Saudi Arabia has launched what seems like a charm offensive following the historic vote by the European Parliament (EP) demanding an arms embargo on Riyadh because of the grave violations of the international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. When Mohammad Al-Jefri, the deputy speaker of the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia, addressed the EP foreign affairs committee on October 11, it was the second high-profile Saudi visit to the capital of the EU in three months – after Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Brussels at the end of July.
This fresh interest in EU ties coincides with a growing perception of isolation by the Saudi elites. It is difficult to overestimate the extent of Riyadh´s frustration with the Obama administration for its resolute pursuit of the Iran deal and reluctance to intervene in Syria to topple Bashar al-Assad, a key Saudi objective. The recently approved Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which empowers prosecutors to freeze Saudi assets in the US, delivered a new blow to the kingdom’s relations with Washington.
Even more disturbingly, the rise of American isolationist populism embodied by Donald Trump could well signal a long-term, tectonic shift in American attitudes away from interventionist foreign policies and traditional alliances. If Americans are increasingly questioning the value of so-called free-riding allies, it’s not only because Trump says they are a burden. In fact, President Obama himself criticized the Saudis in this context in his remarkably blunt interview to The Atlantic, which prompted protestations from Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of the intellectual pillars of Riyadh´s diplomacy, to the effect that Saudis are not free-riders. And all of this is happening at a time of unprecedented fiscal difficulties due to a slump in oil prices. In a striking admission of these difficulties, Al-Jefri said that Saudi Arabia is not a rich country anymore and is drawing heavily from its reserves to meet its needs.
In Search of New Allies
In this context, the Saudis are naturally turning their attention elsewhere in search of new allies. The EU has obvious attractions. The largest trading bloc in the world, the EU is a club of rich and powerful nations, some of which have their own ambitions in the Middle East. For instance, due to a perceived American retreat, Great Britain and France are trying to play an increasing role as external security providers to the GCC countries. Riyadh´s spokesmen emphasize that Saudi Arabia and the EU have common interests in stabilizing the Middle East, which should stop the flow of refugees to Europe and address a factor that threatens to destroy the very fabric of open, liberal societies in Europe. Saudi and GCC markets also offer plenty of opportunities for the EU’s struggling economies.
However, despite an understanding in Brussels that the EU and Saudi Arabia need to work together to fix the Middle East, the narratives on root causes and next steps fundamentally diverge.
As the meeting with Al-Jefri in the European Parliament showed, the standard Saudi line describing the crises in the Middle East as a fight between good and evil, and singling out Iran as the ultimate “evil,” does not persuade Euro MPs. After listening to a familiar litany of complaints about “Iranian expansionism,” some of them asked what Saudi Arabia itself could do to defuse tensions with Tehran. Al-Jefri wasn’t able to offer anything other than to exhort Europeans to “convince the Iranians to drop their support for terrorism and stop meddling in neighbors´ affairs.” Incidentally, the same foreign affairs committee adopted last week a report on EU-Iran relations a year after the nuclear deal, which called on both Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish diplomatic relations and work together for regional stability. In fact, the report acknowledged Iran’s role as a major regional state, whose legitimate security interests—alongside all other states in the region—should be taken into account. Contrary to the cliché of Iran’s “destructive regional policies,” the report praises Tehran’s efforts to stop the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Iraq. Even MPs critical of aspects of Iran´s regional policies hold a much more balanced view than Riyadh would prefer.
Yemen: Stumbling Block
Yemen is another example of fundamentally divergent perceptions. Although the Saudi official tried to portray the Riyadh-led coalition’s actions in that country as necessary to bring stability and counter the omnipresent “Iranian threat,” MPs focused on the continuing violations of international humanitarian law by this coalition. Indeed, this concern led them to demand an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia in the first place.
It didn’t help Al-Jefri that the meeting took place few days after what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called an “outrageous attack” on a funeral in Sanaa that killed at least 145 people and injured more than 500. International reactions to what seemed to be a deliberate attack on a civilian target—which also brought together many of Riyadh´s political opponents—have caught Saudi Arabia wrong-footed. Even key Riyadh´s allies, such as the US and France, condemned the strike and demanded an independent, international investigation of what could amount to a war crime. Clearly caught by surprise by this energetic international reaction, Saudi officials have no other choice but to express regret over the strike, which is tantamount to an admission of guilt, and promise a joint Saudi-American investigation.
During the almost two hours of debate, MPs put Al-Jefri on the defensive by bringing up other issues of concern, such as Saudi support for Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups in Syria, Saudi role in funding and spreading extremist Wahhabi teachings and groups responsible for terrorist acts on European soil, the continued imprisonment of Raif Badawi (the Saudi dissident awarded the Sakharov prize by the EP in 2015), and discrimination of women, including the ban on female driving.
At the end of the session, Al-Jefri admitted that the debate revealed a need for further frank dialogue between the EU and Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to disagree with this conclusion. But European perceptions of Saudi policies will not change for the better unless there is a profound and genuine change in the Saudi policies that give cause for criticism in the first place. The EU reluctance to reverse course on Iran and adopt wholesale the Saudi narrative on security in the Middle East, contrary to what many in Riyadh might believe, does not mean that Europe is choosing Iran over Saudi Arabia. As European officials have emphasized repeatedly, and as the new EU Global Strategy states, the interests of the EU in fighting terrorism, curbing migration flows, stabilizing the Middle East, and seeking new economic opportunities require cooperation with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Overcoming zero-sum logic would do more to advance Saudi interests in Europe than hiring more lobbying firms to attack Iran.
Photo: Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.