Fahad Nazer, JTG Senior Political Analyst.
A consensus seems to have emerged in Saudi Arabia that maintains that the kingdom has an “image problem” in the West. While some of those holding this view have suggested that there is a systematic and deliberate “campaign” in the Western media to portray Saudi Arabia in the worst light possible, other Saudis think that the onus should be on them to contest this negative narrative. One of the most vocal proponents of the latter view appears to be none other than Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel AI Jubeir.
Al Jubeir made his views known during a recent interview with a Western media outlet. He acknowledged that Saudi Arabia is primarily perceived in a negative manner in the West and said that part of the reason is that the kingdom has not done “a good enough job” of engaging the public in the West in a sustained manner.
In what appears to be a concerted effort to remedy this problem, Saudi diplomats have begun writing opinion pieces in the Western media challenging the prevailing sentiment, especially as it pertains to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to counter the threat posed by militant Islamist groups like the so called Islamic State. While Saudi officials have long maintained close relations and continuous contact with their counterparts in the West, especially in the US, they are making more of an effort to meet with opinion-makers outside of government in the hope of telling their side of the story. Al Jubeir has been at the forefront of this campaign.
Last month, he hosted a round table discussion at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington with a very small group of Washington-based political analysts and Middle East scholars. I was among them.
In this small, less formal setting, Minister Al Jubeir was relaxed, engaging and adopted a more frank tone than he usually does at more formal press conferences. Al Jubeir didn’t announce any new breakthroughs in the Middle East’s myriad political crises and conflicts, nor did he proclaim any new policies. However, the importance of the latter should not be overlooked.
In the Saudi Arabia of King Salman, there is little room for ambiguity but a high premium on clear positions, resolute actions and consistent policies that do not change month-to-month or week to week. The Saudis also appear to expect this clarity from their close allies in the Middle East and beyond. Whether their partners have actually done so has been the subject of intense debate.
Given the setting, Al Jubeir naturally focused on the state of Saudi-US relations and began by providing an overview of Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s current visit to the US, which is well into its second week. Al Jubeir said that Prince Mohammed, who is also defense minister, met with senior US administration officials including Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Carter and eventually, President Obama himself at the White House last week. He also confirmed that the deputy crown prince met with both the Democratic and Republic leaders in Congress as well as top US economic advisers before traveling to California to meet with a number of Silicon Valley CEOs.
During his opening remarks – and for the rest of the briefing – Al Jubeir repeatedly maintained that contrary to the popular perception in Washington and elsewhere, Saudi-US relations are not strained but are rather stronger than they have ever been. He maintained that cooperation in political, security and economic matters has only widened and deepened over the last seven decades. At the same time, he dismissed the notion that the US has elected to abandon the Middle East and that it has “pivoted” to Asia. He also made it clear that Saudi Arabia is not remotely concerned about a supposed “rapprochement” between the US and Iran that would adversely affect Saudi Arabia’s decades-long partnership with the United States.
Al Jubeir made a compelling case by listing some of the major crises that US-Saudi relations have “survived” over the years, including the 1973 oil embargo and the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks against the US. While stressing the importance of political and military cooperation between the two countries, he also argued that the steadily deepening economic ties have not only benefited the two countries but have had a positive impact on the global economy.
Al Jubeir confirmed that most of Saudi Arabia’s foreign investments are in the US. He also acknowledged without any reservations, that the US is “ultimate guarantor” of the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Al Jubeir spent the rest of his remarks lamenting the current state of Saudi-Iranian relations. While making it clear that Saudi Arabia would “love” to have good relations with Iran, he maintained that Iran’s current policies of “interfering” in the domestic affairs of other countries and its well-documented track record of supporting terrorist attacks and militant groups – including Sunni ones – has made it very difficult for Saudi Arabia to turn a new page in its relations with Iran. He also posited that Iran’s policies in the region and beyond have not endeared it to many countries around the world and expressed skepticism about its prospects for becoming a fully reintegrated and constructive member of the international community. He also cast doubt about the efficacy of Iran’s policies in the region, and maintained that its influence in the region is waning, adding that its allies in Iraq, Yemen and Syria are “losing” in their respected conflicts.
In short, the foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia left no doubt that the kingdom considers the United States to be its most important political and economic partner and that the bilateral relationship has only become “bigger, closer and deeper” over the years. Anything that says otherwise, he proclaimed, is simply “nonsense”.