Saudi-watching in the wake of the nuclear deal

Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that risks losing ground as the fallout from the Iran deal settles, as more Iranian oil hits the market and as Iran gets more money to put toward the two countries’ regional rivalry. Plus, let’s not forget, Saudi King Salman has been on the job for only about 6 months at this point. So it’s worth keeping an eye on stuff like the meeting that King Salman just had today with Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshal, in Mecca, particularly insofar as this meeting is fraught with implications for the region’s currently very very confused politics:

Analysts with close ties to the Saudi royal family said the meeting appeared to reflect King Salman’s determination to rally as much of the Arab world as possible against Iran, the kingdom’s chief rival, at a time when the Saudis fear that Iran will emerge empowered by its deal with Western powers to lift economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

The meeting was held in Mecca and included Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s political leader who lives in Qatar. It was a startling reversal from the approach of the previous king, Abdullah, who had led a campaign to roll back or eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates around the region. Hamas is both an offshoot of the Brotherhood and a client of Iran.

That NYT piece does a pretty good job of explaining how complicated this whole relationship is, but the short version is this: Hamas formed out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an international Sunni organization, but became an Iranian dependent anyway. However, when the Syrian civil war broke out, Hamas backed its Sunni/Brotherhood compatriots in the rebellion against the Iran-allied Assad regime, which seriously damaged its relations with Iran, though they have since patched things up somewhat. Under former King Abdullah, the Saudis went so far as to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, because although the Saudis and the Brotherhood share a broadly Islamist ideology, the Brotherhood opposes monarchies, and the Saudis, well, don’t, clearly. Hamas and the Saudis were already not close because of the Iran thing, but they fell out even further over the Brotherhood thing.

Salman, however, has drastically shifted the Kingdom’s regional stance, making common cause against Iran with just about every Sunni willing to go along with him and his vast amounts of “f you” money. He ended the Kingdom’s energetic campaign against the Brotherhood, mostly because that allowed him to start working in collusion with the more Brotherhood-friendly Turkey and Qatar when it came to backing the rebellion in Syria and the counter-rebellion in Yemen (though Turkey hasn’t really gotten involved there). Now he’s meeting with Hamas, which is an Iranian client but clearly could be nudged away from Tehran for the right ideological and/or material reasons. This might even be a positive development from the Israeli and US perspective; the dirty little secret in the Middle East over the past year or so has been the “nobody-talks-about-it-but-it’s-there” alliance between Israel and the Saudis, again over Iran, and the Kingdom still clearly wants to maintain good relations with the US (witness all the “put on a brave face” diplomacy that went on during the GCC conference at Camp David in May and that has been going on in DC over the past two days), so a Saudi-client Hamas could perhaps be made much friendlier to US and Israeli interests than the current Iran-client version is.

The other thing that bears watching when it comes to the Saudis is the seemingly constant rate of turnover in the palace these days. Salman has shaken things up in the court three times in just his first six months in power, most recently replacing the Chief of the Royal Court and giving a formerly-fired son of Abdullah, Prince Mishal, a new governorship (though not as prestigious as his former governorship of Mecca) earlier this week. This probably doesn’t have anything to do with Iran directly, but Brookings’s Bruce Riedel thinks it might have something to do with Yemen, which has turned into a sort of Saudi-Iranian proxy war (albeit one in which the Saudis are far more invested than the Iranians).

Salman has invested a lot of responsibility in his son, Muhammad b. Salman, who is now both Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince. Riedel suggests that many of the other Saudi princes may be pretty chapped at the fact that the 29 year old Muhammad has leapfrogged so many of his older uncles and cousins into such a plum spot. The fact that he, as Defense Minister, has been directly responsible for the Kingdom’s thoroughly underwhelming (to date) Yemen campaign is giving those who are inclined to complain about his elevation something concrete about which to complain. It could be that this latest reshuffling was an attempt to tamp down the criticism and get the court bureaucracy in line. Today’s successful seizure of Aden by forces allied with the Saudis could, I guess, also help in that respect.

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