Thursday, May 31, 2018

Saudi Arabia keen to play Trump’s game

In a clear sign Saudi Arabia is making hay while the Washington sun continues to shine on it, Riyadh says it will not award any more contracts to German companies because of that country’s pro-Iran stance.

This is a reference to Berlin’s continual support for the Iran nuclear deal which US President Donald Trump has condemned and no longer recognises.

While all parties to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which as well as Germany and the US, included China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the European Union, were united in its support, Saudi Arabia fumed in silence.

But with the US outside the deal and ready to reimpose stringent sanctions on Iran, Saudi feels it can play the Middle East strongman card confident in receiving applause from the White House.

This was born out by comments from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who does most of the talking for his country these days.

Bin Salman said he has been deeply offended by the German Government — a complaint which seems to have stemmed from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s description of Saudi meddling in Lebanon last year as “adventurism”.

Saudi Arabia is a significant trade partner for Germany, accounting for exports worth more than $A10 billion in 2017, and the move to shut it out can only be interpreted as a turning of the screws by Washington’s staunch ally in an attempt to kill off the JCPOA for good.

However, a closer look at the realities facing Riyadh suggest bin Salman is playing a dangerous game.

Internally he is the driving force behind Vision 2030, a long-term plan to wean the country off its dependency on oil revenues and bring the conservative autocratic kingdom into the 21st century.

One of his poster policies is a decree to end the ban on women driving their own cars which he has been portrayed as a first step in attracting more females into the workforce.

The Crown Prince has also reigned in the power of the country’s religious police, allowed cinemas to open and promising a more “modern, moderate” form if Islam.

None of this has endeared him to the country’s clerics who follow the strict branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, and there are persistent rumours that a lightly reported incident of gunfire near the royal palace in April was actually an abortive coup.

The country’s failed attempt to prop up rebel groups in Syria, and its mismanaged campaign to restore an ally to power in Yemen has damaged the country’s image as a military power capable of being an effective block to the rise of Iran in the Middle East.

As Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies stated in a recent article in the New York Times, who prevails in the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh will come down to capacity and competence.

“Iran has the networks, expertise, experience and strategic patience to fight and win proxy wars at low cost with plenty of disingenuous deniability. The Saudis simply don’t, which is why seeking to beat the Iranians at this game is dangerous and costly,” Hokayem writes.

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