Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has wrestled with the question of how to counter its rival Iran’s increasingly revisionist exploitation of weaker regimes across the Middle East. In his role as defense minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) aggressive policies towards other Arab states, specifically Qatar and Lebanon, expands Iranian influence. [i] While both mistaken and costly, MBS’s approach to an Iranian expansion of influence will not prove fatal to Saudi Arabia’s long term interests as long as MBS pursues a softer diplomatic approach with Qatar and Lebanon.
Diplomatic reengagement with Qatar and Lebanon could mirror what MBS has already done elsewhere. For example, in dealing with the United States, he held bilateral meetings with American leadership, strengthened ties by purchasing American weaponry, engaged the American public through highly-viewed television interviews, and met privately with key stakeholders who exert influence on U.S. government foreign policy.[ii][iii] Largely as a result of MBS’s soft power outreach, the United States government continues to support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, even though the war is highly controversial. [iv]
The longtime ally and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partner received the brunt of MBS’s heavy-handed approach. Upon consolidating his new power at home, MBS punished Qatar because of some long-held disagreements such as Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and what the GCC countries perceive to be interference by Qatar in their internal affairs. Saudi Arabia and its allies (United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain) made 13 sweeping demands of Qatar including the shutting down of Qatar’s flagship news channel, Al Jazeera.[v] Qatar’s swift rejection of the demands demonstrated the unfeasibility of their implementation. In response, the Saudi led coalition economically blockaded Qatar and cut off all diplomatic relations. The coalition even began contemplating plans to dig a canal on Saudi-Qatari borders, placing nuclear waste near the Qatari territory, and militarily invading Qatar. [vi][vii] Upon seeing little room for compromise, Qatar began developing diplomatic relations with Iran. Exploiting the situation, Iran sent daily food supplies to Qatar, and voiced its support for Qatar publicly. [viii] These gestures of good will caused Qatar to resend its ambassador to Tehran, after previously pulling him in 2016 as a gesture of solidarity with Saudi Arabia. [ix].
In taking an aggressive stance, MBS may have turned Qatar into an outright adversary instead of ally. After the recent murder of Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Qatar has capitalized on the international pressure against the Saudis by working to increase it. For example, Al-Jazeera and Qatari affiliated Middle East Eye have been “running around the clock coverage” of the murder. According to the Wall Street Journal, Qatar may have even tasked an American based company with building a campaign of shaming businessmen into withdrawing from a high-profile investment conference in Riyadh. [x]
As things stand, Qatar successfully circumvented the economic blockade, leaving the tiny emirate with minimal incentive to capitulate to coalition demands. [xi] Short of military action, normalizing economic and diplomatic relations is only way to engage Qatar on the various issues of concern to the Saudi coalition. To pull Qatar from Iran’s sphere of influence, Saudi Arabia and its coalition must reorient their ‘absolute surrender’ policy towards one of reconciliation. A first step MBS can take is ending the economic and diplomatic blockade, which the Qataris could potentially welcome. [xii]
Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, holds influence in Lebanon’s political affairs. Due to many years of Iranian support and a previous war with Israel, Hezbollah developed its military expertise and arsenal to such a high level that simply forcing them from power through military means won’t be an option. [xiii] Thus, Lebanon and its allies should pursue electoral defeat of Hezbollah. The opposite occurred in MBS’ current actions towards its ally.
First, Saudi Arabia went back on its original commitment to provide $4 billion in military aid to the Lebanese army and the police force, which together stand as the only internal counterweight to Hezbollah’s military force. [xiv]
Secondly, the MBS further undermined Saudi Arabia’s cause in Lebanon by summoning their loyal ally, Prime Minister Harari, to Riyadh and forcing him to resign his position on live television, all while blaming Iran as the reason. [xv] Observers speculate that Hariri’s routine compromising with Hezbollah provided the basis of Saudi discontent. [xvi] This action, coupled with Saudi Arabia withholding financial support for Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement party, resulted in the loss of one third of the party’s parliamentary seats. [xvii] Having a smaller share of parliament will force Prime Minister Hariri to make additional compromises with Hezbollah, more than what he would have had to in order to form a coalition government with Hezbollah and their allied president, Michel Aoun.
Saudi Arabia shows promising signs that it will utilize a softer approach in pursuit of their interests in Lebanon. After the public resignation episode in Riyadh, Saudi leaders hosted Prime Minister Hariri once more, this time in a visit fit for a state leader. [xviii] Additionally, Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion in loans to Lebanon. [xix] It is a promising start; however, more can be done. In order to defeat Hezbollah electorally, MBS should support Prime Minister Hariri’s government through financial assistance packages. For example, Saudi Arabia can financially assist the Lebanese government with the influx Syrian refugees it took in over the past 5 years, whose presence in Lebanon strains the government’s already limited resources. [xx] Such a step can strengthen the Future Movement’s chances in the next election by alleviating some of the pressing concerns of the Lebanese populace.
Implementing the aforementioned recommendations will not fix all of the damage caused by MBS’s actions in Qatar and Lebanon. A softer diplomatic approach by MBS will put Saudi Arabia on a path towards regaining their foothold in each country and also pushing back on Iran’s growing influence.
[i] Ian Talley and Gordon Lubold, “The Real Danger in Qatar-Gulf Feud is Iran, U.S. Officials Say,” Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-worries-qatar-rift-is-pushing-emirate-toward-iran-1523391182
[ii] Tim Arango, “Oprah, Rupert Murdoch, Harvard: Saudi Prince’s U.S. Tour,” The New York Times, April 6, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/06/world/middleeast/saudi-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-us.html
[iii] Mohammed Salman, “Saudi Arabia’s Heir to the Throne Talks to 60 Minutes,” Interview by Norah O’Donnell, 60 Minutes, CBS, March 19, 2018.
[iv] Alex Ward, “Lawmakers just tried — and failed — to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen,” Vox Media, March 20, 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2018/3/20/17144332/senate-yemen-saudi-arabia-sanders-lee-murphy
[v] Staff writer, “Arab States Issue 13 Demands To End Qatar-gulf Crisis” Al Jazeera News, July 12, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/arab-states-issue-list-demands-qatar-crisis-170623022133024.html
[vi] Vivian Nereim, “Saudi Moves Forward With Plan to Turn Qatar Into Island,” Bloomberg, June 20, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-20/saudi-moves-forward-with-plan-to-turn-qatar-into-island
[vii] Alex Emmons, “Saudi Arabia Planned To Invade Qatar Last Summer. Rex Tillerson’s Efforts To Stop It May Have Cost Him His Job,” The Intercept, August 1, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/08/01/rex-tillerson-qatar-saudi-uae/
[viii] Hilary Clarke, “Iran Sends Planes Stuffed with Food to Qatar,” CNN, June 11, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/11/middleeast/iran-qatar-planes-food/index.html
[ix] Associated Press “Qatar Sending Ambassador Back to Iran, Ignoring Arab Demands,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-qatar-iran-20170824-story.html
[x] Rory Jones and Summer Said. “Jamal Khashoggi’s Death Fuels a Middle East Information War.” Wall Street Journal. October 20, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/jamal-khashoggis-death-fuels-a-middle-east-information-war-1540051447
[xi] Gulf Printing & Publishing Company, “Qatar weathers embargo storm, says finance minister,” Gulf Times, May 8, 2018, https://www.gulf-times.com/story/591920/Qatar-weathers-embargo-storm-says-finance-minister
[xii] David Kenner, “Why Israel Fears Iran’s Presence in Syria.” The Atlantic, July 22, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/07/hezbollah-iran-new-weapons-israel/565796/
[xiii] Gulf Printing & Publishing Company, “Mediation only way to settle disputes, says Qatar,” Gulf Times, August 30, 2018, https://www.gulf-times.com/story/604338/Mediation-only-way-to-settle-disputes-says-Qatar
[xiv] Ahmed Al Omran, “Saudi Arabia Halts $3 Billion in Military Aid to Lebanese Army,” Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabia-halts-3-billion-in-military-aid-to-lebanese-army-1455896012?mod=article_inline
[xv] Anne Barnard and Maria Abi-Habib, “Why Saad Hariri Had That Strange Sojourn in Saudi Arabia,” The New York Times, December 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/24/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-saad-hariri-mohammed-bin-salman-lebanon.html
[xvii] Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad. “Lebanon Elections Boost Hezbollah’s Clout.” The New York Times, March 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/07/world/middleeast/lebanon-election-hezbollah.html
[xviii] Margherita Stancati and Nazih Osseiran. “Saudis Mend Ties With Lebanon Leader After Resignation Saga.” Wall Street Journal. February 28, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudis-mend-ties-with-lebanon-leader-after-resignation-saga-1519837995
[xix] John Irish and Marine Pennetier. “Lebanon wins pledges exceeding $11 billion in Paris.” Reuters, April 6, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-economy-france/lebanon-wins-pledges-exceeding-11-billion-in-paris-idUSKCN1HD0UU
[xx] National Public Radio. “’I Hope To God We Will Be Safe’: Refugees In Lebanon Start Returning To Syria.” NPR.org, July 1, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/07/01/624640570/i-hope-to-god-we-will-be-safe-refugees-in-lebanon-start-returning-to-syria