When Arab governments readmitted Syria to the Arab League last week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took center stage as master of ceremonies, signaling to Washington who calls the regional shots.
His kissed cheeks and warm embrace of President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab summit defied US criticism of Syria’s readmission to the fold and sealed a turnabout in the prince’s fortunes propelled by geopolitical reality.
The prince, known as MbS, seeks to reassert Saudi Arabia as a regional power by using his place atop an energy giant in an oil-dependent world consumed by the war in Ukraine.
Shunned by Western states after the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad, the prince has now emerged as a player whom Washington can neither disregard nor disavow, but must deal with on a transactional basis.
Skeptical of U.S. promises on Saudi security and tired of its scolding tone, MbS is instead building ties with other global powers and, regardless of Washington’s consternation, remaking his relations with their shared foes.
His blithe confidence on the world stage was not only visible in his reception of Assad. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy came to the Jeddah meeting and MbS offered to mediate between Kyiv and fellow oil producer Moscow.
To be sure Saudi Arabia still depends militarily on the United States, which saved it from possible invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, monitors Iranian military activity in the Gulf and provides Riyadh with most of its weapons.
Still, with Washington seemingly less engaged in the Middle East and less receptive to Riyadh’s anxieties, MbS is pursuing his own regional policy with less apparent deference to the views of his most powerful ally.
“This is a strong signal to America that ‘we’re reshaping and redrawing our relations without you’,” said Abdulaziz al-Sager, Chairman of the Gulf Research Center, of the summit.
“He is not getting what he wants from the other side,” Sager added, saying Saudi Arabia’s ententes with regional foes were based on Riyadh’s approach to regional security.