Thursday, November 9, 2017

Diplomatic Realignment in the Middle East

The Wall Street Journal reports from Tel Aviv this morning that Israel is aligning itself diplomatically with Saudi Arabia in an effort to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon.

Here is the story:

TEL AVIV—Israel is moving to counter Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah with assertive diplomacy, aligning its policies with onetime foe Saudi Arabia and signaling a shift in the region’s power politics as the war in neighboring Syria winds down.

Israel’s foreign ministry told its envoys abroad in a cable on Sunday to stress to host governments that the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri shows that Iran and Hezbollah, the dominant political and military force in Lebanon, control the country and threaten Middle East stability.

The cable illustrates Israel’s desire to make common cause, unofficially, with Saudi Arabia in its efforts to isolate their mutual enemies even though the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations.

It’s always worth noting the facts on the ground. It’s especially worth noting diplomatic maneuvers taking place while everyone’s eyes are riveted on the latest media-driven distraction.

As for recent events in Saudi Arabia, some consider that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is moving too quickly, thus endangering his reform agenda. Others do not see many other alternatives.

Eli Lake offers this analysis in Bloomberg: 

But in Saudi Arabia, there is reason for cautious optimism after the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, purged many of his rivals over the weekend, including  current and former ministers, Saudi royals and other assorted billionaires.

In a kingdom traditionally ruled by compromise and consensus, this looks like a risky play. But too often that compromise and consensus has produced a Janus-faced Saudi policy. Modernizers are forced to appease reactionaries. Past reforms have turned out to be half measures.  

This is one reason why President Donald Trump has praised the 32-year old prince's power play. In two tweets on Monday, Trump said he had "great confidence" in the recent crackdown, adding that some of the arrested royals had been "milking their country for years."

Lake gives credit to Jared Kushner for his  role in the current movements:

To start, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been cultivating his own relationship with the Saudi crown prince and heir apparent in the last year. The first outreach began during the transition, according to Trump administration officials. It has continued with Kushner being placed in charge of both reviving the Middle East peace process and nurturing the new counter-extremism initiative announced in Riyadh in March.

Current and former Trump officials tell me that Kushner has also been an advocate inside the national security cabinet for the U.S. aligning with the Saudi crown prince. Kushner was the force behind making Saudi Arabia Trump's first overseas trip as president, and a big part of that visit was to signal America's support for Mohammed bin Salman's reform agenda.

Obviously, Kushner is a foreign policy amateur, but he seems to have a better sense of the situation than many of the experienced foreign policy professionals, many of whom, dare we say, think that the biggest problem in the Middle East is placating and appeasing the Palestinians.

Lake offers some perspective:

And even though Kushner is a foreign-affairs amateur compared with the pros in the cabinet, his instincts are not wrong. Mohammed bin Salman has publicly stated his desire to move Saudi Arabia in the direction in which U.S. presidents from both parties have prodded the kingdom for decades. This includes a willingness to target not only fundraising for terrorist groups, but also the radical clerics who spread a hateful and extremist ideology; allowing women to drive and participate more in public life; allowing outside foreign investment; and modernizing a sclerotic military.

He adds that some experts are anything but sanguine about the recent events:

For some Saudi watchers, the purges and the escalating rhetoric are a recipe for disaster. Former senior CIA analyst Bruce Riedel in a recent column warns that the crown prince is taking a dangerous tack. "Arresting and perhaps even killing political opponents is not likely to encourage investors," he wrote in the Daily Beast. "Fanning sectarian violence is bound to fuel turbulence."

To which Lake adds that Riedel is defending a policy that America has been following for decades… with little to show in terms of Saudi reform:

Riedel may be correct. But it's also worth considering the old status quo. For decades U.S. governments have asked the Saudis to enter the modern era, to join the West in fully opposing the extremism it helped fund overseas in madrasas and dodgy charities. The Saudis reformed, but the pace of change was slow. Even if his method of reform is a gambit, it shows the next Saudi king is now as impatient as his Western allies.

1 comment:

AesopFan said...

I recommend J.E. Dyer's posts as having the most information (and sensible analysis) of the Middle East.
This is the latest one, and may shed some light on the Saudi's behavior, although it does not address that specifically.