A fog of uncertainty envelopes the royal court of King Salman, just weeks after he ascended the Saudi throne. The only ray of daylight was found by the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. He was the first Gulf personality to have talked face to face with the new strongman, the king’s son, Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 35, who visited Doha on Feb. 17.
Two days later, the emir was received by the king himself in Riyadh. And on Tuesday, Feb. 24, the emir sat down with President Barack Obama at the White House and passed on what he had found out about the new royal regime in Riyadh.
Even then, the Qatari ruler’s briefing was limited. He conveyed his impressions of the new Saudi rulers’ attitudes on the situation in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Libya and the war on the Islamic State. But no clues ha been dropped on the political processes at work inside the new regime, which are vital data for a true assessment of the way the winds are blowing in the House of Saud since King Abdullah’s passing last month.
Two pieces of information were nonetheless garnered from the Qatari leader, DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf and Washington sources report – one negative and the second, welcome news for Obama.
Obama stands fast on any Gulf moves against Iran or Assad
On the negative side, dialogue between the White House and palace in Riyadh has ground to a halt; exchanges having dried up on such pressing issues as the nuclear accord taking shape between the US and Iranian and the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
There have been no communications between the two capitals since President Obama visited Riyadh on Jan. 27 to offer condolences for the death of King Abdullah and meet his successor on the throne.
On that occasion, our sources report, Salman received a brush-off on the Iranian nuclear question when he asked his visitor to carefully think again before it was too late and the deal became an accomplished fact.
In the same way, the Qatari leader was snubbed when he proposed US-Gulf cooperation (including the Saudis) for ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Tamim al-Thani’s proposal was for a joint effort on two parallel tracks – a partnership in the war on the Islamic State – for which the Gulf would foot the bill, and American input for a joint enterprise to get rid of Assad.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that this plan did not stand a chance in the White House, because Obama can’t be budged on his alliance with Iran (like the Russians), which would go by the board if he struck out against Tehran’s big ally, Assad.
Any move against the Syrian ruler would undermine a successful nuclear accord, which Obama has designated as the crowning achievement of his double term in office.
The White House rejected the Qatari ruler’s feeler, suspecting it was a roundabout try by King Salman to get his message across.
Salman approves of Muslim Brotherhood, drops Egypt
The good news for Obama – as conveyed by the Qatari ruler and confirmed by US and Middle East intelligence sources – was the jettisoning by the Saudi king of his predecessor’s policy of persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood as a dangerous terrorist organization on a par with the Islamic State.
Salman and his senior advisers share Obama’s perspective that Brotherhood members are by and large moderate Muslims who don’t deserve the harassment and hounding inflicted on them by King Abdullah and the Egyptian ruler Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi.
(See a separate article on the breakup of the Saudi-Egyptian pact and its influence on Israel.)
This policy reversal in Riyadh has taken Barack Obama back to the 2011 Arab Spring, which he regards as his glory days, when he enthusiastically championed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya, Syria and – up to a point – the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.
In contemporary terms, Riyadh’s U-turn on the Brotherhood sets the scene for a pro-American alliance for which Obama has long hankered, bringing together under the American umbrella, Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Obama, this pact would also be welcomed for occluding the Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli lineup.
King Salman’s new orientation is reflected in the four priorities he has placed at the top of his political agenda, which are:
- To avert Iran’s attainment of nuclear arms and curb its growth into the region’s number one power;
- To give the battles against the Islamic State in Iraq and Iran’s handover of Baghdad to Shiite rule precedence over the struggle against Assad.
- To dislodge Houthi rule in Sanaa and counter Iranian influence in Yemen;
- Dropping Egypt as Saudi Arabia’s favorite ally – a position President El-Sisi enjoyed under King Abdullah.