On 5 March 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Riyadh and met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in order to allay fears over the potential of a nuclear deal with Iran. The message was that any deal will not compromise the security of the Gulf States and that the United States is aware of all of Iran’s activities in the region.
However it is unclear what the US could possibly say to the Gulf States to assure them that their security is guaranteed; particularly in light of the startling reality that Iran exerts effective control over Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a. Contrary to the adversarial language used by the US administration, the US has in reality done little to prevent Iran’s meteoric rise as a regional superpower. Rather than attempting to contain this rise, the US has responded by promoting a rapprochement, preferring to recognise this reality. US indifference to Iran’s control of Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a demonstrate that Kerry’s statements that the US is aware of Iran’s activities offers little in the way of allaying Gulf fears.
In light of an impending nuclear deal, King Salman has instigated shrewd manoeuvres to bolster GCC unity and has done much to heal the tensions between the Arab States; particularly over the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. By meeting with Emir Tamim of Qatar alongside Sheikh Muhammad Bin Zayed of Dubai and Emir Sabah of Kuwait, King Salman encouraged the parties to overcome their differences over the Muslim Brotherhood and focus on the common enemy. A senior Qatari official stated to the International Interest that Qatar can ‘now breathe with King Salman on the throne’.
Similarly with Sisi, King Salman turned a blind eye to leaks purportedly showing Sisi insulting the Gulf States to prevent alienating the troubled General. The General arrived in Riyadh reportedly worried following international embarrassment in his attempts to create a coalition to enter Libya and rumours that the Kingdom would be cutting the provision of aid in light of falling oil prices. However analysts suggest that Sisi returned to Egypt at ease with Saudi Arabia’s position concerning Egypt and King Salman will be keen to keep the General within his sphere of influence.
King Salman also honoured President Erdogan of Turkey in Riyadh, healing the tensions in a relationship that became fraught during King Abdullah’s reign, and opening the door to a renewed alliance on the matter of Syria. Although Sisi stressed the need for a political solution following his meeting with King Salman, the Saudi Arabian stance towards Assad has not changed as the kingdom strives to remove him and unseat Iranian control of the Levant.
The visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan is no coincidence as Saudi Arabia seeks assurances that the age-old security agreements between the two countries will remain in place in the event of a rapprochement between the US and Iran.
In essence, King Salman has sought to restore Saudi Arabia’s leadership over the Sunni Muslim States and has now placed the kingdom in a position to effectively organise an Arab response to the US-Iran rapprochement.
Such soothing of relations has enabled the GCC to act swiftly in Yemen, emphasising President Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi’s legitimacy as president and relocating their embassies to increase coordination in uniting the tribes behind him. Saudi Arabia, despite its failures in Yemen, still commands significant influence over the tribes and is capable of engineering a strong opposition to Houthi to prevent Iran’s foothold south of the Kingdom. King Salman’s pragmatic approach in dealing with the regional rifts may even open the door to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen to return to the Saudi fold and use his influence in the army to assist Hadi in unseating Houthi. Possibilities remain for Saudi Arabia to usurp the Iranian grasp in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has publicly welcomed Kerry’s reassurances. However King Salman’s pro-active foreign policy reveals a kingdom distrustful of the US administration and uneasy at the prospect of a rapprochement with Iran. Yemen is a vital test for King Salman’s leadership in the region and the outcome will demonstrate whether Saudi Arabia is capable of guiding the region through these turbulent times.