The Evolution of the Gulf and Shifting ConflictsSuccession in Saudi Arabia
The appointment of Mohamed bin Salman as crown prince of Saudi Arabia on June 21, 2017 signalled a shift to a younger generation of leaders. The 32-year-old replaced his cousin, Mohamed bin Nayef, who was seen as part of the ‘old guard’ of more traditional, conservative Saudi leadership. Salman, for his part, has been described as a reformer, part of a younger generation willing to adopt controversial reforms and a more modernist stance for the kingdom. Other young royals have followed suit with their own political elevations: His brother Prince Khaled bin Salman, reportedly in his 20s, was recently appointed US ambassador, while 33-year-old Prince Abdulaziz bin Nayef, eldest son of the Eastern Province governor, is the latest head of the Interior Ministry.
Establishing a line of succession with someone in his early 30s can be seen as a step towards ensuring long-term continuity of rule instead of frequently dealing with the family dynamics of succession among older relatives who would likely serve shorter reigns as king. This dynamic is not only true of Saudi Arabia: Salman is considered to be close to his Emirati counterpart, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed, reinforcing the close working relationship between the next generation of rulers in both countries.
Salman’s appointment doubles down on the various new paths he has created for the country. Regionally, he has aggressively staked out Saudi Arabia’s position and is seen as a leading force behind both the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen and the Arab quartet’s diplomatic moves against Qatar. At the same time, however, he has changed course on Iraq, signalling a possible rapprochement by welcoming a visit by Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. Domestically, he is the leading force behind Saudi Vision 2030, has introduced several aggressive economic reforms, plans to open up tourism, has created an entertainment authority, and has changed regulations on company ownership to promote investment. A proposed initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, which would privatise a small portion of the kingdom’s largest business, is yet another significant move, but much depends on its success.
The selection of Salman as crown prince can be seen as a play to stake Saudi Arabia’s future on technology, innovation, and reform, and to empower a leader who will attempt to carry out a challenging agenda to drive the country’s future economic success.
The GCC bends
Since the outset of the Qatar crisis, which began in June, neither Qatar nor the "anti-terror quartet" of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have moved far from their initial stance. Indeed, the former has doubled down on its relationship with Iran by moving to restore diplomatic relations, while its Arab critics have not moved beyond their demands linked to efforts to impose an economic boycott, which UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba has referred to as necessary protection from Qatar’s threat to the region. Attempts to ameliorate the situation, such as Saudi Arabia allowing Qatari pilgrims across the border, have only inflamed matters: The agreement for Hajj travel was made with Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family seen as a potential rival to the emir.
Qatar does not yet have much incentive to shift its position, with natural gas sales currently stable and trade making a recovery as sea and air routes are partially restored. However, a downgrading of its credit rating to AA- is likely to raise long-term borrowing costs. As of early August, rumours floated that Qatar might be expelled from the GCC as a result of its unco-operative stance, or that it may choose to quit the alliance, which Defence Minister Khalid Al Attiyah said had been “jeopardised” by the dispute. Elsewhere, a Bahraini minister recently accused Qatari media of “inciting” its citizens against the GCC, while Al Otaiba suggested in an interview some disputes end in “divorce”. However, no moves to this effect have taken place.
Instead of expelling Qatar from the GCC, the country may simply take on a role of lesser importance within the bloc. Qatar has long endured differences of opinion from its GCC neighbours. What has already occurred is the tightening of bilateral relations among more like-minded Gulf countries. In the near to mid-term, the stalemate between Qatar and its rivals sets aside any discussions of a unified Gulf military body, challenges attempts to integrate regional defence networks such as missile defence systems, and raises questions about the sustainability of common customs and duties laws.
US takes a light touch in the region
The US, after an initially confused response from US President Donald Trump and his diplomatic and military envoys, has taken a light touch on the dispute, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson making one trip to the region in July and hosting foreign ministers from the countries involved in Washington, DC. This effort, however, is largely towards encouraging the parties to work under a Kuwaiti mediation framework. Despite the significance of Al Udeid military base, in Qatar, to the US anti-ISIS efforts, the Washington has demonstrated reduced involvement in the region and a preference for its allies to resolve the situation on their own.
At the same time, the US has increased sanctions on Iran in retaliation for Iranian ballistic missile tests and suggested it wants to step away from the P5+1 nuclear deal. In the meantime, it has increased pressure for further inspections of nuclear facilities, a step which the UN rejected. In proposing breaking the deal, however, the US is likely to stand alone. European countries are unlikely to follow suit, with France’s Emmanuel Macron stating there is “no alternative”.
The US has downplayed expectations in other areas as well, ending its support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria in place of continued support for joint Arab-Kurdish anti-ISIS forces pushing towards Raqqa. Moreover, once the fight for ISIS-controlled areas ends, US anti-ISIS Envoy Brett McGurk has said the US will not “foot the bill” for long-term reconstruction, emphasising the global nature of the problem.
Rebuilding Syria and Northern Iraq
The war against ISIS in Mosul, Raqqa, and elsewhere has resulted in their near-total destruction. As fighting winds down, additional work is required to estimate reconstruction needs, likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. For Syria, the World Bank has suggested $200bn, though this figure could reach tens of billions of dollars more; meanwhile, the Iraqi government has proposed a $100bn, 10-year plan for reconstruction and reconciliation. A UN official estimated $1bn was required just to repair Mosul’s basic infrastructure. Some countries, including the UAE, have pledged funds for reconstruction, and Saudi Arabia is in talks to financially support reconstruction efforts as part of a broader plan to pry Iraq away from Iranian influence.
Long-term implementation of these commitments will be critical to preventing the resurgence of ISIS.
As the conflict in Syria drags on, it has become increasingly apparent there will be no decisive conclusion. Rather, the conflict has wound down in so-called de-escalation zones through a series of temporary, localised ceasefires. Negotiated with the backing of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, these ceasefires have successfully reduced nationwide violence – despite sporadic breaches – and concentrated remaining anti-Assad forces primarily in northern Syria and Idlib. This de-escalation is expected to continue through the Geneva and Astana processes but faces the challenge of a heavily divided anti-Assad opposition.
A major risk is what comes after. Syria has used temporary ceasefires to redirect its forces into anti-ISIS fights in eastern Syria, including recapturing the town of Sukhna. As that process and the battle for Raqqa continue, there is the very real prospect the Assad government will turn the full force of its undistracted military against remaining pockets of rebels.
Libya has also seen a tentative ceasefire as a cause for hope in resolving its long-running conflict. A July 25, 2017 meeting in Paris between Fayez Serraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, resulted in a verbal agreement for a ceasefire and elections in 2018. The challenge now is to turn those words into a concrete roadmap.
Just as in Syria, the plethora of combatants makes the conclusion of any national political agreement highly challenging. And fighting has not stopped – the Paris agreement excluded extremist militants who remain active around Tripoli, Misrata, and Sirte, and the Libyan National Army continues its siege of Derna. This incremental approach, producing smaller agreements that can then be built upon, is not a new tactic. There has been talk of localised ceasefires in Syria for years. Now, however, it is bearing fruit: Populations and combatants worn down by years of fighting may have additional motivation to make such agreements work.
As a new generation looks to eventually take the reins in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these countries will have a leadership role to play in the region, especially as the US steps back. With fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen winding down, ceasefires can create areas where the hard but necessary work of rebuilding local economies can begin. The process and funding of this post-conflict reconstruction and, significantly, reconciliation, will have a major impact on the future shape of these countries and region as a whole.