Saudi Arabia Walks Tightrope With Shift in Syria, Regional Policies

Saudi Arabia Walks Tightrope With Shift in Syria, Regional Policies

President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia later this month will come at a time of considerable shifts in Saudi regional strategy. Three recent policy changes in particular—the moving of the Syria file from Prince Bandar bin Sultan to counterterrorism chief Prince Mohammad bin Nayef; the withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar; and the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as terrorist organizations by Saudi Arabia—are signs that Riyadh is taking a more assertive approach to dealing with a range of Islamist forces. The Saudi government seems now to be pursuing a policy of dual containment of what it sees as its two biggest threats: the Muslim Brotherhood and certain branches of jihadi terrorism.

In shifting the Syria file away from Bandar, Riyadh replaced the vociferous critic of U.S. regional policy with a figure, Mohammed, who has engaged in day-to-day cooperation with Washington on Yemen and other fronts in the fight against global terrorist networks. Bandar’s unhappiness with U.S. policy in the Middle East has not been a secret. In October 2013, he reportedly told European diplomats that Saudi Arabia would effect a “major shift” away from the United States, specifically citing Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the immediate causes. This public rhetoric was in line with other Saudi statements last fall pointing to sharp disapproval of Obama’s decision to not conduct targeted military strikes on Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The reassignment of Saudi Arabia’s Syria file to Mohammed and another leading Saudi figure, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi Arabia National Guard, indicates that Bandar’s proposed major shift away from the United States is unlikely to occur. Instead, by bringing a leader who has worked closely with American intelligence services—and whose relationship with CIA Director John Brennan goes back at least 15 years—Saudi leaders may be attempting to bring American and Saudi policy on Syria into greater alignment.

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