Analysis: At the World Cup, the Saudi Crown Prince returns to the world stage

  • Saudi leader shielded from US lawsuits
  • Participated in summits around the world
  • Winning Argentina improves its image among Saudi youth

DOHA, Nov 22 (Reuters) – When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman took a seat next to the FIFA President at the opening of the World Cup in Qatar, it marked a remarkable turnaround in his fortunes – before even that the Saudi team put a new feather in its cap by beating Argentina on Tuesday.

Sitting, beaming, in the most important position of all guests at the centerpiece of world sport, the de facto Saudi leader looked like a man at the international table.

In the face of global energy and superpower fears focused on the war in Ukraine and tensions between the United States and China, geopolitical gravity is reasserting itself for the world’s largest oil exporter.

While Washington ruled him last week immune from prosecution for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi and publicly displayed his commitment to Saudi security by warning of an Iranian threat, Prince Mohammed appears to have tamed the anger the United States.

Just weeks ago, US President Joe Biden warned of ‘consequences’ after accusing Prince Mohammed of bad faith over their oil talks in July – a meeting that was itself a raid on United States after Biden vowed to make the de facto Saudi leader a “pariah”.

Meanwhile, this month, Prince Mohammed appeared at the COP27 climate summit in Cairo, the G20 summit in Bali and the APEC summit in Bangkok – all before his appearance in Qatar, a neighbor that planned to invade in 2017, according to previous statements by Qatari officials.

The prince, widely known as MbS, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July and will soon host Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh.

At home, in a youthful country where MbS has opened cinemas, concerts and job opportunities for young Saudis, Tuesday’s shock 2-1 victory over Argentina looks likely to restore his image.

It is too early to say that MbS has won political rehabilitation in the West – he would be an unwelcome visitor to the United States or most Western European countries.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that the immunity decision did not relate to a review of Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was ongoing.

But with Western economies desperate for energy stability as winter creeps into the northern hemisphere, its role in all aspects of relations with Saudi Arabia cannot be ignored.

IMMUNITY

Among Riyadh leaders, Western anger at MbS over Khashoggi’s killing is seen as a politically motivated way to pressure the kingdom, said Abdulaziz al-Sager, president of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and MbS critic who resided in the United States and wrote for the Washington Post, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

US intelligence said they believed MbS ordered the operation, but in Riyadh the responsibility lay with lower-level officials.

The Justice Ministry’s view last week that MbS is eligible for immunity as head of government after his appointment as prime minister was also viewed in Riyadh as political, Sager said.

“The United States has tried to limit the importance and role of the kingdom regionally and internationally, but first found that goal unattainable and then found it harmful to its own interests,” he said. -he declares.

“There is therefore a process of American withdrawal from taking negative positions towards the kingdom.”

When the United States said this month it was concerned about an Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia and would not hesitate to defend the kingdom, it was interpreted by some diplomats as primarily an American message of comfort to Riyadh.

Senior Pentagon official Colin Kahl told reporters that Iran was close to staging an attack like the 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities, but that US measures, including repositioning defense systems anti-missile, could have avoided it.

“The US actions that accompanied the warning may indicate a belated awakening of the US approach to Iran’s aggressive and expansionary policy in the region,” Sager said, “regardless of the credibility of the US warning. “.

HISTORICAL LOW

Saudi ties with the United States and the wider West are still at an all-time low.

During the shale boom of the past decade, as demand for Saudi oil waned, the United States found it easier to put some distance between itself and an ally whose domestic policies it found uncomfortable.

Its stance on the Arab Spring and its pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran in defiance of Saudi fears over regional threats led Riyadh to believe Washington was abandoning its Gulf security umbrella.

So when Saudi Arabia took its security into its own hands with its war in Yemen, it viewed Western critics as hypocritical.

In the West, meanwhile, Saudi fears of Iran were often seen as exaggerated, its war in Yemen seen as an easy assault on an impoverished neighbor and MbS as a despotic aggressor after Khashoggi’s murder.

It seems doubtful that these views change much.

But as superpower competition and energy scarcity once again define global politics, they might find it policy to put grudges aside for now.

Saudi Arabia would probably still prefer to have an American security umbrella. “The United States of America’s unique comparative advantage” is the integrated security architecture it can build in the region, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk said during a briefing. a recent conference in Bahrain.

“It’s a request we hear from capital to capital,” he said.

For the West, this may mean dealing with the dominant figure of Saudi Arabia.

“It is not possible to separate relations with the rulers from relations with the state, especially in a hereditary monarchy,” Sager said.

Reporting by Angus McDowall in Tunis and Maya Gebeily in Doha; Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Idrees Ali in Washington; Written by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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