Thursday, 11th January 2018

Levant has grounds to fear destabilisation from Saudi activism

The 3 January presentation of diplomatic credentials by the new Saudi and Lebanese ambassadors, Walid Al-Yaacoub and Fawzi Kabbara, restores a sheen of respectability to a long-standing relationship that was undermined by prime minister Saad Hariri’s allegedly forced resignation, made in Riyadh at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s behest (GSN 1,048/14). Some of the heat has been taken out of that situation, but Riyadh appears determined to continue with a more activist policy across the Levant, even at the risk of creating more instability.

Riyadh has so far also held back from exercising what Lebanese regard as the nuclear option – undertaking punitive economic measures against the hundreds of thousands of Gulf-based Lebanese expatriates – but Saudi Arabia still seems determined to challenge Iranian influence in Lebanon. New ambassador Yaacoub made an early impression with comments on 8 January that highlighted the Saudi view that some parties in Lebanon wanted to destabilise Lebanese-Saudi relations. He has met with like-minded politicians such as Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel; the Christian Phalangists’ East Beirut headquarters was Yaacoub’s first port of call. Kataeb MPs have refused to participate in Hariri’s unity cabinet, which includes the Saudis’ great enemy Hizbollah.

After allegations circulating in Lebanon that Saudi Arabia was seeking to encourage Lebanon-based Palestinian Jihadist groups to take on Hizbollah – entreaties apparently rejected by the Jihadists – the new Saudi approach seems to be to avoid active destabilisation measures. But Riyadh will still give fulsome backing to Sunni and Christian figures opposed to Iran; Yaacoub is an ally of Saudi Arabia’s hardline Gulf affairs minister Thamer Al-Sabhan; he is unlikely to soft-pedal towards Hizbollah and its allies.

More generally, there is an expectation that the Saudi wrecking ball approach adopted in the Mashreq will reassert itself. Recent weeks have seen a series of intrusive moves in Riyadh’s ‘near abroad’, with Jordanian and Palestinian leaders feeling the hot breath of MBS on their necks, as their Lebanese counterparts have done before.

Jordan is currently at the epicentre of Saudi brinkmanship. In late December, King Abdullah Bin Hussein was prompted to sack three family members – his brothers Prince Faisal Bin Hussein and Prince Ali Bin Hussein, and cousin Prince Talal Bin Mohammed – from senior army posts. This followed reports of their clandestine contacts with MBS and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ). In Amman, the move was officially presented as a restructuring of senior positions.

The episode followed soon after one of Jordan’s most prominent business figures found himself caught up in the crown prince’s purge of Saudi business elites (GSN 1,048/1). The 80-year old Palestinian-born billionaire Sabih Al-Masri was detained in Riyadh in mid-December. Jordanians took this as a blunt message from the Saudi leadership about its annoyance at allegations of Saudi connivance in United States President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Venerable Arab Bank chairman Al-Masri’s detention spooked the business elite in Jordan, many of whom are of Palestinian origin. The sense is that his joint Palestinian-Jordanian identity made Al-Masri an attractive target to express Saudi animus towards both King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Both attended Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, held in Istanbul in early December, when Riyadh sent an under-powered delegation (GSN 1,050/8).

Palestinians have grown increasingly wary of Saudi intentions, particularly in light of MBS’ close ties with senior Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. MBS is understood to be keen to corral Palestinian support behind a new peace plan, which insiders suspect would shred long-standing Palestinian claims to contiguous territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Suggestions the plan might nominate an eastern Jerusalem suburb such as Abu Dis as the Palestinian capital have not gone down well in Ramallah or Amman. It has also been suggested the proposals would involve Palestinians relinquishing the right of return – the totemic birthright of more than 6m Palestinian refugees.

Suspicions were raised during Abbas’ brief visit to Riyadh on 6-7 November for talks with MBS. After leaving, the veteran Fatah leader reportedly called a number of regional leaders to inform them of alarming news about Saudi readiness to concede on previously sacrosanct Palestinian red lines on refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Palestinian reports indicated Abbas had also surmised that Gulf states were seeking to encourage him to resign, in an echo of what happened with the Lebanese prime minister just beforehand.

The Saudis have their own grievances with the Palestinians. There is anger in Riyadh at Abbas’ failure to adopt a tougher line towards Iran and Hamas, whose leadership recently visited the Islamic Republic. News agencies reported on 9 November that Saudi Arabia had summoned Abbas’ main Palestinian rival, Abu Dhabi-based Fatah exile and former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan for talks during Abbas’ visit. Dahlan, an informal adviser to MBZ, has kept a discreet distance from Gulf policy-making on Israel and deployed tough language to criticise the US move on Jerusalem. However, Dahlan’s many Palestinian critics suspect he is being primed by his Gulf patrons for a future leadership role if the veteran Abbas is persuaded – or forced – to cede power. One Gaza-based observer told GSN that Dahlan remained a powerful figure with a following in Gaza.

Meanwhile in Amman there is growing unease that changes in MBS’s regional approach will impact on Jordan directly, despite Saudi Arabia viewing Jordan as an important player in regional strategic calculations. “There is a concern regarding Saudi alignment and Jordan’s own diplomatic and strategic position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and notably Jerusalem and its holy places, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This means that Jordan must continue to engage in delicate balancing if it is to ensure its own national security”, said Brookings Doha Centre visiting fellow Beverly Milton-Edwards.

These are deeply uncertain times in the region and MBS has an appetite for re-ordering and changing the balance of power which is expected to persist. “It is understandable that Saudi Arabia will continue to use its considerable economic influence as a lever to influence Jordan,” said Milton-Edwards.

The conservative Hashemite and Al-Saud royal houses have a history of mutual and vested interests; both monarchies act as custodians of some of Islam’s holiest sites. King Abdullah is understood to have reacted badly to Saudi insinuations that he give up the custodianship of the Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem as part of a grand peace deal.

Saudi motivations towards Jordan remain unclear. There is clearly a desire to remove Amman from the Qatari-Turkish axis of influence, but it is difficult to see how much more firmly Riyadh could get Jordan to agree with its world view. The policy could yet backfire, particularly if Jordan felt its national security interests were being undermined by Saudi-inspired developments on the Israel-Palestine question; at that point King Abdullah would surely take action to preserve his own rule and the territorial integrity of his kingdom.

The early score card for Saudi Arabia’s burst of Levantine intervention in late 2017/early 2018 is disappointing. The rescinded Hariri resignation was an ignominious failure, to be placed alongside the protracted and financially draining Yemen conflict and the continuing blockade of Qatar. For the moment, Abbas and Abdullah are resisting a closer Saudi embrace. But the failure to reap early rewards is unlikely to deter the Saudi leadership. “MBS sees the rut that Gulf politics has been in and does not want to continue with it. Everyone knows about Saudi Arabia’s issues with Hizbollah in Lebanon, but this is a new era and the crown prince doesn’t want to abide by geopolitical rules that have sorted nothing out,” concluded Gulf analyst at King’s College London David Roberts. The Levant has good grounds to fear that a brave new world in regional politics could lead to a resurgence in some bad old political forces.

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