Political Developments - May 2017

Major changes in Saudi Arabia : On 22 April, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a series of royal decrees effecting wide-ranging changes in policy matters and appointments to senior positions. These may be summarised as follows:

Saudi Arabia’s new Ambassador to the United States: Prince Khaled bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Born in 1985, he is a former fighter pilot who carried out airstrikes on ISIS in the region. Prince Khaled Bin Salman replaces Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, who served as Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States since October 2015. 

Saudi Arabia’s new Minister of Culture and Information : Saudi Arabia’s highly visible Minister of Culture and Information, Adel Al-Toraifi, has been replaced with Saudi Arabia’s former Ambassador to Germany, Dr. Awwad Al-Awwad. 

A Reversal of changes to austerity measures after public outcry : Saudi Arabia reversed an earlier decision to slash benefits for those working in the public sector, restoring “all allowances, financial benefits, and bonuses”, following calls for protests in four Saudi cities over the weekend. The king also added a two-month salary bonus for forces fighting in Yemen. In September last year, Saudi Arabia had cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and scaled back perks for public sector employees.

A New Head of SAGIA : A royal decree named a new head of the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA), Ibrahim Al-Omar. Al-Omar was earlier CEO of Bahri, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned shipping company and one of the biggest shipping conglomerates in the world.

Establishment of a National Security Centre affiliated to the Royal Court : The new security centre will be “affiliated” with the Royal Court. 

Governors and deputy governors : Royal decrees issued over the weekend replaced the governor of the Hail region with Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad. Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Sultan was charged to lead the Northern Border region of Saudi Arabia. Again, several deputy governors have been appointed from among the younger members of different branches of the royal family.

Observers see in these changes the further strengthening of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s position vis-à-vis the crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Naif. Following his meeting and lunch with Trump last month, the Prince seems to have swung the US in favour of Saudi Arabia. Now, with the appointment of his brother, a former air force pilot, as the Saudi ambassador to the US, the prince expects to have a direct line to the Pentagon and the White House.

Again, with the National Security Centre to be part of the royal palace, Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems to have encroached on the three areas where the crown prince, as head of the Interior Ministry and the Chair of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, still has some authority: the intelligence services, oil and internal security. In the intelligence services, he has promoted the person who is said to be closest and most loyal to him, the spokesperson for the coalition in the Yemen conflict Major General Ahmad Asiri, as Deputy Head of Intelligence.

Again, the deputy crown prince has set up a new ministry under the name of “Energy Affairs”, and appointed another of the king’s sons, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, as its head. 

While the kingdom has been basking in the good ties apparently firmed up with the US during the Trump-Mohammed bin Salman encounter last month, the fact that ties will remain turbulent and unpredictable was made clear on 28 April when, in a Reuters interview, Trump went back to his election campaign rhetoric and criticised Saudi Arabia for not treating the United States fairly, saying that Washington was losing a “tremendous amount of money” defending the kingdom.

Syria :  On 25 April, Turkey stepped up its bombing campaign against Kurdish militants outside its borders, killing as many as 20 U.S. backed fighters in Syria and expanding its strikes in Iraq. The predawn raids drew criticism from the United States and Iraq, which accused Turkey of not properly coordinating the strikes. The government of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan described the strikes as “painful and unacceptable” after five of its peshmerga fighters were killed in an apparent misfire. The Turkish military said the raids targeted “terrorist hotbeds” and supply routes used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to smuggle ammunition, arms and explosive material into Turkey, where it is waging an insurgency. 

Reversing Trump’s election rhetoric, the US administration now appears to be expanding its military role in Syria. The NSA, General H.R. McMaster, is questioning the earlier approach against ISIS of using only a light US ground troop presence in Syria. McMaster is said to want tens of thousands of ground troops to the Euphrates River Valley.  In an interview with Fox News, McMaster gave some insights into his thinking on the broader strategy against ISIS: "We are conducting very effective operations alongside our partners in Syria and in Iraq to defeat Daesh, to destroy Daesh and re-establish control of that territory, control of those populations, protect those populations, allow refugees to come back, begin reconstruction."

Prince Mohammed bin Salman outlines his plans for the Kingdom :
In a 90-minute interview with Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Prince Mohammed bin Salman explained that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change a traditional society. 

The prince said he was "very optimistic" about President Trump. He described Trump as "a president who will bring America back to the right track" after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. "Trump has not yet completed 100 days and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies."

Ignatius noted that Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. The prince said: "I'm young. Seventy per cent of our citizens are young. We don't want to waste our lives in this whirlpool [of religious extremism] that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-'79 era. That age is over."

Yemen : The US continued its bombing campaign against Al Qaeda targets in Yemen. Two US
drone strikes killed at least seven suspected Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen's north-eastern province of Marib, on 12 April. The Yemen-based AQAP, also known locally as Ansar al-Sharia, has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks against Yemen's army and government institutions.

On April 28, the Qatari-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi daily, reported that, on Thursday, 27 April, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi dismissed all the political leaders that had secessionist tendencies and were affiliated with the United Arab Emirates, after a bitter conflict with them. Those dismissed include Aden Governor Aidarus az-Zoubaidi and many ministers. He has also ordered investigations into some of them on charges linked to national security.

UAE-Russia agree on a “strategic partnership”: The UAE and Russia are considering elevating their ties to a strategic partnership. This was agreed to at a meeting in Moscow on 20 April between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and President Vladimir Putin. The two sides also discussed ways to combat terrorism and the Syrian and Libyan crises.

Sheikh Mohammed spoke of the importance of the relationship and said the two sides could cooperate in all sectors. Expansion of trade and business ties are vital, he said during the meeting which was also attended by Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

A Dubai-based commentator, Theodore Karasik, has said that Russia’s deepening engagement with West Asia is a positive development from the UAE’s perspective. The Emiratis, with their unique relationship with the Kremlin, are trying to resolve regional security challenges that threaten their interests. 

According to both Russian and Arab officials, this emerging strategic partnership’s first focus is Yemen, where the UAE wants Russia to help extricate Saudi Arabia from its war against the Zaidi Houthi rebels. With Russia’s help, the Riyadh-led coalition could achieve this goal following a political process that includes holding presidential elections in Yemen later this year. 

Officials have said that the Emiratis and Saudis want former Yemeni Prime Minister, Mohammed Basindawa, who resigned in 2014 following deadly clashes between Houthi rebels and the army in Sanaa, to be Yemen’s next president because he has good relations with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Under this plan, Saleh, who attended the Moscow meeting, according to Arab diplomats in Russia, will remain in Yemen, possibly as defence minister in a Basindawa administration. 

In return for helping to extricate Saudi Arabia from the Yemen conflict, Russia could obtain berthing facilities in Aden. This would give Russia its fourth “pit stop” from the top of the Suez Canal in the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea, the others being Alexandria, Aqaba and Fujairah. As Russia plans to have a light, rapid modern blue water navy, such maintenance and repair depots are critical for future Russian naval operations in and around West Asia, whether it be delivering humanitarian aid or protecting international sea lanes from pirates and terrorists. 

In general, the visit to Moscow of the Abu Dhabi crown prince, Karasik notes, will facilitate Russia’s return to southern Yemen. Again, the bilateral cooperation will promote the two states’ mutual interests with respect to resolving the Yemeni crisis, eradicating Sunni Islamist extremists from the Arabian Peninsula’s southwestern corner, and securing bodies of water and passages that are critical to global maritime trade. 

In fight against ISIS, US engages with regional partners: US secretary of state James Mattis has visited regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Djibouti as part of his consultations with counterparts on expanding the US-led coalition against the ISIS, but also combating al-Qaeda, particularly in Yemen. Mattis’ tour also included Egypt and Qatar, which hosts the US military’s main Mideast air operations centre. He also made a brief stop at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, which the US uses to fly sensitive drone missions over Yemen. 

Observers have noted that the US will be more actively supporting the Saudi military effort in Yemen, while seeking to block Iranian supplies to the Houthis through the Red Sea ports. The Trump administration is considering providing intelligence, aerial refuelling and other military assistance to the United Arab Emirates, which is allied with the Saudis in Yemen. Before his departure, Mattis also said that Washington wants a return "as quickly as possible" to UN-backed Yemen peace talks.

In Saudi Arabia, Mattis said that Washington wants to see a strong Saudi Arabia, and hinted that president Donald Trump could visit the kingdom. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defence` minister, told Mattis that Saudi Arabia and the US are working to counter challenges in the region, including "the malign activities of Iran" and to bring stability "to the most important straits."

US says Iran complying with nuclear agreement :  The Trump administration has notified Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama, and says the U.S. has extended the sanctions relief given to the Islamic republic in exchange for curbs on its atomic program.

However, in a letter sent late Tuesday, 18 April, to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration has undertaken a full review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He went on to say: “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods.” He added that the National Security Council-led inter-agency review of the agreement will evaluate whether it “is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”

Iran expert Trita Parsi has noted the US approach to Iran suggests that “there are several potential land mines on the near horizon”. The first is in Congress, where a bipartisan effort is underway to introduce new sanctions on Iran that, despite the protestations of the legislation’s sponsors, would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement by adding new conditions onto the deal. By certifying to Congress that Iran is complying with the deal, it would now be more difficult for Trump to push the United States out of compliance by adopting new sanctions or failing to renew the sanctions waivers.

Another emerging threat comes from Iran’s domestic politics. Presidential elections next month may put Iran’s foreign policy back into the hands of the country’s hard-liners. Despite the overwhelming support among the Iranian public for the nuclear deal, and despite projected economic growth of 6.6 percent, the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, is by no means a certainty.

The third area of concern noted by Parsi is “the Trump administration’s adoption of Saudi Arabia’s obsession with “countering Iranian influence” in the Middle East.” While the Obama administration viewed the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as a source of instability and urged the two West Asian powers to learn to share the region, the Trump administration seems to have opted to make the Saudis’ conflict with Iran its own; the main arena for this confrontation is Yemen.

Another commentator on Iran, Orrin Schwab, has pointed out that if the Congressional legislation in question is the bipartisan effort to initiate sanctions against Iran's ballistic missile program, it would not be possible to stop it.  According to a letter released in February, 20 U.S. senators, including 9 Democrats and 11 Republicans are sponsoring the bill.  These legislators cross the full ideological spectrum of the U.S. Senate. Again, even if the president were to veto it, both Houses of Congress would be able to override the veto. This would mark the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.


May 2, 2017

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About the Author

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed

Former Ambassador of India to Saudia Arabia, Oman and UAE, monitors developments in the West Asian region.  

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1974. Early in his career, he was posted in a number of West Asian countries such as Kuwait, Iraq and Yemen and later, between 1987 and 1990, he was Consul General in Jeddah. He also held positions in the Indian missions in New York, London and Pretoria. He served as Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2000-03; 2010-11); Oman (2003-04), and the UAE (2007-10). He was also Additional Secretary for International Cooperation in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2004-06. In July 2011, the Saudi Government conferred on him the King Abdul Aziz Medal First Class for his contribution to the promotion of Indo – Saudi relations. After retirement from the Foreign Service in 2011, he worked in the corporate sector in Dubai for three years. He is now a full-time academic and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University. He has published three books: Reform in the Arab World: External Influences and Regional Debates (2005), Children of Abraham at War: the Clash of Messianic Militarisms (2010), and The Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring (2013). He writes and lectures frequently on Political Islam, the politics and economics of West Asia and the Indian Ocean and energy security issues.