Is Saudi Arabia Really Seeking De-escalation in the Persian Gulf?

After the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the official reaction of the Saudi kingdom was to call for restraint and de-escalation. In its statement, the ministry of foreign affairs stressed the “importance of self-restraint to ward off all acts that may lead to aggravating the situation, with unbearable consequences.” State minister for foreign affairs Adel Al-Jubeyr likewise emphasized the need for de-escalation. For a country that routinely blamed Iran for every conceivable disaster in the Middle East and beyond, it was remarkable that this time Iran was not even singled out as a primary cause of the crisis.

These were well-advised moves by the kingdom as it acutely realizes its vulnerabilities in case of an all-out war between the United States and Iran. Air strikes on Saudi oilfields, widely believed to be carried out by Iran-affiliated forces, and the lack of American reaction dramatically highlighted the costs of a widening conflict to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, however, so far did not follow–up on these declarations with concrete steps and policies. 

To the contrary, in his address to the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament on January 21, Al-Jubeyr stroke a familiarly hawkish line on Iran. He made it clear that Saudi Arabia expects Iran to change its policies in fundamental ways before any engagement could be entertained. In this striking lack of any fresh ideas to build on his own statements on the need to de-escalate, Al-Jubeyr’s speech felt like a copy-paste of the one he delivered to the same audience two years ago. When MEPs asked him specifically about the Saudi views on regional dialogue, and Iranian peace initiative known as HOPE (Hormuz Peace Endeavor), he chose to ignore those questions and revert to the ritual denunciations of Iran.

Lack of any constructive proposals regarding Iran was not the only disappointment from Al-Jubeyr’s speech. He also dashed hopes that the crisis in the Gulf would foster an understanding in Riyadh that all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states should overcome their differences and present a unified diplomatic front in favor of de-escalation. Despite some recent modest signs of an easing of the Saudi-Qatari tensions, Al-Jubeyr lashed out at his neighbor for supporting “extremism, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Shortly after his speech, the Saudi foreign ministry posted a number of tweets regurgitating old accusations against Qatar as if time has frozen since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), imposed their blockade against the tiny emirate.

If the Saudis understand the risks of an all-out war in the region, what explains their chief diplomat’s bellicosity? The venue of the speech — the capital of the European Union (EU) — goes a long way in answering this question. Saudi Arabia was always unhappy with the EU outreach to Iran in terms of both the nuclear deal and regional dialogue, notably on Yemen, where the Saudi regime wields a brutal war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Merely talking to Iran was perceived in Riyadh as a sign of EU’s “pro-Iranian orientation.” Saudi leadership always felt more comfortable working on bilateral basis with selected EU members, such as Britain and France, rather than with the EU as a collective entity. But the growing frustration in Europe over Iranian steps away from the nuclear agreement known as Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), in response to other parties’ failure to deliver on their own obligations, seems to have convinced Riyadh that it was time to finally get Europe to join the “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran.

It is questionable whether this strategy will work. For all of Europe’s disagreements with Iran, there is decidedly no appetite on the continent for joining any anti-Iranian crusades. Even if the EU will be dragged along to a conflict with Iran, it will only do so reluctantly, under a heavy American pressure and privately blaming the U.S. for any possible blowback from such a catastrophic misadventure. A Saudi or joint GCC diplomatic initiative, by contrast, would have allowed the EU to widen its own room for maneuver in search of “regional political solutions,” in the words of its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. The EU, like GCC, stands to lose from a war between the U.S. and Iran, and both should be natural allies in trying to avert that outcome. Saudi efforts to drag the EU squarely into the anti-Iranian camp run contrary to its interests.

Likewise, the EU never bought into the Saudi/Emirati narrative on Qatar. Brussels consistently called on all sides to resolve their differences through dialogue. Saudi Arabia’s harsh anti-Qatari rhetoric is seen as counter-productive, contributing even more to instability in the region and impeding deepening EU-GCC cooperation, including in the economic realm.

The Saudi case is also undermined by the serious image problem that the kingdom has in Europe — despite massive investments in lobbying in Brussels. During the debate with Al-Jubeyr in the European Parliament, an overwhelming number of questions were not about the Vision 2030, the government-promoted modernization program, but about political repression, torture, the unresolved murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, imprisoned bloggers, activists and women rights defenders, and war crimes in Yemen. As Lina Alhathloul, sister of Loujain Hathloul, an imprisoned women rights activist, quipped on Twitter, freeing prisoners of conscience would be the best PR campaign. It didn’t help that Al-Jubeyr refused to engage on these issues, mostly limiting himself to telling the EU “not to lecture” Saudi Arabia. The fresh scandal involving the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s alleged hacking of the mobile phone of Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, further damaged the Saudi image in Europe.

To implement its ambitious reforms program and fulfill the expectations of its youth, Saudi Arabia needs peace in the region and international cooperation, including with the EU, an important diplomatic and trade partner. Harsh, confrontational policies and a refusal to engage in an honest dialogue on issues where there are differences run counter to these objectives. They also throw in doubt the professed interest of Saudi Arabia to contribute to a real de-escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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