The “warrior prince” Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud seems to have decided to play the ′alliance-maker` card. As the US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia approaches, Riyadh has rediscovered diplomacy, sending significant signals to Israel. Foreign policy and leadership rebranding overlaps in Riyadh now.
There are two ways to pursue regional hegemony: open competition or coalition-building. Since 2021, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, has moved towards the second option and is accelerating down this path.
This primarily entails working towards hegemony in the Middle East through unity rather than polarization. For MbS, it also means moderating his stance in the eyes of royal circles and external allies before his upcoming ascendance to the throne. Though Mohammed bin Salman began his fast-paced political career trying to rebrand Saudi Arabia’s image, he is now working to rebrand his own leadership.
Increasing oil revenues are boosting economic diversification, but uncertainty still mars the political context: the Iran nuclear deal/issue still represents a question mark and global powers’ rising antagonism (the US, Russia, China) complicates parallel Saudi partnerships.
Credible or not, Mohammed bin Salman’s diplomatic stance has already started to pay off. In the Middle East and, most likely within the royal Palace too, MbS wants to show he is also able to mend fences, especially as the Saudi power transition looms closer.
Regional Leadership and the Throne. What drives MbS’ diplomatic stance
Since his political rise in 2016, the Saudi crown has never been an alliance-maker but, rather, a status-quo breaker.
From a regional perspective, he adopted an assertive, hyper-competitive, and military-oriented foreign policy, contributing to further polarizing the Middle East.
Domestically, he didn’t hesitate to side-line rivals and punish opponents, also within the Saudi establishment and the royal family. The crown prince concentrated most of the power in his hands; however, that approach eventually stopped performing in his favour. Conversely, it multiplied security threats in the neighbourhood as well as reputational costs for the kingdom. Therefore, a communication shift became necessary: his leadership grew to be associated by international observers more with the war in Yemen, the mass arrests at the Ritz Carlton, and the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi than with the ′revolutionary` Vision 2030.
Against this backdrop, the economy was put at the centre of the Saudi strategy once again. But economic goals, especially those related to post-oil diversification, need stability. In foreign policy, this means mitigated rivalries and strengthened alliances: as such, diplomacy has taken center stage once again. For instance, within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), MbS embraced the emir of Qatar after the Al-Ula Accords (2021) and re-energized the relationship with the Sultanate of Oman and its new leadership. More recently, the crown prince has toured a number of Gulf and Middle Eastern states. In December 2021, he visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman; more recently, he visited Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the UAE once again in May-June 2022. After each meeting, bilateral relations have improved.
Most of all, the Saudi crown prince has de-escalated tensions with rival Turkey, announcing a new, business-oriented era for Riyadh-Ankara relations.
In 2022, Saudi Arabia also supported the national truce in Yemen and the transfer of power to the Presidential Leadership Council; returned the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, showed signs of re-engagement — albeit limited — with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and tightened the economic and commercial ties with Iraq.
As King Salman’s public appearances become increasingly sporadic, Mohammed bin Salman wants to portray the royal family as a united front standing with him, including in official visits abroad. For instance, Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of the detained Prince Ahmed, joined the Saudi delegation in May 2022 to pay their respects to the UAE after the death of the Emirati President, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. On that occasion, the prince sat next to MbS even though he doesn’t have an official role.
Building a Defense Bloc in the Middle East: Israel, the US, and Iran
The revival of Saudi diplomacy has also strengthened the regional defense coalition-building, since the crown prince is also the defense minister.
On his next visit, the US President will attend a special session of the GCC summit in Jeddah, a GCC+3 which Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq will also join. Signs of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel are also on the rise, fuelled by Biden’s visit to the kingdom. First, the Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, confirmed the Middle East Defense Air Alliance is already in effect. The format, aimed to counter missile and drone attacks, comprises the GCC, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel “has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries”. Second, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has stated Saudi Arabia is a “critical partner in expanding the “Abraham Accords”. Third, Saudi Arabia and Israel are finalizing a deal on the Tiran and Sanafir islands, whose sovereignty was ceded by Egypt to the kingdom in 2016. The agreement would allow Asia-Europe exports (and vice versa) through the Gulf of Aqaba, bypassing the Suez Canal. Crucially, however, it requires Israel’s approval since the islands were part of the Camp David Accords (1978). Fourth, the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, also visited Saudi Arabia (together with the UAE and Israel) in late June on her first trip abroad. Tasked to advance the conversation on interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance, she also praised the changes in the kingdom, stressing the role of newer generations in shifting the Saudi perspective on the Jewish community and Jewish history .
Most of these steps would imply the presence of formal diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. MbS has recently defined Israel as a “potential ally” if the conflict against the Palestinians is to be resolved through the establishment of a state within the 1967 boundaries, as per the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative (2002). Nevertheless, young Saudis today are more open to Israel than previous generations (much like MbS compared to King Salman) and the Palestinian issue — rightly or wrongly — is no longer perceived as the central issue in the Middle East.
It is worth noting that these efforts — headed by Riyadh from the Arab part — are built upon the endogenous security architecture outlined in the 2020 Abraham Accords. Why this acceleration now? For Saudi Arabia, paving the road towards normalization with Israel includes the mending of Saudi-American relations: this would also help the kingdom cope better with Washington’s disengagement from the Middle East (the US-UAE Strategic Framework Agreement, currently under elaboration, is on the same wavelength). For the Saudis, making peace with Israel would also rebalance the economic advantage the UAE has gained in regional affairs following the Abraham Accords.
However, Iran is also a significant reason. The nascent defense bloc in the Middle East is the regional answer to Tehran and its constellation of militias. This US-supported coalition of Middle Eastern states, which partners on maritime security (e.g., joint naval drills and naval missions) and air defense (e.g., the Middle East Air Defense Alliance), is designed to cope with different regional scenarios, from deterrence to confrontation, depending on Iran’s political choices. In 2021, Israel was already moved to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility by Washington to strengthen Israel-Arab states cooperation. All of this fits into the wider “integrated deterrence” framework at the core of the 2022 US National Defense Strategy, which also relies on allies and partners to develop and implement deterrence.
Within the regionalization of Middle Eastern security, Saudi Arabia plays a subtle yet pivotal role. The last time Riyadh engaged in a comprehensive Middle Eastern strategy was in 2011 when it led the counter-revolution to the Arab uprisings. But on that occasion the Saudis pursued hegemony through polarization instead of unity. The current context, combining high global uncertainty with domestic transition, looks very different. Even MbS seems to have opted for coalition-building, showing his diplomatic stance.