In Saudi Arabia, a slow, gradual power transfer process has just started. This emerges from recent appointments consolidating the next generation of the Saudi ruling class, and also from a series of diplomatic steps through which the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (also known as MbS) has regained the political forefront. In the meantime, Riyadh’s latest initiatives confirm that, in terms of international alliances, the Kingdom is pursuing parallel partnerships among the United States, Russia, China, and also the European states.
A Not-So-New Ruling Class
On 27 September 2022, MbS, aged 37, was appointed prime minister. This occurred, through royal decree, as part of a cabinet reshuffle made by his father king Salman, aged 86. Before the decree was promulgated, the king served as prime minister and the crown prince was his deputy. This choice then formalizes a de facto reality, although king Salman will continue to chair those the cabinet sessions that he will attend. Moreover, the king promoted the deputy defense minister and MbS’ younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, to defense minister, thus replacing the crown prince. Another son of the king, Abdulaziz bin Salman, was confirmed as the energy minister.
Beyond the succession issue, the appointment seeks to provide MbS’ with immunity, protecting him from a probable lawsuit in the United States, given his alleged role in the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Certainly, this nomination is first about protocol. At the highest level, nobody can now elude meeting Mohammed bin Salman, since he has formally become the prime minister. Something that is going to further strengthen the diplomatic power of the crown prince.
Mohammed bin Salman is in fact focused on assuming the role of the mediator in several conflicts, trying to rebrand a political image that is strongly spoiled –especially in Western public opinions- by the war in Yemen, the repression of freedoms and mass arrests. First, Saudi Arabia succeeded in brokering an indirect mediation between Russia and Ukraine. In fact, on 23 September 2022, Saudi Arabia was decisive for the release of ten war prisoners; among them, there were people from five countries, including the US, the UK, Sweden, Croatia and Morocco. This occurred in parallel to the Turkish mediation, which achieved the release of the Azov’s military commanders in exchange for a prominent Ukrainian pro-Russia oligarch. As a result of the Russia-Ukraine prisoners swap, former detainees were transferred from Russia to the kingdom. Because of the Saudi mediation, MbS received public praises from Moscow, Kiev, Washington and London, thus capitalising on the hedging stance Riyadh has followed so far, after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Saudi eggs in many (international) baskets
Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy thus continues to put its eggs in many baskets, seeking to consolidate the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, and the makeover of his image. After a cold phase, energy market instability and the national truce in Yemen prompted a quietrevamp of the Saudi-American special partnership. As a matter of fact, on 24 September 2022, US diplomats visited MbS in Jeddah to discuss these issues.
Due to the energy implications of the war in Ukraine, also European states started courting Riyadh as a supplier, both in the short-term (for hydrocarbons) and in the long-term (for investments in the renewables), as displayed by German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Saudi trip on 24 September 2022, as part of his two-day visit in the Gulf. The return of Western officials to Riyadh highlights that a new, less conflictual season with the Saudi leadership has begun, searching for win-win solutions. This helps MbS’ rebranding strategy, especially in an international timeframe in which mediators are few.
Contemporarily, the Saudis continue to widen, and deepen, their relationship with China. At the latest meeting of the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand, Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar, was welcomed in the organization as dialogue partner. A “looking East” trend that, however, encompasses the whole Gulf: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Kuwait have just begun the process to become SCO’s dialogue partners, while Iran signed a memorandum to become full member.
Despite growing international polarization, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy keeps on pursuing ubiquitous alliances. In fact, these are vital for Mohammed bin Salman’s present and future reign, supporting not only the financial viability of Saudi post-oil diversification, but also carving out mediation opportunities for the upcoming king. Many state partners and a renewed reputation: this is exactly what MbS needs to play strong on the international stage, and to renovate his leadership.