Interview by Jotam Confino.
King Salman just returned to Saudi Arabia from his trip to Asia, while his son and Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was visiting President Trump in the White House. Both trips were extremely important but for very different reasons. First, the 2030 economic vision that Mohammad bin Salman presented last year relies heavily on foreign investment and selling shares of the national oil company, Aramco. The main goals of the 2030 plan is to reduce Saudi dependence on oil export, and increase the income from tourism and foreign investment. The latter is where the Asian countries, such as China and Japan, play a significant role for the Kingdom’s economic future. First, it is expected that the massive investment in infrastructure will be outsourced to Asian companies, and second, it has still not been decided who will buy the 5% shares of Aramco that the 2030 plan is hinting at. A reasonable guess would be the Asian powers, with Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore having already shown their interests in buying shares.
Mohammad bin Salman’s trip to the White House was a “historical turning point” in the US-Saudi relations, according to a Saudi adviser. During the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia signed a historic large arms deal with the US, but the Saudis didn’t forget the betrayal from the Iran nuclear deal. Like Israel, they were furious with the way the Iran nuclear issue was handled. In their view, Iran got off too easy and came out strong with continuous aspirations of regional hegemony.
I interviewed the Saudi ambassador to Denmark, Fahad Alruwaily, in his office at the Saudi embassy, and asked him what he thought of the European fear of Trump, and whether he will serve Saudi interests;
“I don’t think there is a real fear in EU countries regarding President Trump. Our Deputy Crown Prince visited President Trump two weeks ago, and they had a productive meeting. He even invited the Crown Prince for lunch in the White House with our big delegation. We consider the policy of Trump regarding Iran much better than the policy of the Obama administration. Iran needs to be dealt with strictly”.
And you think President Trump will do that?
“Yes. Until now we have seen him being aware of the Iranian threat to the region and even to the world”.
That means the situation could also escalate, no?
“I don’t think so. The Iranians will not go into a conflict with the US. They will make a lot of noise, for sure. But if you ignore them, they will continue to cause damage to the region. This is not acceptable to us”.
When talking to the Saudi ambassador, there is no doubt his comments reflect the true nature of the Saudi-Iran rivalry. Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently fighting a proxy war in several places, such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Wars which the Saudi ambassador contribute to the Iranian export of revolution and intervention in other countries;
“Iran is a neighbor to the Arab world, but unfortunately Iran has been seeking hegemony in the region since 1979, while intervening in other countries and exporting revolution. They are intervening in Yemen, saying they want to help the people. This is not true, however. I was in charge of The Yemen International File in the ministry, and the Iranians never build one brick in Yemen. Now that there is a conflict between the legitimate government and the Houthis in Yemen, the Iranians bring their planes and pretend that they are helping. This is only one example. If you look at Lebanon, the Iranians blocked the political process for years, because they supported Hezbollah with money and arms. Now Hezbollah is a state within a state. This is what they do for the Houthis, who are now firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. They are intervening in Iraq, trying to secure a Shia government and create further sectarian tensions”.
The ambassador’s skepticism regarding Iran is not only limited to Iran’s meddling in other countries. The nuclear deal (JCPOA) is supposed to make sure that Iran can’t restart its nuclear program without foreign nuclear inspectors knowing about it. However, that doesn’t convince the ambassador of Iran’s intentions with the deal.
“First of all we have to remember that Iranians rarely respect their obligations. They promise something, and then they do something else. Our friends told us that the deal is very technical and strict. Let’s wait and see. We know the Iranians accepted the deal because of the economic pressure, not because they were convinced of the benefits. If they find a way to play games, they will not hesitate”.
Syria and Israel
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia has an interest in removing Assad from power. The Kingdom is supporting rebel groups in Syria in order to influence the outcome of the war, but Assad is slowly cementing his grip on Syria again, mainly due to the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Especially the support of Iran and Hezbollah is a concern to Saudi Arabia. If Assad manages to stay in power, it means that Iran will accomplish its intention of creating a Shiite axis between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This is why there is so much at stake for countries in the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“The regime always treated its people unfairly. The late king Abdallah called up Assad many times, but instead of listening, he started to use of force and invite the Iranians to intervene. He also called up terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, and slowly created a sectarian conflict rather than a revolution. Unfortunately he didn’t listen to the international society”.
Is there any scenario where Saudi Arabia would be willing to accept Assad in power?
“We don’t decide that. This is the choice of the Syrian people. The conflict is destabilizing the region, and groups such as Hezbollah are out of control. Our government has its own work to do in the country, due to the one million Syrian refugees that we have in Saudi Arabia. They are not registered as refugees, but they have the right to work and they join schools etc. The conflict has clearly shown that Syria will never be stable again if Assad stays”.
When I asked the ambassador about the alleged opening of a diplomatic channel between Saudi Arabia and Israel, he avoided the question but at the same time illustrated why it is so difficult for the two states to admit openly that they are cooperating on some issues. Saudi Arabia is one of the most critical voices of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Although the relationship between Hamas and Saudi Arabia is far from what it used to be, the Palestinian cause has been a Saudi project for decades.
“As you know, Saudi Arabia presented an initiative for peace in 2002. Everybody accepted the initiative, which was logic. Unfortunately, since then we have only witnessed extreme Likud governments in Israel. Ariel Sharon, for example, rejected the initiative. Last year we had a big conference in France where our foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, participated. Again, the Israeli government refused to accept the initiative and at the same time offered no alternative”.
Egypt and Jordan have good relations with Israel, but countries like Saudi Arabia have been more reluctant. Is it realistic that Saudi Arabia will accept Israel fully, if a peace deal were to be negotiated?
“Of course. That is part of our terms for the initiative. If the Palestinian get a state, we have a fully normal relationship with Israel”.
Can you understand the Israeli fear of having a potential Palestinian state with a Hamas-run government?
“Hamas is only running a small part of Palestinian territory, which is Gaza. All considerations and worries should of course be taken into account, but the Israelis give no concessions or logical suggestions”.
The ambassador clearly didn’t want to comment on any Saudi-Israel relations, just like Israeli officials refuse to do so. There is no doubt however, that Saudi Arabia and Israel have seen eye to eye regarding Iran in recent years. Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly advocated against making a deal with Iran, while Saudi Arabia deemed Iran’s entanglement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen a threat to regional stability. Occasionally, cooperation between Israel and other Arab countries reach the news, like the joint exercise between the Israeli Air Force and United Arab Emirates (UAE) last week. The US and Italy participated as well, but Israel and UAE do not have official diplomatic relations, which only reveals what experts and commentators long have hinted at; Unofficial cooperation between Israel and Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE is most likely happening behind closed doors. It would be outright strange if Israel and Saudi Arabia haven’t been coordinating with regards to Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region. My last question to the ambassador revealed the level of suspicion towards Iran, and why Saudi Arabia is doing everything it can to curb Iran’s influence across the region;
Do you think Iran is trying to influence to the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia?
“Yes. They are trying to strengthen Shiites everywhere in the world”
Thanks to Mr. Fahad Alruwaily, the Saudi ambassador to Denmark. The article was written by Jotam Confino, the editor of Republic Paper. Jotam has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.