Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, met officially with leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey this week. His goal, say analysts, is to unify their positions on security issues, such as mounting concerns over Iran.
Enhancing economic cooperation and strengthening bilateral relations with oil-producing Saudi Arabia also were part of the visits, analysts say, as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine continue to take a heavy toll.
Bin Salman’s visits this week in the region, analysts say, signal his desire for recognition on the global stage and an end to years of international isolation following the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, of which the prince has denied personal involvement. U.S. President Joe Biden had labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” when he campaigned, but the two countries are historic allies.
Jordanian analyst Amer al-Sabaileh told VOA that Russia’s war in Ukraine, while driving up oil prices and causing food shortages around the world, has opened for Saudi Arabia “changes in the rules of engagement with the American administration.” Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and the Middle East’s strategic political kingpin.
A non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, al- Sabaileh said that Biden’s participation in a July 16 summit in Jeddah, bringing together the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries along with those from Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, gives MBS, as Bin Salman is known, “a kind of credit” and an ability to help set the regional agenda, particularly on Iran and Israel. Saudi Arabia is one of the GCC members.
“It’s obvious that he wants to pave the way for his regional presence and re-bring this old issue of the Sunni [axis] in facing Iran, the danger of Iran,” al-Sabaileh said. “Then he has another important card he wants to play politically—the relation with Israel. If you have the Emiratis and Bahrainis in the Abraham Accords and you don’t have Saudi Arabia, it has nothing. Without Saudi Arabia as the representative of the Sunni world, it doesn’t function.”
The United States brokered the Abraham Accords in 2020, normalizing diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and the Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Neither country had ever been at war with Israel, unlike Egypt and Jordan, which signed peace treaties with the Jewish state in 1979 and 1994 respectively.
Jordanian political commentator Osama al-Sharif told VOA that Jordan “is a bit anxious about the agenda of the summit” if it means preparing “an anti-Iranian alliance” of Sunni Muslim states as that could undermine the country’s moderate stance. Jordan, a key U.S. ally, is also a longtime champion of the two-state solution for ending the festering Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In a joint statement Wednesday after Bin Salman’s visit with Jordan’s King Abdullah, both leaders underscored their support for international efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons as well as curbing Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in Arab nations, such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
As an oil swing producer with money to invest, Al Sharif says Bin Salman is plying Saudi funds to finance projects in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, which are all suffering from severe economic downturns due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
“Economically, Saudi Arabia is a very important supporter of Jordan, the biggest investor with about between $10- to $13 billion of investments in the country,” al-Sharif said. “A $3 billion fund has been very active, signing MOUs [memoranda of understanding] with regard to investing in Jordan’s railway system, in start-ups, in new ventures. In Cairo, they signed deals [worth] $7.7 billion.”
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are signing agreements on energy, security and economy, including a plan for Saudi funds to enter capital markets in Turkey, according to Reuters. Turkey is experiencing its worst economic crisis in two decades.
Some analysts believe that Washington may encourage Arab states to take on a greater role to defend themselves and work in coordination with Israel to combat ongoing threats posed by Iran. But Khaled Shneikat, the head of the Jordanian Political Science Society, told the online Middle East Eye publication it is likely that “regional countries are going to request a bigger security role for the U.S.” at the summit.