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The Foreign Policy Failures behind the Arab-Islamic Summit in KSA

The Foreign Policy Failures behind the Arab-Islamic Summit in KSA

The emergency Arab-Islamic summit in Saudi Arabia, which brought togethers leaders from the Arab world, including Bashir Al-Assad, Turkey, and even the president of Iran, has come to a close with the rejection of Israel’s claims to self-defense against Hamas, and a joint call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the war in Gaza. None of the usual saber rattling from these circles is likely to bring Israel to withdrawal from Gaza before its military objectives are met; even the US, which has repeatedly pressured Israel on instituting humanitarian pauses and pushed it in the direction of a ceasefire, allegedly as a condition for hostage release, will not be much affected by these comments. However, without a doubt, this gathering, unequivocally equating Hamas with the Palestinian cause, is a strategic communication to Jerusalem and Washington. As any overt messages with covert meanings, it is worth deciphering. There are several takeaways that jump to mind if one follows the trajectory of the unfolding events in the Middle East for the past several years.

First, GCC states are terrified of the escalation of the conflict, already ongoing and easily observable from the multiple recent Houthi border attacks on Saudi Arabia, which were more successful than their attacks on Israel. There is also a shared regional concern that if Hizbullah and other Iran-backed proxies escalate, as they have threatened to do in response to Israel’s prolonged ground operations in Gaza, this increased terrorist activity could destabilize Iraq where Saudis, Emiratis, and others recently invested billions. Moreover, after the series of recent bilateral normalization agreements with Bashir Al-Assad, GCC and others are embarrassed that Syrian Iran-backed militias are emerging as some of the most active players in the widening conflict, particularly against US troops. Whatever may have been the behind-the-scenes pressure, Assad takes Iran’s lead, and backing by Russia and increasingly China, as far more persuasive than the calls from Riyadh and elsewhere.

The region is not prepared for what Iran might do next. The entire East of Saudi Arabia is Shia majority, and Iran has been indoctrinating the population there for decades. Houthis are bordering Saudis and are ready to strike, and on the other side of KSA are the Iraqi militias, also organized to strike. None of that is in the news. There has been no action taken by the Defense Ministry to defend the borders. UAE is a small state heavily dependent on Iran for trade and has been a past victim of Houthi missiles as well. Abu Dhabi has no real chance to succeed in a direct war with Iran or its proxies. Bahrain has a huge Shia presence linked to Hezbullah and Iran, and the Arab Spring would have resulted in the loss of monarchy there if not for the Saudis who are no longer in position or willing to defend them. We have seen the Saudi silence in the face of a recent Houthi drone attack on a Bahraini base in Yemen which killed several people and wounded over 50 Bahrainis.

The Islamists and their corrupt supporters who are now clearly taking charge of foreign policy in KSA  have been making money from the financial arrangements resulting from the normalization with Iran and not willing to give up power to face Iran off. They have allowed Iranian presence into the country with the return of the Iranian diplomats. They have also facilitated the free flow of intelligence through Qatar and Iran and Houthis, starting with the push for the ill-begotten Al-Ula agreement. The Foreign Ministry has for years have worked to legitimize the Houthis as a peace partner contrary to MBS’s and his brother’s agenda. For that reason, Khalid bin Salman, the defense minister, was seemingly missing in action during recent Houthi attacks on Saudi borders that killed several soldiers. Turkey is not so much worried about Iran as it agrees with its agenda on this issue and has been actively helping Iran. Erdogan has refused to oust Hamas from Turkey, and for years has allowed Hamas cells to plan attacks in Israel. Qatar has effectively sided with Iran – the coordinated statements following the October 7 attack are quite clear. Kuwait is essentially ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is overwhelmingly in control of the population, with the Royal Family forced to cater to their ideology. Oman is one of Iran’s top trade and military partners; Baghdad and Assad have been essentially coopted by Iran. The Iraqi government is hostage to Tehran’s whims. Egypt is increasingly isolated internationally; according to many reports, the Islamists in Egypt are on the rise and taking advantage of the economic crisis; pro-Islamist political factions in Egypt are more interested in working with Russia, China, and Iran than with the US.

In Morocco, the King has been less visible and there have been many shocking and largely unreported pro-Hamas rallies recently despite the Muslim Brotherhood party being formally out of government. There is reason to believe that many hidden Islamists rose through security institutions to take the royal system by surprise. Moreover, unideological but otherwise corrupt officials made common cause with Iran through covert trade circles and business deals despite lack of formal relations between these countries. These lobbies are now taking advantage of the regional situation to isolate those who have supported King Mohammed VI’s regional vision for integration. In short, anyone willing to stand up to Iran and its spheres of influence has been either discredited, ostracized, or compromised. The rest are either willing to help Iran or are scared of Pro-Iran forces and the potential and growing support for them from Russia and China. Simultaneously, US is clearly unwilling to engage in a show of direct force and even lets its own troops get attacked in Iraq and Syria.

Second, it has long since become apparent that Iran is the new leader and decisionmaker in the region; the Gaza summit runs parallel to a summit with Iran president who came to Saudi Arabia for this purpose. These two events cemented this perception. Although Saudi Arabia recently normalized with Iran, there are tensions inherent to this relationship; KSA remains a target of Iran’s theocratic dogma and single-minded dedication to become the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and Tehran’s aspiration to assert religious, not just geopolitical primacy over the region and the Muslim world. Iran has been calling the shots behind the scenes on the theater of war in Gaza and regionally the entire time; those who presume that Hezbullah or any other proxy makes its decision independently are misguided.

A WSJ report from 6 months before the October 7 attack on Israel underscores Iran’s influence, as an Iranian official traveled to Beirut in April to call on Gaza and Hezbullah to attack Israel; Ramadan riots, which also featured Palestinian Islamic Jihad rockets from Gaza ensued at about the same time. Later reports indicate that at least some officials in Iran had direct knowledge of the October 7 attack and gave a final approval to it; Hamas also indicated the level of long-term Iran support that went far beyond general proxy-building. A month before the Simchat Torah assault, 500 Hamas and PIJ fighter reportedly trained in Iran. All logistical and military calculations are done by Iran, and Iran calls the shots on the level of involvement by various proxies. Thus the summit is less about forcing Israel into a withdrawal and more about acknowledging Iran’s lead on this issue; GCC states and others need to appease Iran, not Israel, if they wish to avoid escalation and entrapment by Iran’s regional army; therefore the purpose of the summit was simply to ingratiate themselves to the overlords in Tehran. The summit represents a weakened Saudi Arabia and the Arab world to appease Iran and to follow its lead on information warfare for fear of being punished if they appear not sufficiently obsequious to its goals.

Third, it is clear that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is no longer in charge – if he ever was fully in charge – but is compelled to carry out instructions and to follow the official Saudi foreign policy dictated by others. Indeed, officially, the foreign policy of the country is subject only to the king himself. Much fanfare has been made in the media over Mohammed bin Salman’s allegedly assertive role in regional affairs; however, should the king choose to put a limit to this responsibility, his son would still have to follow the official orders as the Prime Minister. Moreover, while the king himself has not been visible in the past 6 months, it is very clear that given the choice, the Crown Prince would likely have continued his previous line, which has always clashed with the Foreign Ministry and other more conservative elements of the country’s advisory circles. This entire arrangement of normalizing with countries and ideologies he clearly despised, including Assad, who had very little to bring to the Saudi table, as well as the tone of the two summits, have run so sharply in contrast to his previously stated concerns and policies that one can only surmise the Crown Prince has been deprived of any choice on the course of the events.

The answer to who is really running the show in Saudi Arabia lies with the people who have been pushing a pro-Iran and pro-Houthi policy the entire time, such as the long-serving Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed AlJaber, who has been in that position since before Mohammed bin Salman rose to his current status, and who has been pushing for diplomatic channels with Houthi and undermining the official defense policy at the time Mohammed bin Salman was still the Defense Minister. Others of that ilk have been making more frequent appearance in public pushing the Palestinian cause in contrast to MBS’s efforts, since the start of the COVID pandemic, as the supporters of the Crown Prince’s policies became increasingly quieter first in the Saudi Arabic language media, and then in the outreach to the pro-Israel circles in the US. One early warning sign of the change in the political trajectory was Prince Turki Al Faisal’s surprise appearance at the Manama Summit immediately following the conclusion of Saudi Arabia’s G20 hosting duties in late November 2020, where he waxed at length about the importance of that issue while attacking Israel, despite the fact that the very purpose of the Manama Summit was to disengage from the old-school politicizing of the Palestinian cause. Its aim, undermined by Turki Al-Faisal’s comments, was to focus on integrating the region, including Israelis and Palestinians under the economic umbrella, envisioned by the Trump administration.

People such as AlJaber and Turki Al-Faisal are the so-called “Old Guard” of the Saudi politics, the portion of the Royal Family close to the late King Abdullah and the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, many of whom share pro-Muslim Brotherhood paradigm and who even attempted to reunify Hamas and Fatah at a summit in Saudi Arabia over Ramadan this past year. Turki Al Faisal is also the former Saudi intelligence chief, who had faded into the background as the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had risen in influence, but who has, for the last three years, once again displaced Mohammed bin Salman in public view, especially with respect to addressing regional concerns. Turki Al-Faisal has in fact recently restated Saudi opposition over the war in Gaza, attacking Netanyahu, repeating the Foreign Ministry’s initial position that Israel brought the Hamas attack on itself, and justifying the Hamas attack as provoked by “occupation”, a message that had been widely shared by Hamas and by Muslim Brotherhood in the days and weeks preceding Turki Al-Faisal’s public appearance. His role in this matter was surprising, because normally MBS or his brother, Khalid bin Salman, the defense minister, would have been expected to express the official foreign policy. The shift indicates that despite senior official titles, the order of importance has shifted from Salman’s and his sons to some other branch of the family, and Prince Turki was speaking on their behalf.

Finally, the collective gathering to issue the statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and rejecting Israel’s claim to self-defense, underscores that all who gathered there, however reluctantly, have agreed to accept Iran as the leader on the Palestinian cause and have also accepted Iran’s position that Hamas, rather than anyone else, represents Palestinians. By agreeing to these underlying premises, the participants have implicitly acknowledged that they are also accepting all claims by Hamas, however unlikely, self-serving, and outright fictitious. This means that by accepting Hamas’s legitimacy in public and its rule over Gaza this gathering may eventually act beyond verbiage such as the failed motion to impose an oil embargo to force the US and its allies to pressure Israel into putting a stop to combat and to save Hamas from severe military losses. UAE and Bahrain have rejected the breakdown of the Abraham Accords de jure, but de fact the damage has been significant. In months leading up to the attack, there already has been a roll back in the sale of Israeli products in UAE; pro-Israel speakers were becoming unwelcome at the Emirati universities. And while the Bahraini shura (council) never ratified the Abraham Accords to begin with, the fact that it was now vocally rising up to challenge the foreign policy adopted by the King is also a worrying sign. 

Ultimately, 11 countries declined to ratify the punitive clauses that would sanction #Israel, embargo oil in a repetition of the 1973 crisis, or severe diplomatic relations. In fact, according to media reports, KSA was one of the countries to help block the most extreme of these initiatives. The reasons for that may seem paradoxical given the context. Ironically, Saudi Arabia is perfectly fine with doing underhanded business deals with Israeli companies so long as they are registered outside Israel. Moreover, the Saudis and Israelis, along with the other Abraham Accords signatories, continue some level of defense cooperation. But any political, social, and cultural movement towards improved relations, much less formal diplomacy, has become a taboo topic.  American Jews, such Jared Kushner, are given a platform to push for normalization at public business events aimed at attracting foreign investors; however, that topic is not visited in internal discussions. Likewise, the feverish media campaign about the alleged prospects for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, was superficial; there was no real movement in that direction, as confirmed to the author from multiple sources. It was politically beneficial to the US, to Netanyahu who strove to tout regional diplomacy and to distract from domestic upheavals, and gave the Saudis an excuse to earn some cheap PR points with Biden in an election year while pushing for defense-related concessions. October 7 gave them a much needed excuse to withdraw from the appearance of talks – always exclusively with the US, with no participation by any Israeli officials – rather quickly. But Saudi Arabia was not the only interested party in the double talk on this issue – tough political posturing on the one hand, while looking for leeway to avoid a complete breakdown in relations. Egypt, too, despite a significant bilateral deterioration in relations, has avoided withdrawing from the peace treaty. At least one of the reasons for that is economic: Cairo is dealing with a significant economic crisis; Israel’s withdrawal from gas related extraction as a result of the war impacted Egypt’s business. It also cannot afford to lose the remnants of US aid, directly dependent on normalized relations.

Countries like Mauritania and Somalia were alleged to be in the middle of rapprochement with Israel and one or both of them were expected to join up with the regional ministerial N7 gathering that was to be held by Morocco, and that had already been postponed even before the attack. Maintaining a lifeline to Israel out of economic self-interest may prevent a repetition of the 1970s for now; if the war lingers on, that could change. However, despite avoiding a drastic fallout, the Arab states are faced with the reality that the Hamas attack on Israel in the wake of the US continued search for some sort of a diplomatic breakthrough leaves them vulnerable to Iran, as Israel is now perceived to be weakened. They are losing control of their own populations, which, by and large, did not back the Abraham Accords and did not have an opportunity to be fully immersed in the people-to-people outreach. The attack has reversed much of the slow progress made over the past years since the conclusion of the Accords, and probably set back these relations many years.

Indeed, despite suffering military losses in Gaza, Hamas is enjoying its greatest public relations victory since the 2007 takeover of Gaza in the partial elections that took place. The rhetoric from the Arab and Muslim states is emboldening the fighters to continue its stand-off with Israel; the successful galvanizing of the masses of supporters globally are amplifying the propaganda success, and the recruitment of new followers who are now reinvigorated by the apparent mass victory, and example of the Hamas fighters in avoiding detecting and striking a major blow to the enemy, is likely through the roof. That, too, has an impact on the Arab street who for years was beginning to think that Muslim Brotherhood-linked movements were dying. The OCtober 7 attack sent the message to the contrary. The result is now an additional pressure factor on the Arab governments to avoid internal upheaval they may not be able to control

Israel’s messaging has not always been effective either, in this context. The government sees its neighbors as having turned against it and views such actions as betrayal. But countries like Egypt are left in between a rock and a hard place, and are managing to hold back waves of popular resentment as some of the military action by Israel near their own borders that they see as overreach and which may not be necessary to meet immediate objectives. Israel, in an uncompromising mode, is unlikely to be listening to these concerns, which only adds fuel to the fire. Without a doubt, however, the hardcore conservatives in the Middle East, are taking full advantage of this congruence of factors to their full advantage. Let’s recall a telling revelation from the recent explosive Semafor article by Jay Solomon, who reveals the extent of IRanian influence campaigns in Europe and the United States.

Ariane Tabatabai, currently a Pentagon official who still has access to classified information, at one point turned to senior Iranian officials for guidance on some of her duties. She was told to hold off responding to an invitation by Israelis to a conference there, but received a greenlight to accept an approach from Turki Al-Faisal in Saudi Arabia, which took place in 2014, years before Mohammed bin Salman reached the peak of his influence. At the time, it appears, Iran viewed the Saudi Old Guard as a possible partner for some of its agenda. After all, Khomeini had the Muslim Brotherhood texts translated to Farsi and popularized in Iran following the Islamic Revolution. Despite some ideological differences, the revolutionary fervor, nepotism, corruption, conservatism, and similar dogmatic and authoritarian approaches among the Islamists in power circles were, on some level, always stronger than ethnic and religious strife that has kept Iran and Saudi Arabia at a distance historically. All of these factors were bubbling under the surface of the Arab-Muslim Summit – but this complex history and political dynamics were apparently disregarded by the US officials who had spent countless hours since the war broke out traveling around the region in an effort to bring the regional leaders into the US fold on this issue and against Hamas.

Despite this seemingly active shuttle regional diplomacy by various high level US officials, the outcome has been a dismal failure. The limitation of the US foreign policy is that it has not brought anything to the table that would address any of the above mentioned concerns. It has not given up on a futile policy of trying to come to a deal with Iran; it has not properly countered China’s growing political and aspirational military presence in the Middle East and North Africa; it has not been willing to name Iran’s direct hand in the October 7 attack, and it has not provided its Middle Eastern allies with any reassurances, commitments, or offers that would make it worth their while to align with Israel. 

It has also failed to differentiate between the various competing factions in these governments and the divergent interests over the future of their countries, much less the general trajectory of the region. The conservatives in GCC begrudgingly went along with some of the more aggressive reforms, particularly in Saudi Arabia, but overall wished to limit these reforms to specific economic and cosmetic social changes, without a full reimaging of the entire infrastructure and political direction of their societies, which would include a more open and integrated approach to other ethnicities, religious views, and countries. They viewed most of MBS’s Vision2030 as fundamentally in conflict with their own values, but so long as he appeared to have power and some level of backing from the US, were willing to play along. The Khashoggi fallout undid much of the international good will, weakened the Crown Prince politically, and gave these factions an an opening to return to power and to put pressure from within to hinder, slow down, or reverse the progress made in reimagining Saudi Arabia and the region away from these fundamentalist or in many cases, completely ahistorical convictions and misinterpretations. These factions were willing to use the Palestinian cause to retain or regain the favor of the street, and for decades have been much more conciliatory towards Iran than the more nationalist-inclined of the factions, such as the reformists. T

hey believed that they could come to some sort of a power sharing understanding with Tehran, and on the basis of tribal and nepotistic interests, were more concerned with what would happen to their own private fiefdoms and gravy trains, than how Iran’s hold in the region could affect the societies and the region overall. Hence, we saw years of parallel shadow diplomacy with the Houthis, Iran, and other proxies and factions that seemed to contradict and undermine the official, assertive line and defense position which also extended to other Saudi allies. Ultimately, such positioning not only contributed to the weakening of the nationalist line and leadership in KSA, but contributed to strife with some of its closest regional allies. Similarly, UAE was maneuvered by such lobbies away from a strong cohesive line supportive of an anti-Islamist anti-Iran position, and into rivalry with Riyadh. The result of these divisive politics was increased regional sectarianism, deteriorating relations, and opening for Iran and its proxies to divide, conquer, and push their own agendas, while isolating Arab states, and turning them against each other.  Moreover, Israel’s catastrophic intelligence failures made it appear weak and isolated, undermining its position as a regional asset capable of standing up to Iran. ISrael was once seen as an additional unifying factor that could bring the region together against Iran and smooth over the edges among the Arab “brothers”. But that perception started to change with the Al Ula agreement, which brought Qatar, as a Trojan horse, back into the fold of the Arab states, and weakened Israel’s position.

The October 7 events struck an even stronger blow to Israel’s deteriorating status. The only way for it to accomplish that  – to return to the prestige of the bygone era of only a few years ago – is to restore deterrence, but because it is seen as the “weaker horse”, the Arab and Muslim world will be working against it, not with it, in this matter (the Gaza war). US and Israel are also not willing to confront the fact of Islamist agenda, generously funded by Qatar, continuing to repeat past political mistakes in that regard, which only empowers the anti-Islamist elements. ISrael has had a policy of non-interference in the internal political affairs of the Arab states; it showed no particular interest in the power struggle between the reformists and the Old Guard; the Sunni and the Shia; the nationalists and the nepotists. And the US, for decades, preferred the Islamists and genuinely considered them as a grassroots movement reflective of the majority of the population, and thus worthy of respect, rather than than a fanatic, exclusivist, hierarchical highly tribal faction that represented problematic ideology that threatened US security interests in the region and beyond. Both countries, Israel and the US,  have either intentionally or by negligence betrayed the reformists in Saudi Arabia, who previously led the region and their effort to stand up to Iran, leading to a chain of events which culminated in the Arab-Islamic Summit in Saudi Arabia; the only way to fix the situation is for Israel to prevail and to wise up to the fact that Iran and Hamas are political problems as much as military ones while finding a way to help their few beleaguered allies.

Irina Tsukerman is a Fellow at the Arabian Peninsula Institute and a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.