PARIS — The White House could hardly have embarrassed itself more. Over the weekend it sent out word that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman would be attending a summit of Arab Gulf leaders with President Barack Obama at Camp David this week. Then the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, head of the al-Arab news channel, reported that, no, the king would not be going to the wilds of Maryland for the Gulf Cooperation Council gab-fest. The White House staff hesitated, denied, clarified, and then, yes, admitted they’d heard that, too. The king wasn’t coming.
Amid the confusion, the headline word “snub” appeared widely, as if the petulant Saudis, fed up with Washington’s dithering in the Middle East, suspicious of its new coziness with Iran, in the middle of a covert operation in Syria that embraces elements of the al-Qaeda-allied Nusra Front, and up to their eyeballs in the deepening mess that is the new Yemen war, just couldn’t be bothered with Obama’s blathering at Camp David.
And there may be something to that. But my old friend Khashoggi, who has been an adviser to powerful Saudi royals and remains close to the upper echelons of power, presents a rather more nuanced view of what’s happening.
“I don’t go with some of my fellow Saudis, who are saying the king is sending a message to Obama or this is a snub to Obama,” Khashoggi told me when I got him on the phone. “No, I think the king sent his two most senior deputies, MBN and NBS, as we call them in Saudi Arabia.” That is, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s nephew, who is the interior minister and guiding light of counter-terrorism operations, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 29-year-old son, who is minister of defense and considered the architect (some would say the hot-blooded driving force) of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
I asked Khashoggi to elaborate, and so he did: “Some of my fellow Saudis are afflicted with Operation Yemen hubris—‘The king wants to send a message to Obama that we no longer need you,’ they say. But I think Saudi Arabia still appreciates the importance of America, and the fact that the king sent his deputy and his second deputy shows that he means business. Bin Nayef is very well known in Washington and he is the one who is orchestrating the relationship with America, and this is also a chance for the United States to check out the rising star, MBS.”
But isn’t Saudi Arabia furious about Washington’s apparent rapprochement with Iran? “We are all against Iranian adventurism,” said Khashoggi. “I think Saudi Arabia is worried about the Iranians warming to the West at the same time their expansionism is left unchecked in the region. … An Iran that is expanding, that is bad news for Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia needs to put an end to it.”
When the Obama administration talks to Iran about the nuclear issue, said Khashoggi, it talks about centrifuges and kilograms of uranium. “But the issues of expansion? Nothing.”
So, what is BHO likely to hear from MBN and MBS at Camp David?
“I am sure that a Saudi would say to Mr. Obama, ‘Your interpretation of sectarianism in the region as something that the U.S. does not want to get involved with, we understand that. But that is not the problem. It is the problem of Iran breaking international law to intervene and expand,’” said Khashoggi. “It is not something that goes back 1,000 years. It all started when Iran started creating satellites in the world outside its borders. It is intervention.”
And the list of those interventions is long, as the Saudis see it, with Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq all falling under the Iranian shadow to a greater or lesser extent. “Maybe the south of Iraq is permanently lost to Iran,” says Khashoggi, “but Syria and Lebanon and Yemen, no, that is not going to happen.” And because these countries are all at various stages of national disintegration, “Saudi Arabia is in the reconstruction business,” he says.
Yemen is the war in which Saudi Arabia is most openly and heavily and, for the moment, destructively involved as it fights to keep the Houthis, a Shia sect it identifies with Iranian incursions, from taking over the country in an alliance with the forces of deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Finally we are doing something useful,” said Khashoggi. “I just hope and pray it will work out.”
But what would success look like?
“Success for Saudi Arabia in Yemen is to bring peace and stability to Yemen,” he said. “If we do not bring stability to Yemen, Saudi Arabia will be blamed for starting a civil war just like George Bush, the son, is blamed for Iraq. So success is to bring the Houthis to a negotiating table with their enemies, and work out an arrangement where they are not a dominant force but at the same time they have a seat or two or three in the government.” And of course not allow the Iranians to expand their influence with militias and other intrusive projects. “They could build a hospital here and there,” says Khashoggi.
Sounds fine, but the fighting seems to be going on and on. So I asked Khashoggi how he’d evaluate the results in Yemen so far. Is it a success?
“If the aim was to stop the Houthis from taking over all of Yemen, yes,” said Khashoggi. “But if it is to free all of Yemen from the dominance of Houthis, then it is not. Saudi Arabia was hoping for a crack to happen in the ranks of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s army, and that has not happened yet. I think the priority is to support Yemen troops on the ground using Saudi and other nations’ special forces. That started a week ago. If that does not bring results, I think we have to do anything necessary. … Saudi Arabia cannot afford to leave Yemen in a stalemate. It has to win. And if that takes ground troops we must make the sacrifice.”
This possibility makes the Saudis all the more aware of their need for a continuing close relationship with Washington. “America is important not just to rearm our army—it could run short,” says Khashoggi, noting Riyadh’s heavy dependence on U.S. weapons systems. “We also need America to be at our side at the Security Council, for example. The Russians are coming,” and Moscow may well want to throw a wrench into the Saudi offensive in Yemen.
In Syria, the Saudis had to face the basic contradiction of their two policy priorities in the region, the first of which was to block Iranian expansion (and the Assad regime is Iran’s most important Arab client), while also doing anything and everything it could to undermine and defeat the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Sunni political organization that was the traditional opposition to the Assad dictatorship, but that the Saudis consider a long-term threat to their own monarchy. (Riyadh was a major backer of the coup in Egypt that brought down the Muslim Brotherhood government there in 2013.)
The situation in Syria was further complicated by the fact that Turkey, on Syria’s border, and Qatar, another of the richest Gulf emirates, are devoted supporters of the Brotherhood, known in Arabic as the Ikhwan.
“Saudi Arabia is not at war with the Ikhwan any more, but at the same time it is not favoring the Ikwhan,” says Khashoggi. “When it finds them useful it will work with them. That is what happened in Yemen.” Many members of the Yemeni branch of the Brotherhood, known as Islah, can now be found in Riyadh, he points out.
“The problem in the region is the collapse of states and that leads to Iranian intervention and the rise of ISIS,” says Khashoggi, “and that leads to Saudi willingness to cooperate with whoever is able to help in that task, like Qatar, like Turkey.
“There is no veto anymore on the Ikwhan,” says Khashoggi, “and that led to real cooperation with Turkey. If the Ikhwan was an obstacle before, that is no longer there.”
As a result, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have all been able to throw their weight behind a new Syrian rebel alliance called Jaish al Fata, the Army of Conquest, which has won a series of surprising victories in northern Syria. Commanders of that agglomeration of militias insist they are getting little or no outside aid, but that may well be because the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks are uncomfortable with the fact that elements of Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, are part of the group, and want to keep their support as secret as possible.
All of these issues are likely to be discussed at length at Camp David with precisely those Saudis who are running these new, aggressive operations: Crown Prince MBN and Deputy Crown Prince MBS.
As for King Salman, he’s pushing 80 and he’s not exactly a hands-on monarch, even if reports that he suffers from dementia appear to have been greatly exaggerated. “Whoever meets him did not sense any loss of memory as is claimed,” said Khashoggi. “But obviously he is not entertaining details of political matters. He is leaving them to the two deputies, his son and the nephew.”
The White House, having screwed up the announcement of who would [not] attend the summit, had better focus now on who will.