By James M. Dorsey
Prince Khalid bin Salman may not have planned it that way but the timing of his visit to Moscow last week and message to Washington resounded loud and clear.
The Saudi deputy defence minister was signalling by not postponing the visit that he was trying to hedge the kingdom’s bets by signing a defence cooperation agreement with Russia as the United States fumbled to evacuate thousands from Afghanistan after Kabul was captured by the Taliban.
Saudi Arabia would have wanted to be seen to be hedging its bets with and without the US debacle. The kingdom, moreover, realizes that Russia will exploit opportunities created by the fiasco but is neither willing nor capable to replace the United States as the Gulf’s security guarantor.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia likely wants to capitalize on jitters in the United States as Washington tries to get a grip on what went wrong and come to terms with the fact that the Central Asian country will again be governed by the very religious militants it ousted from power 20 years ago because they allowed Al Qaeda to plan its 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.
Yet, the willingness to exploit US discomfort may also signal jitters in Riyadh. The US withdrawal raises questions about US reliability when it comes to the defence of the kingdom and the Gulf, undermines confidence in US negotiation of a revival of the Iranian nuclear accord if and when talks start again, and raises the spectre of Afghanistan becoming a battlefield in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran despite both sides seeking to dial down tension.
Middle East scholar Neill Quilliam 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. The kingdom and the Taliban’s paths further diverged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman liberalizing 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,” Mr. Quilliam predicted.
Mr. Quilliam’s analysis assumes that reduced Saudi interaction and closer Iranian ties with the Taliban means that the group’s inclinations would lean more towards Tehran than Riyadh.
In a similar vein, some analysts have noted that Saudi Arabia was absent among the Gulf states that helped the United States and European countries with evacuations from Afghanistan. Instead, it sent its deputy defence minister to Moscow.
Others suggested that Saudi Arabia chose to remain on the sidelines and hedge its bets given its past history with the Taliban. Saudi Arabia was until 2001 a major influence among Afghan jihadists that it funded during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s and one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government 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 9/11.
If proven correct, Mr. Quilliam’s prediction would amount to a break with the Taliban record of not operating beyond Afghanistan’s borders except Pakistan, even though it tolerates Al Qaeda 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 Iran and Afghanistan scholar Fatemeh Aman.
Moreover, the Taliban may want to steer clear of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, particularly if those that believe that US unreliability as demonstrated in Afghanistan leaves the kingdom no choice but to escalate the war in Yemen and confront the Islamic republic 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… 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,” said Saudi columnist Safouq Al-Shammari, echoing voices of multiple commentators in the Saudi media.
Mr. Al-Shammari’s notions fit into Crown Prince Mohammed’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 Mr. Al-Shammari’s vein, former Israeli Corps and Israel Defense Force (IDF) Military Colleges commander Maj. General (res.) Gershon Hacohen 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, Maj. General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor 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.”
Mr. Amidror went on to say 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, Mr. 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 and suggesting that Saudi Arabia may be in the wake of Afghanistan more inclined to build formal ties with Israel.
While there is little doubt that Prince Mohammed 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.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.