22.05.2023 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Why did Jake Sullivan fly to Saudi Arabia?

Why did Jake Sullivan fly to Saudi Arabia?

The unconditional further strengthening of Saudi Arabia’s authority and influence in the Middle East in the recent period has significantly increased the general interest in developing relations with the kingdom. This is especially true of the “beacon of democracy,” the United States, and its closest ally in the Middle East, Israel.

Ten years ago, in assessing Saudi Arabia’s international activities, many assumed that Riyadh preferred to give money to various elements in the region and entrust them with protecting its interests. At one time, the Saudis, according to some reports, even allegedly gave money to the Islamic State (a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation) to make the group fight against the Iraqi government, which had fallen under Iranian influence. The Saudis thought they were rich enough to give money to others and hire them to fight for their cause.

That changed when King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended the Saudi throne, and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, became very active in the region. As a result, today, after seven years of mutual hostility, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are resuming diplomatic relations. A Saudi delegation visited Sana’a in April to conclude an agreement with Yemen, informing that country’s presidential council of its decision to end its involvement in the war and permanently close the Yemen issue.

Even in the energy war unleashed by the United States over the past two years to redistribute global influence in its favor in the gas and oil markets, Riyadh is undoubtedly emerging as a winner. With Russia’s help, it is skillfully adjusting OPEC’s policy and volumes of oil production in order not only to balance oil prices not lower than $80 per barrel, which is convenient for the producers, but also to make Washington reckon with Riyadh’s opinion.

In these circumstances, Washington was forced to adjust, or rather soften, its position in relations with Saudi Arabia, to which Joe Biden’s administration, immediately after coming to the White House, assigned an openly contemptuous role.  And if in 2021 the US president promised to make Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud a pariah, in July 2022 he was forced to go to him under a barrage of criticism in the US and abroad.

In recent months, the situation in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world has taken a particularly sharp turn, with rising anti-American sentiment across the board and a serious shift from the unipolar world that Washington had been building, towards a multipolar world actively promoted by Moscow. And one of the important poles of this multipolar world is Saudi Arabia, which demonstrates its ability and readiness to build good-neighborly relations with all comers and actively participate in international life.

Against this background the White House made a decision to intensify the “building of bridges” with Riyadh on an urgent basis by sending there Assistant to the President for National Security Jake Sullivan. The haste to organize such a visit was caused by Washington’s growing concern about China’s rising influence in the region, which is a fundamental component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as China’s widening presence in the Middle East, especially after its mediating role in restoring diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This topic and joint plans to resolve it have been actively discussed by Washington in the I2U2 group, which includes Israel, India, the UAE and the United States. A year ago, during last year’s I2U2 meetings, Israel proposed, as a counterweight to the Chinese initiative to link the region by railroads, drawing on India’s experience in major infrastructure undertakings. After a short reflection, the White House decided to make this one of its key Middle Eastern initiatives, suggesting that Saudi Arabia be included in the project as well. The railroad network will link the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, and a sea route will be laid to India.

 As for Israel, although now it is not an official participant in this transport project, Washington hopes that Israel can join it later, if it manages to normalize relations with the countries of the region. And in this respect, Tel Aviv and Washington are obviously counting on Saudi Arabia, through rapprochement with which, as Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Israeli National Security Council, who met with Jake Sullivan the day before his trip to Riyadh, said, a “historic turning point” for the Jewish state will be possible. As Israel Hayom noted in early May, the chances of rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia are allegedly increasing, despite the agreement to resume diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran.

The issue has been tentatively probed by the United States many times recently, and Washington is now examining the conditions and demands put forward by the Saudis. In particular, these Saudi demands include: a defense alliance, a civilian nuclear program, increased trade and an end to criticism over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The most worrisome of these for Israel is civilian nuclear power, which has left Israeli authorities faced with the dilemma of either a rapprochement with the guardian country of the two shrines of Islam or the possibility of a leading Arab country possessing nuclear weapons. Lobbying for rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia in the US is now involving a number of politicians, among them US Senator Lindsey Graham who recently visited Riyadh and Jerusalem. In one of his recent public appearances, Graham reiterated that even though he is a “Republican” he will support “Democrat” Joe Biden if the administration accepts the Saudi demands. In doing so, Graham warned that this possibility of rapprochement has a “limited” time frame and if not done in 2023 or early 2024, “the window could close.”

In addition to Lindsey Graham, Florida presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is also in favor of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In particular, he points out that there is “a great opportunity today” for an alliance between the United States, Israel and the Arab countries in the face of growing Iranian influence, and this is something that can be achieved under such difficult conditions in the region. With the right policies, the American governor pointed out, one could see the KSA finally recognize “the existence of Israel.” Still, there is a good proverb about this – don’t count your chickens before they hatch!

So the recent visit of US Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan to Riyadh had a very concrete goal, and was far beyond just “repairing bridges” between the US and Saudi Arabia. Quite obviously, it was also aimed at trying to push for a rapprochement between the guardian country of the two shrines of Islam and the Jewish state, and through this alliance Israel would try to maintain a controlling position in the Middle East for Washington. Fortunately, the current world has changed seriously, and there are other powers in the Middle East that Riyadh greatly favors.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.

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