Saudi Assets of Influence Sink in Syria and Africa as the Crown Prince Heads for Washington

The Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) launched his first public foreign tour as heir to the throne in Cairo on Sunday, March 4. He winds it up at the White House in Washington on March 19, stopping over en route to see British Prime Minister Theresa May on March 7.

During his three-day visit to Cairo, Saudi Arabia saw some of its foreign assets take serious knocks in Syria and Africa. Rebel-held East Ghouta, 15km east of Damascus, for one, was losing out to Assad’s army, Hizballah and other pro-Iranian forces. By midweek, they had managed to take 60 percent of the enclave. Guided by their Russian advisers, these forces were pursuing the same barbaric tactics they had used to isolate and devastate Aleppo in 2016, unheeding of the humanitarian catastrophe inflicted on nearly 400,00 civilians.

It was in East Ghouta that Riyadh suffered one of its worst setbacks in the seven-year Syrian war: the inevitable defeat of the rebel Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rhaman, two militias Saudi Arabia had funded and armed for defeating the Assad regime.

But the Saudi prince appeared to have taken this fiasco on the chin and moved onto the main business of his trip. He meanwhile tried to persuade his host, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi to abandon his longstanding friendship with Syrian leader Bashar Assad. But then, he was assailed with ill tidings from another direction: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive empire-building thrust into Africa.

On Feb. 28, while Turkish troops were on the move to overrun northern Syrian Afrin and Idlib, their president was posing for a photo op with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott, capital of the West African nation, having just flown in from Algeria. The Turkish business executives with him had their pens out for signing profitable cooperation deals at the presidential palace. His next stops were Senegal and Mali.

In his four-state swing through Africa, Erdogan planned to build Turkish influence atop its heavy involvement in the continent’s energy and construction industries. He plans to up the number of Turkish embassies in Africa from 41 at present to 54 by next year.

For Riyadh, Turkey’s inroads into Syria and Africa, especially in Algeria and Morocco – and even Mauritania, which too is a member of the Arab League – are a red flag. They see Erdogan’s influence-grabbing in North and West Africa as directed at stealing their assets – not just in the Middle East, but further afield too. The Turkish leader’s vow to “stamp out” the network of schools established by Fethullah Gulen across Africa, was seen as targeting not just the US-based exiled Turkish preacher, whom the Turkish president accused of orchestrating the 2016 failed plot to unseat him, but the Gulen school system which is indirectly backed by the Saudi religious establishment.

Erdogan has also allied himself with Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, an implacable enemy of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic, second only to Iran.

While in Cairo, the Saudi Crown Prince used a meeting with reporters on Wednesday to hit back. He described Turkey as part of the “contemporary triangle of evil” along with Iran and extremist Islamic groups and accused Erdogan of trying to reinstate the Ottoman Caliphate.

Saudi misgivings over Erdogan’s ambitions are shared by President El-Sisi., They both suspect that his next quarries will be Somalia, Sudan, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. El-Sisi sees the Turkish president as scheming to sequester Egypt from the north, west and south and challenge Cairo’s national interests in its own continental environment.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have not done much to curb Erdogan’s drive, only removing Turkish programming, including dramas, from all the channels of the Pan-Arab MBC broadcaster until further notice. It was also blacked out on Egypt’s MBC Masr.

As he heads to Washington the Saudi Prince is turning aside from these frustrations and assuming a smiling face for tackling the most pressing goal of his first public foreign tour: The successful public offering of shares in the state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Company later this year or early 2019. MbS and his business advisers estimate that Aramco, which sits atop one-fifth of global petroleum reserves, is worth $2 trillion and are counting on the sale of five percent meeting an estimated $50bn to $100bn for the Riyadh treasury and his “Vision for 2030.”

However, investors’ enthusiasm may be dampened by three potential pitfalls:

  1. Further political turmoil in Riyadh.
  2. Saudi Arabia’s below-par military performance in Yemen and setbacks in Syria, and North and West Africa.
  3. Blowback from the downgrading of Jared Kushner’s security clearance – and therefore his reduced standing in the White House. A contemporary of the young Prince Muhammad (32), Kushner is his best buddy in President Trump’s inner circle.
  4. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election has unexpectedly widened out to encompass the Middle East and home in on UAE, the close ally of Riyadh. Investigators are questioning George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman. and pressing witnesses for information about possible attempts by the Emirates to buy political influence by funneling funds to support Donald Trump’s campaign for election. Mueller’s investigators are also digging into Nader’s possible role in White House policy-making and his connections with Kushner.

These events were hardly visible when the ambitious prince framed Saudi Arabia’s “Vision for 2030.” His program of reforms was designed as “shock therapy” for propelling the hidebound kingdom into the modern era. But to make it come true, the crown prince needs a very large infusion of cash and a steady environment.

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