Saudi Arabia enjoyed a widespread bout of solidarity after the Khashoggi report, but as US-Saudi tensions grow, GCC states may find themselves in a perpetual balancing act.
The Biden administration’s release of a declassified intelligence report about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's role in Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder will inevitably harm US-Saudi relations. Gone are the days in which MBS has a friend in the Oval Office who will bend over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt on virtually all issues.
Although Khashoggi’s assassination has fueled significant tension between Saudi Arabia and Western countries, the Kingdom’s fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have been mostly unified in terms of supporting Riyadh’s condemnation of last month’s report.
State-run media in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reported that the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi “expressed its confidence in and support for the Saudi judiciary rulings, which affirm the Kingdom’s commitment to implementing the law in a transparent and impartial manner, and holding all those involved in this case accountable.”
The Kingdom of Bahrain similarly came to Riyadh’s defense, expressing Manama’s “rejection of anything that would undermine the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia.” Bahrain’s state news agency (BNA) stated that the archipelago country “emphasises the importance of the fundamental role of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, and his Crown Prince, its policy of moderation regionally, in the Arab region, and internationally, its efforts to enhance regional security and stability, and promote global economic development.”
Oman and Kuwait’s support for Riyadh
It is useful to compare Oman and Kuwait’s statements on the Khashoggi report to their reactions to Saudi Arabia’s 2018 diplomatic spat with Canada, which many in the GCC similarly saw as an outcome of a perceived infringement on Saudi sovereignty.
During that episode, Oman and Kuwait lent support to Saudi Arabia albeit while treading carefully with cautious language. Officials in Muscat and Kuwait City did not go as far as their counterparts in the UAE and Bahrain did in terms of backing up Riyadh’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Ottawa. “The sultanate follows the current political situation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Canada and affirms its firm position not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states,” according to the Omani foreign ministry’s statement. With language that was similar to Oman’s, Kuwait’s foreign ministry voiced “concern” over the diplomatic spat while emphasising a “firm position rejecting interference in the internal affairs of states” and adding that Kuwait hoped diplomatic ties would be restored.
Yet, in response to the Khashoggi report’s release last month, both Oman and Kuwait were firmer in their pro-Saudi positions compared to the Saudi-Canada spat from two-and-a-half years ago. On February 27, Oman’s foreign ministry vowed to stand by Riyadh. Kuwait’s foreign ministry stressedthe importance of Saudi leadership regionally and globally in the struggle against violent extremism while affirming its staunch opposition to any attempts to weaken Saudi Arabia’s national sovereignty.
As Oman and Kuwait usually conduct foreign policies based on neutrality in regional and international disputes, Muscat and Kuwait City (especially the former) frequently avoid taking Saudi Arabia’s side when Riyadh is involved in wars or feuds. Salient examples include Oman not joining Saudi Arabia in sponsoring militias fighting to topple the Syrian government after the “Arab Spring” broke out, the Sultanate refusing to back the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen beginning in 2015, and Muscat maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with Iran and Qatar in 2016/2017. Oman and (to a lesser extent) Kuwait’s decisions to give resolute support to Riyadh on a contentious issue fueling serious friction between Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration were notable.
The Qatari exception
Qatar was the only GCC member which had a nuanced response to the Khashoggi report. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani spokewith MBS by phone after which the foreign ministry in Doha issued the following statement: “The Amir affirmed the State of Qatar’s firm support for the government and people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and everything that would enhance the security, stability and sovereignty of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, considering its stability as an integral part of the stability of the State of Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council system.”
This conversation followed the al-Ula summit of January 5, in which Emir Tamim and MBS hugged each other after the Qatari monarch landed in Saudi Arabia for the first since the GCC crisis erupted in mid-2017. The phone call was highly illustrative of the extent to which Riyadh and Doha have moved in the direction of reconciliation following the lifting of the blockade on Qatar at the start of this year.
Although one article concluded that the language about Saudi sovereignty amounted to Qatar joining the other smaller GCC states in standing behind Riyadh’s response to last month’s Khashoggi report, Doha News reported that a diplomatic source explained how this “speculation was misguided and inaccurate”.
As the source put it, “The call had nothing to do with the declassification of the US intelligence report or the case of the late Jamal Khashoggi.” Instead, the support for Saudi Arabia which Emir Tamim expressed on the phone pertained to the missile strikes against Riyadh launched by Yemen’s Houthi fighters, which the Qatari leader condemned as “a dangerous act against civilians, which contradicts all international norms and laws”.
Qatar not joining its fellow GCC states in expressing unequivocal support for Riyadh’s response to the Khashoggi report likely stemmed from Doha wanting to avoid tensions with the Biden administration and Turkey, Qatar’s most important ally in the Islamic world. Furthermore, Qatar’s influence, which rests in no small part on ‘soft-power’ and a narrative about a human rights-focused foreign policy, could suffer from Doha reversing its position articulated in November 2018 that there must be “accountability” for Khashoggi’s murder following an investigation.
Qatar slamming the US government’s report could have been interpreted as Qatar abandoning certain principles solely for the sake of fostering quicker reconciliation with Riyadh in the post-Al-Ula period. That Al Jazeera and other Qatari media outlets (unlike those of other GCC states) continue giving space to human rights advocates who condemn MBS for the Khashoggi murder informs us of how Qatar’s media culture will continue to be a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side.
As Dr. Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, once put it, Qatar has long been the GCC’s “squeaky wheel” and, despite the Al-Ula summit, one could contend that Doha’s response to the Khashoggi report suggests that the gas-rich country will continue deserving this title.
That said, it is safe to argue that had the blockade still been imposed at the time of the Khashoggi report’s release, Qatar would have probably reacted in a less muted manner. That Qatar’s head of state spoke with MBS by phone and expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia in the wake of Houthi attacks on the Kingdom showed how Doha is working to strike a delicate balance. In the words of Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, the Qatari foreign ministry’s statement “shows how it can appease [MbS] without creating rifts with the Biden administration or Turkey.”
In conclusion, within the first two months of the Biden presidency we are witnessing growing tension between Washington and Riyadh. During the upcoming four years there could be significant problems in US-Saudi relations. As Gulf monarchies that rely on the US as their security guarantor but also maintain brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia, the smaller GCC states will need to make important decisions about how to navigate friction that builds up between the new leadership in Washington and the Saudi crown prince, especially after MBS becomes the next King of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the Gulf Arab states’ responses to the Khashoggi report was the first indicator of how such tensions will play out.
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