The US is gradually moving away from close ties with Saudi Arabia and the GCC, shifting its focus towards Asia. Riyadh does its best to maintain its regional importance, especially in the domain of neutralizing the growing influence of its powerful neighbor in the Persian Gulf – Iran, along with retaining overly ambitious Qatar in its political gravity field. This Kingdom governed by the feeble, aging monarch Abdullah is being ignored by the White House with increasing frequency, which leads to its inability to establish a coherent foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia fears that American authorities can lose all interest in the Arabian peninsula, that is rich in oil and gas (it contains 60 % of the world ‘s hydrocarbon reserves). However, the last three months show that the American “Asia Pivot” strategy is here to stay to counter the growing dominance of China in the region. Despite the objections voiced by Saudi Arabia, Washington signed an agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program, it is moving away from active participation in the Syrian conflict, where Saudi Arabia has been supporting the rebels, but yet Washington seems to be fully committed to deepening its conflict with Russia over Ukraine. All these vectors of Washington’s foreign policy show a total loss of US interest towards Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom is still a capable financial power, but it is experiencing great difficulties because of the existing domestic system of inheritance of power, which implies the transfer of power from brother to brother. This led to a considerable aging of all the possible pretenders to the throne. Today King Abdullah that has just turned 90 should be replaced by the aging Crown Prince Salman, who is 79 years old, and the latter is also suffering from a number of health issues. So on April 1, three days after the visit of Barack Obama to Riyadh, the King appointed a “favorite” out of his brothers: Prince Muqrin, who is relatively young (69 years old), this means that the Prince has become a second successor (a sort of “deputy” to the Crown Prince). But at the same time Saudi Arabia must preserve its influence in the region, in order to avoid showing its weakness, the House of Saud continues to be actively engaged politically in Egypt and Syria, along with maintaining its bilateral relationships with Pakistan.
Here it should be noted that the US President Barack Obama inherited two conflict in the region (Iraq and Afghanistan), and now he’s trying his best to get out of them. He is clearly planning to restore the military, financial and moral forces of the United States. And because of this he willing to get committed in any of the forthcoming conflicts in the Islamic world, where one can get stuck military and politically for a long time. In addition, the United States has almost reached the level of self-sufficiency in providing the economy with hydrocarbons, hence they will not be exporting shale gas and oil as soon as we get into the second half of 2014 according to OPEC. Because of this, the country will no longer be in a state of energy dependence on the Middle East, and maybe the US may enter into the competition with the oil producers of the Persian Gulf.
Today Saudi Arabia is far less important for the U.S. administration that is actively trying to get rid of burdensome military and financial commitments in order to restore and rebuild its own forces. However, Americans can not drop the support of the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia completely, since they fear that their place of the primarily Saudi ally can be occupied by other global or regional players.
As for the Kingdom, it has been trying to redraw its foreign policy for a while. When King Abdullah came to power in 2005, Saudi Arabia began carrying out an active policy in Asia, where the King made a number of official visits. Crown Prince Salman in his turn made an Asian tour back in February, visiting China, India, Japan and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s rulers realize that America is getting away, and the Europeans are too weak and soft to replace Washington in the capacity of the main strategic partner. In regional terms, Saudi Arabia is experiencing the loss of the former influence. Even the dwarf state of Qatar with the help of “Muslim Brotherhood” and Turkey was able to ride the wave of “Arab Spring” back in 2010 – 2013, leaving Riyadh aside. This was the reason behind the tough actions of Saudi Arabia the UAE and Bahrain, which on March 5 recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. Two days later, Saudi Arabia labeled the “Muslim Brotherhood” as a terrorist organization. Thus Doha was forced to acknowledge the authority of the Kingdom, given the small size of this emirate and its scanty population it hardly can compete with Saudi Arabia.
Still, the most significant event in the Kingdom was the appointment of a new successor, the King ‘s half-brother Prince Muqrin that is intended to change the old system of inheritance of power in Saudi Arabia. The division of power among the influential figures of the royal family weakens the foundations of the House of Saud regime, hence the appointment of Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin indicates the intention of strengthening its stability. He’s the last of the brothers – the sons of the king that founded Saudi Arabia. We are witnessing the breakdown of the old system of inheritance since Muqrin – is the youngest of all brothers. And one can not exclude the fact that he would appoint the Crown Prince a son of King Abdullah .
For a long time different sources reported the worsening state of health of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, which would hardly allow him to lead the country in the future. But so far no one witnessed any signs that could confirm this information. However, a number of important developments in the State that occurred simultaneously during the recent visit of the US President to Riyadh provide these assumptions with a coat of credibility. From the very beginning of April everybody in Riyadh is speaking about the possible renouncement the Saudi monarch according to model that was previously used in Qatar. Conidential sources say that the appointment of Prince Muqrin Deputy Crown Prince is a part of a greater plan of redesigning the political system of the Kingdom. According to an Arabic newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi that was citing an informed source: “King Abdullah has learned the lesson of the change of power in Qatar, but he has not determined the time he will transmit power to his brother Salman. When this happens, Muqrin will take the place of his heir, and then he will become a king”.
Some sources that are close to the supreme authority of the Kingdom argue that given the poor state of his health Salman would hardly agree to take authority. The same sources say that one of the objectives of making Prince Muqrin the King is to prepare for the transfer of royal power to the third son of King Abdullah – Prince Mutaibu.
It seems that Prince Prince Muqrin, who led intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia in the period of 2005 – 2012, enjoys full confidence of King Abdullah. The United States seeks to prevent the undesirable change of power, since Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil-exporting country, hence any negative transformations in the kingdom would affect the situation in the energy sector.
This execution of the “successor” plan was initiated immediately after the departure of Barak Obama from Riyadh President Obama. It means that Saudi Arabia didn’t buy the promises of stopping the development of the Iranian nuclear programme. It important to note here that the Pakistani nuclear programme was funded by Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom maintains good relations with Islamabad . It is possible that under these conditions, Saudi Arabia would be able to purchase a nuclear bomb made by Pakistan. But even then the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region will not stop, this example will be followed by other countries, such as Egypt and Turkey .
Of course, the cooling in relations with Obama does not mean that Saudi Arabia will break ties with the United States. The American president has two more years in the White House, so he must be able to find a way of restarting US relations with Riyadh. Additionally, of all the West remains the most significant partner of the Kingdom to date. But one thing is clear — there are huge changes coming on the Arabian Peninsula that could affect the formation of a new balance of power in the Middle East.
Petr Lvov, PhD in Political Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.