Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Abdullatif al-Zayani attends an extraordinary GCC meeting of foreign ministers, on February 14, 2015, in the Saudi capital Riyadh. AFP/Fayez Nureldine
Riyadh has seen a flurry of diplomatic activity from the Gulf in the past few days amid talk of changes in Saudi foreign policy under King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The new policy would be geared toward establishing a Sunni alliance against Iran and mending fences with Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. After a visit by the Emir of Kuwait Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah on Sunday, followed by another visit by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan on Monday, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani visited Riyadh on Tuesday and held a round of talks with King Salman.
Saudi Arabia under Salman is expected to see changes in the kingdom’s foreign policy and new approaches to regional and international issues, following the new king’s “coup” in the late Saudi King Abdullah’s inner circle.According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Salman’s talk with the emir of Qatar revolved around finding ways to enhance bilateral relations between the two countries in various fields, as well as the latest developments in the Gulf, the broader region, and the world.
These diplomatic overtures toward Riyadh can be understood as a pursuit of a unified Gulf position regarding many issues that have emerged on the political scene. Tamim’s visit is different from previous ones, as it comes days after the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to Doha. Saudi Arabia under Salman is expected to see changes in the kingdom’s foreign policy and new approaches to regional and international issues, following the new king’s “coup” in the late Saudi King Abdullah’s inner circle.
Salman took power amid external crises that saw the influence of Riyadh’s allies declining and the profile of its enemies growing: Ansarullah seized power in Yemen; the Syrian army achieved military advances against “terrorists” on several fronts; significant progress has been made in the confrontation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq; not to mention the US-Iranian rapprochement, and the significant drop in oil prices.
These changes in the regional and international arena compelled the Saudi regime to seek a new foreign policy approach, with the primary aim of maintaining stability within Saudi Arabia, and preserving the country’s role as a dominant global actor. The changes in Riyadh’s foreign policy will be easy to implement, given King Salman’s knowledge of most of these issues due to his close ties with the decision-making circles in the kingdom, and his participation in the decision-making over the past 40 years.
The scope of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy change during the next stage will extend to three main arenas: the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the relationship with Turkey, and the relationship with Iran.
There are many indicators that the relationship between Riyadh and the Muslim Brotherhood — which is classified as a terrorist group in Saudi Arabia — will change in the near future. Following leaked reports about meetings between “Sudairis” from the royal family with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, which were accompanied with “optimistic” statements by the Brotherhood about a change in Riyadh’s approach toward the group, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood will undergo changes. Speaking with writer Samar al-Moqrin from the Saudi Al-Jazirah newspaper, al-Faisal said: “We do not have any problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. We have a problem with a small segment affiliated with the group, which are loyal to the [supreme] guide.” These statements indicate that there are efforts to revitalize the Brotherhood but on Saudi terms in order to turn them into national groups that obey the guardian but do not follow the Guidance Office.
[T]he relationship with Ankara is a main priority to King Salman, considering its potential impact on issues of concern to the kingdom in many countries.The expected change toward the Brotherhood entails a change in the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which significantly deteriorated under King Abdullah as a result of the “contention” between Riyadh and Ankara over several crises, most notably Syria and Egypt. It appears that efforts are underway to make similar changes at the level of Saudi-Turkish relations. Indications of a possible change began to appear after the death of King Abdullah. After cutting his African tour short to attend Abdullah’s funeral, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Riyadh soon as part of his annual international tour. Also, Turkish Interior Minister Avkan Alaa has met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Riyadh, where they discussed issues of mutual concern, ways to strengthen relations between the two countries, and the visit by Turkish Army Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozal scheduled for Thursday. In addition, Turkey had dispatched the national warship “Buyukada” to the Jeddah seaport as part of military exercises with countries located along the Red Sea.
As crown prince, King Salman was in charge of relations between the kingdom and Turkey. The agreements signed during his visit to Ankara in May 2013 provided a solid foundation, which can be built upon to improve relations between the two countries. These relations became severely strained after Riyadh supported the overthrow of the Brotherhood regime in Egypt, while Ankara objected to what it called a “coup.”
According to a report in Foreign Policy, the relationship with Ankara is a main priority to King Salman, considering its potential impact on issues of concern to the kingdom in many countries.
In a report examining Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah and the “return of the Sudairis,” published by the Turkish government-run Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), the Turkish government seeks to take advantage of the internal changes taking place in Saudi Arabia to support the efforts to fix relations between the two countries.
Riyadh is aware that repairing relations with the Brotherhood and Turkey would require the support of Qatar, which is the Brotherhood’s patron in the Arab world and a strong ally of Ankara.
The significance of the Qatari emir’s visit to Riyadh lies in the agreements reached behind the scenes on several issues, rather than the results reported in the media, whereas details about the talks between Tamim and Mohammed bin Nayef were not kept off the record altogether.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
Abdel Rahim Assi