We can almost hear the new mood music, the new theme song, drifting out of the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The tune is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but it’s not the voice of Mick Jagger. It’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, coming to terms with reality.
He is not going to get a clear-cut victory over the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. He has failed to bludgeon neighboring Qatar into capitulating to his demands. He is not going to force Turkey to pull its military contingent out of Qatar – the Turks will depart on their own terms, when they are ready. And he did not get the stampede of big-name international investors he hoped would rush to buy shares of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, and drive up its valuation. The price did rise in the first few days after sales of its stock went public, giving the company the $2 trillion valuation the crown prince sought, but the stock is traded only on the Saudi exchange and almost all the buyers are Saudis or other Gulf Arabs.
This has been a year of mostly discouraging news for the impetuous young crown prince, known colloquially as MbS, not even counting the continuing fallout from his suspected role in the murder 14 months ago of the prominent U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His aggressive policies in the Gulf region have failed or stalled on almost every front. Recent events have indicated that his best option now is the find face-saving ways out of two long-running crises that he largely created: the air war that has devastated Yemen and the futile boycott of Qatar.
Five years have passed since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) entered Yemen’s multi-faction civil war. The Saudis threw their U.S.-equipped air force into a relentless bombing campaign while the UAE coordinated military efforts on the ground. The escalated conflict has killed thousands and spread famine across what was already the Arab world’s poorest country, but MbS and his senior officials said they had no choice but to continue. They said Saudi Arabia could not allow the emergence of a pro-Iran government on its southern border, which they said would be the result if the Houthis prevailed. Yet the Houthi rebels still hold the capital, Sanaa, and are still able to fire missiles across the border.
Multiple peace-making efforts by the United Nations produced nominal agreements but few actual results. Then in August, the UAE announced that it would withdraw from the conflict, leaving the Saudis virtually alone. The Emiratis said they needed their troops at home to ward off potential attacks by Iran, but many regional affairs analysts said the UAE’s rulers had simply had enough.
It was “the sense on the part of the Emiratis that they've really borne the brunt of this fight over these last four years whereas the Saudis, you know, kind of fly over and drop a few bombs and then fly home and have dinner,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.”
Whatever the motivation, the UAE’s decision undercut MbS’s campaign to persuade or coerce as many Arab nations as possible to join in the kingdom’s policy of confronting Iran and its influence wherever encountered, by whatever means necessary. The pullout “has left Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) the sole key driver of that disastrous conflict. MbS’s friend, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), has left him to pick up the pieces. In the aftermath of MbZ’s action, MbS’s star seems to be dimming and his influence on the international scene is waning,” wrote Emile Nakleh, a veteran analyst of regional affairs for the CIA and other organizations.
Then in September, two major Saudi oil installations were crippled by drone and missile attacks, probably from Iran, that temporarily cut oil output in half. The United States announced it would deploy air-defense units to help the Saudis protect themselves, but when the Trump administration failed to take any direct action against Iran, the Saudis saw a need to reposition the military assets tied down in Yemen.
A few weeks after the UAE announcement, according to multiple reports from the region, Saudi officials and representatives of the Houthis began indirect negotiations, by video conference, under Omani sponsorship. Even if those discussions lead to some breakthrough, however, some violence in Yemen is likely to continue because al-Qaida has capitalized on the political stalemate to reinforce itself in the country’s south, and the Saudi monarchy has always been the terror group’s first target.
The Qatar boycott is not directly related to the Yemen war and it has not resulted in violence, but in some ways it has produced wider region-wide effects. It has disrupted air traffic, business patterns, and family life throughout the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There too, pressure is mounting on MbS to scrap a policy that has no realistic chance of producing the results he sought.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a total diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar, a country half the size of New Hampshire that borders Saudi Arabia along the Gulf coast. Two weeks later the four issued 13 “demands” they said Qatar would have to meet to get off their blacklist. Among other things, they wanted Qatar to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia considers a terrorist group, shut down the TV broadcast network Al-Jazeera, expel a Turkish military force stationed there, and reduce its economic ties to Iran. When the Qataris did not comply, the Saudis announced a plan to dig a canal along the length of the Saudi-Qatari border, effectively rendering Qatar landlocked.
The impact on Qatar was substantial – with borders and air space closed, families were separated, imports of food and dairy products from Saudi Arabia were cut off, and flights had to be rerouted. But Saudi Arabia and its partners badly underestimated the ability of the Qataris, backed by their vast natural gas wealth, to maneuver around the boycott. They found new food sources and new markets in a friendly Turkey. And they increased, rather than reduced, their business ties to Iran, with which Qatar shares the world’s largest offshore gas field. Moreover, the Saudis and their partners failed to win the backing of the U.S., which has a major military base in Qatar, but also has a naval base in Bahrain and close security ties to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis got the message in September when President Trump, despite his close relationship with MbS, held a well-publicized friendly meeting at the U.N. with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
Since then, there has been a flurry of developments that may presage an end to a feud that has been entirely unproductive for the Saudis.
In November, a Saudi plane landed in Doha, the Qatari capital, to deliver the national soccer team to a regional tournament. Two years before, the tournament had to be moved to Kuwait because Saudi Arabia and the UAE refused to play in Bahrain. On December 4, Qatar announced that Emir Tamim had been invited by the Saudis to travel to Riyadh for a GCC summit. That touched off speculation throughout the region that some breakthrough would be announced at the Dec. 10 event. Tamim, however, did not attend, sending his prime minister instead, and the summit’s plenary session ended after twenty minutes with no major developments.
Thus the boycott continues, eleven months after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visiting Qatar, said it had “dragged on too long.” But it is no longer delivering value to any of the participants, if it ever did. Kuwait, which like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain is a member of the GCC, is stepping up its mediation efforts. This week Qatari foreign minister Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said, “We have broken the stalemate of non-communication to starting a communication with the Saudis” — not that a settlement is imminent, but that at least the two sides are talking. Amid all the turbulence disrupting the Middle East, from Libya to Lebanon to Iraq, the boycott is a hindrance to cooperation that MbS can no longer afford.
Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.