Prince Khalid bin Salman may not have planned it that way, but the timing of his trip to Moscow last week and message to Washington resounded loud and clear. By not postponing the visit, the Saudi deputy defense minister signaled that he was trying to hedge his kingdom’s bets by signing a defense cooperation agreement with Russia. This took place just as the United States fumbled to evacuate thousands of people from Afghanistan after that country was captured by Taliban militants.
Saudi Arabia would have wanted to be seen as hedging its bets with or without the US debacle. The kingdom realizes that Russia will exploit opportunities created by the fiasco in Afghanistan but is neither willing nor capable of replacing the US as the Gulf’s security guarantor.
US Media Amplifies Afghan Chaos
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia likely wants to capitalize on jitters in the US as Washington tries to get a grip on what went wrong and come to terms with the fact that Afghanistan will once again be governed by the Taliban. In 2001, the US ousted the ultraconservative militants from power because they harbored al-Qaeda terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda, alongside various other militant groups, still has a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban insist that no one will be allowed to operate cross-border or plan and/or launch attacks on other countries from Afghan soil.
Jitters in the Gulf
Yet the willingness to exploit US discomfort may also signal jitters in Saudi Arabia. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions for Riyadh. First, is the US still reliable when it comes to the defense of the kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula? Second, does the US move undermine confidence in Washington’s ability to negotiate a potential revival of the Iranian nuclear deal if and when talks start again? Third, could Afghanistan become a battlefield in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite both sides seeking to dial down tensions?
Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, argues that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has increased its influence among the Taliban at the expense of the Saudis, who backed away from the group in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The kingdom and the Taliban’s paths further diverged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman liberalizing the once-shared ultra-conservative social mores while Afghanistan appears set to reintroduce them.
“The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority. At the same time, the Saudi leadership will be keen to align policy with the US and its Western partners and will follow their lead in establishing diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government and providing aid to the country’s population,” Quilliam predicted.
His analysis assumes that reduced Saudi interaction and closer Iranian ties with the Taliban mean that the group’s inclinations would lean more toward Tehran than Riyadh.
In a similar vein, some analysts have noted that Saudi Arabia was absent among the Gulf states that helped the US and European countries with evacuations from Afghanistan. Instead, it sent its deputy defense minister to Moscow.
Others suggested that Saudi Arabia chose to remain on the sidelines and hedge its bets, given its history with the Taliban. Until 2001, Saudi Arabia was a major influence among Afghan jihadists, whom it funded during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. It was also one of three countries to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan when it first gained power in 1996. Fifteen of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals. By then, Saudi influence had already waned, as was evident in the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden before the attacks took place.
If proven correct, Quilliam’s prediction would amount to a break with the Taliban record of not operating beyond Afghanistan’s borders except in Pakistan, even though it tolerates al-Qaeda militants and others on territory it controls. Moreover, despite being strange bedfellows, the need to accommodate one another is unlikely to persuade the Taliban to do Iran’s bidding. “Iran has tried to increase its influence within the group by getting closer to certain factions, but it is still suspicious of the Taliban as a whole,” said Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Iran and Israel
Moreover, the Taliban may want to steer clear of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. This is particularly if those who believe that US unreliability, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, leaves Saudi Arabia no choice but to escalate the war in Yemen and confront Iran more forcefully get their way.
“We should take a lesson from the events in Afghanistan, and especially from the mistakes [that were made there], regarding Yemen. This is the time to crush the Houthis without considering the international forces,” said Saudi columnist Safouq al-Shammari, echoing other commentators in Saudi media. “Giving Israel a free hand regarding the Iranian nuclear issue has become a reasonable [option] … It seems like [Israel’s] extremist [former prime minister] Netanyahu, was right to avoid coordinating with the [Biden] administration, which he considered weak and failing.”
Shammari’s notions fit into Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to replace the religious core of Saudi identity with hyper-nationalism. They also stroke with thinking among more conservative Israeli analysts and retired military officers. In Shammari’s vein, retired Major General Gershon Hacohen of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) walked away from the US debacle in Afghanistan, warning that “for all its overwhelming material and technological superiority, the IDF stands no chance of defeating Israel’s Islamist enemies unless its soldiers are driven by a relentless belief in the national cause.”
By the same token, Major General Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser and head of military intelligence research, argued that the US withdrawal would drive home to the Gulf states the proposition that an “open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves.” He added that Israel could not replace the US as the region’s security guarantor, “but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme that will make it easier for them to contend with various threats.”
By implication, Amidror was urging the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which last year established diplomatic relations with Israel, to forge closer security cooperation with the Jewish state. He suggested that Saudi Arabia may, in the wake of the events in Afghanistan, be more inclined to build formal ties with Israel. Yet while there is little doubt that Mohammed bin Salman would like to have an open relationship with Israel, it is equally possible that the victory of religious militants in Afghanistan will reinforce Saudi hesitancy to cross the Rubicon at the risk of sparking widespread criticism in the Muslim world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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