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.
According to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of the Baker Institute, “The lack of a forceful response by the Trump administration shocked the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (in the UAE) and was followed by a reappraisal of their hitherto-hawkish approach to regional affairs.”
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.