Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Saudi Charm Offensive in Europe

Lobelog

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.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary.


Donald Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr is the focus of a growing controversy over the Robert Mueller report because his decision to unilaterally declare that the the president had not obstructed justice during the Mueller investigation.


The Republican Jewish Coalition is a right wing Jewish advocacy groups that promotes an aggressive pro-Israel and anti-Iran policy.


Erik Prince, former CEO of the mercenary group Blackwater, continues to sell security services around the world as controversies over his work—including in China and the Middle East, and his alleged involvement in collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia—grow.


The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the more effective U.S. lobbying outfits, aims to ensure that the United States backs Israel regardless of the policies Israel pursues.


Gina Haspel is the first woman to hold the position of director of the CIA, winning her confirmation despite her history of involvement in torture during the Iraq War.


United against Nuclear Iran is a pressure group that attacks companies doing business in Iran and disseminates alarmist reports about the country’s nuclear program.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The new government will, once again, be the most right wing in Israel’s history. But this time, the length of the new government’s tenure will depend more on Netanyahu’s legal troubles than on the political dynamics of the coalition.


Given such a dismal U.S. record on non-proliferation, why should North Korea trust U.S. promises of future sanctions relief and security guarantees in exchange for denuclearization? If anything, the case of the JCPOA has demonstrated that regardless of its pledges the United States can reinstate sanctions and even bully private multinational companies to divest from Iran.


As Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman clamor for a war against Iran, they seem to have conveniently forgotten the destruction and mayhem wrought by the American invasion of Iraq 16 years ago.


President Trump’s announcement that he would recognise Israeli sovereignty over the western part of the Golan Heights destroys the negotiating basis for any future peace between Israel and Syria. It also lays the groundwork for a return to a world without territorial integrity for smaller, weaker countries.


The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure mandating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Saudi/UAE-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The vote marks the first time since the War Powers Act of 1973 became law that both chambers of Congress have directed the president to withdraw American forces from a conflict.


The Trump administration’s failed “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and North Korea begs the question what the US president’s true objectives are and what options he is left with should the policy ultimately fail.


In the United States, it’s possible to debate any and every policy, domestic and foreign, except for unquestioning support for Israel. That, apparently, is Ilhan Omar’s chief sin.


RightWeb
share