to the normalisation of ties with Israel when UAE, Bahrain and Morocco signed the accords in 2020; in addition, Riyadh allowed Israeli airliners to cross its airspace en-route to UAE.[vii]MbS is keen on developing cordial ties with Israel as a potential ally and emphasised that Riyadh and Tel Aviv have a number of shared interests. Backed by USA, Israel is eager for the normalization deal with Saudi Arabia. Israel’s Minister of Regional Cooperation mentioned that Riyadh would be central to any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and USA is working on normalisation roadmap for Saudi Arabia and Israel.[viii]
Antagonism to Iran is the main concern that brings Israel and Saudi Arabia together; the two countries joined hands and reportedly participated in the US-brokered talks to discuss defence coordination against Tehran.[ix] Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is looking at forging a working relation with Tehran. Despite the geopolitical competition and religious and sectarian differences, the two countries have expressed willingness to understand mutual concerns and coexist in the region.
Saudi Foreign Minister mentioned in May 2022 that Riyadh’s hands are stretched out for Iran. Iranian president emphasised in February 2022 that Iran is ready to continue these negotiations until reaching an outcome.[x] Iraq has hosted a number of direct talks between Saudi and Iranian officials and before the fifth round of talks, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman confirmed the engagement of three Iranian diplomats in efforts to re-open the OIC representative office in Saudi Arabia. He also stated that Iran is ready to reopen its embassy in Saudi Arabia provided practical efforts are made by Riyadh.[xi]
Recalibrating ties with Turkey and Egypt
Saudi Arabia endeavours to improve ties with Turkey after it got strained over murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018. In the aftermath of the murder, Saudi Arabia launched an unofficial embargo on Turkish exports.[xii] However, things began to change over the past year with Turkey showing signs of dropping the Khashoggi case. In May 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his first visit to Saudi Arabia in five years. MbS reciprocated the visit in June and held talks with President Erdogan and members of his cabinet. The two countries have lifted restrictions on trade, flights, screening of TV series while halting the mutual negative media coverage.
Saudi Arabia is keen to improve its image pertaining to violation of human rights and Turkey is looking at Saudi investments to boost the slumping economy. Turkey marked the rapprochement by approving the request to transfer the trial to Riyadh.[xiii] With parallel reconciliations between Riyadh and Ankara, and Ankara and Cairo, the tensions might be reduced, at least for some time.
Riyadh and Cairo share strong relations. Saudi Arabia is looking forward to foster ties with Egypt as MbS inked a US$30 billion deal with Cairo.[xiv] Earlier, 14 leading firms of the two countries signed US$7.7 billion deals related to infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, energy and cyber security.[xv] The two countries have also been reportedly negotiating, along with Israel, the transfer of Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia brokered by Biden administration.[xvi]
As evident from recent policy decisions, Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in balancing ties with key actors within and beyond the neighbourhood. Riyadh restored ties with Qatar and maintains strong and consistent ties with UAE and other members of the GCC. Ties with Jordan remain strong, while Saudi Arabia is taking steps to revive ties with Iraq and Lebanon. With greater focus on geo-economics in the post-COVID era, Saudi Arabia, is taking steps towards a more reconciliatory regional policy. Although this is early to suggest an enduring trend, but if the momentum continues, Riyadh’s balancing act can contribute towards lessening regional tensions in West Asia.
* Dr. Lakshmi Priya, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]US officials confirm Biden to visit Saudi Arabia, meet MBS, AlJazeera, 14 June 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/14/us-officials-confirm-biden-to-visit-saudi-arabia-meet-with-mbs accessed on 20 June 2022.
[ii]Vivian Nereim, Saudi Arabia Denies Reports Relations With U.S. Are Strained, Bloomberg, 21 April 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-04-21/saudi-arabia-denies-reports-the-relations-with-u-s-are-strained accessed on 22 June 2022.
[iii]Herman Wang, Saudi crown prince says kingdom still committed to OPEC+ oil agreement with Russia, SPG Global, 27 February 2022,https://www.spglobal.com/commodity-insights/en/market-insights/latest-news/oil/022722-saudi-crown-prince-says-kingdom-still-committed-to-opec-oil-agreement-with-russia , accessed on 08 March 2022.
[iv]Margaret Dene, Hannah Labow, Carol Silber, Middle East responses to the Ukraine Crisis, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 04 March 2022, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/middle-east-responses-ukraine-crisis , accessed on 09 March 2022.
[v]Crown Prince says Saudi Arabia ready to mediate between Russia, Ukraine during calls with Putin, Zelensky, Arab News, 03 March 2022, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2035591/saudi-arabia, accessed on 08 March 2022.
[vi]Ricky Ben-David, Dozens of Israeli business and tech figures visit Saudi Arabia — report, Times of Israel, 29 May 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/dozens-of-israeli-business-and-tech-figures-visit-saudi-arabia-report/ accessed on 25 June 2022.
[vii]Saudis okay Israeli use of airspace on way to UAE, hours before maiden flight, Times of Israel, 30 November 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/saudis-okay-israeli-use-of-airspace-on-way-to-uae-hours-before-maiden-flight/ accessed on 27 June 2022.
[viii]Barak Ravid, Scoop: U.S. working on normalization "road map" for Saudi Arabia and Israel, AXIOS, 22 June 2022, https://www.axios.com/2022/06/22/israel-saudi-arabia-normalization-biden-administration accessed on 28 June 2022.
[ix]Bethan McKernan, Israel and Saudi Arabia ‘in talks over joint defence against Iran’, The Guardian, 07 June 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/27/israel-and-saudi-arabia-in-talks-over-joint-defence-against-iran accessed on 07 July 2022
[x]Natasha Turak, Saudi foreign minister says the kingdom’s hands are ‘stretched out’ to Iran, CNBC, 24 May 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/24/saudi-arabia-says-the-kingdoms-hands-are-outstretched-to-iran.html accessed on 01 July 2022.
[xi]Iran to reopen OIC representative office in Saudi Arabia, AlJazeera, 17 January 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/17/iran-to-reopen-oic-representative-office-in-saudi-arabia accessed on 04 July 2022.
[xii] Explained: Why are foes Turkey and Saudi Arabia fixing ties?, Indian Express, 29 April 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/turkey-saudi-arabia-diplomatic-ties-explained-7893642/ accessed on 04 May 2022.
[xiii] ‘A new era’: Saudi Arabia’s MBS in Turkey as nations mend ties, AlJazeera, 22 June 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/22/saudi-crown-prince-mbs-visits-turkey-as-countries-normalise-ties accessed on 02 July 2022.
[xiv] Saudi Arabia to lead investments worth $30B in Egypt, Daily Sabah, 21 June 2022, https://www.dailysabah.com/business/economy/saudi-arabia-to-lead-investments-worth-30b-in-egypt accessed on 05 July 2022.
[xv] Egyptian, Saudi firms sign deals worth $7.7 billion as Mohammed bin Salman visits Cairo, The New Arab, 21 June 2022, https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/egyptian-saudi-firms-sign-deals-mbs-visits-cairo accessed on 06 July 2022.
[xvi] US said brokering talks to transfer islands from Egypt to Saudi with Israeli backing, Times of Israel, 24 May 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-said-brokering-talks-to-transfer-islands-from-egypt-to-saudi-with-israeli-backing/ accessed on 24 June 2022.