Middle East Notes and Comment: Saudi Arabia Steps Out

Saudi Arabia Steps Out

It should not be so surprising that much of Washington’s attention toward the Saudi-Iranian agreement on March 10 to restore diplomatic relations focused on China. After all, at a time when the U.S. security debate is increasingly centered on Great Power competition, China playing an unprecedented diplomatic role in the Middle East counts as big news.

But by paying so much attention to China, Americans risk missing the most important part of this agreement: the changing regional role of Saudi Arabia. A week of smoothly integrated diplomacy not only showed Saudi Arabia to be a skillful diplomatic actor, but also a creative one. The popular image of Saudi Arabia in the United States is that of a largely passive consumer of U.S.-provided security. With the agreement, Saudi Arabia cast off the passivity of many decades, and demonstrated it is a diplomatic force to be reckoned with.

Read the full commentary here

From the Middle East Program

New Report
The United States and other international donors have committed tens of billions of dollars to reconstruction and peacebuilding in conflict-affected environments in the Middle East, but there is frustratingly little to show for the effort in many states. After conflict stopped, wartime powerbrokers transitioned into privileged positions in peacetime, entrenching themselves and their interests in the status quo. 

In a new report, Will Todman argues that renewable energy offers a different pathway with wide-reaching benefits. Will highlights the issue in four case studies: Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen—with Middle East Program research associate Lubna Yousef tackling the challenges in Libya—to show that even in the most challenging environments, decentralized renewable systems can accelerate local economic development, advance environmental sustainability, and establish the foundations of better governance. You can read Will's full report here

Will also published a one-page summary of the report, which you can read here, and an executive summary, which you can read here. For those that prefer video, Will also recorded a brief preview video summarizing key findings and takeaways from the report, which you can watch here

New Analysis

After Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they would resume diplomatic relations in a deal struck after days of secret talks mediated by Chinese diplomats in Beijing, Jon broke down why Saudi Arabia and Iran struck a deal now, what it means that China helped broker it, and what it all tells us about the U.S. role in the Gulf. You can read his Critical Questions here. 

Babel: Translating the Middle East
In the most recent episode of Babel, Jon sat down with Dr. Marsin Alshamary, a former guest on Babel, and Hamzeh Hadad to discuss how the U.S. invasion of Iraq shaped both the trajectory of their lives and the trajectory of Iraq.

Jon also spoke with the Middle East Program's Will Todman to break down his new report and its key findings. 

We also released two new mezze episodes: one on how a dysfunctional regulatory system makes cooperation in renewables difficult in Lebanon, adapted from a vignette in Will's new report, and another on years of rising Chinese tourism to Israel. 

On March 22, as part of the rollout for Will's report, the Middle East Program hosted a panel discussion about international efforts to support resilient renewable energy infrastructure in fragile states in the Middle East. The panel featured Matthew D. Steinhelfer, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the U.S. Department of State, Christina Abi Haidar, a Lebanese lawyer and renewable energy expert, Dr. Paul Noumba Um, the World Bank’s director of infrastructure for the MENA region, alongside Will Todman, and moderated by Jon. You can watch the event here

On April 17 from 2:00 to 3:00 pm. the Middle East Program will host Professor Steffen Hertog for a discussion on his new book Locked Out of Development. In the book, Professor Hertog argues that several factors combine in Arab economies to create a "segmented market economy" that eschews effective cooperation between the state, businesses, and labor. You can register for the event here.

In the News
Jon told Barron’s that although Saudi Arabia and Iran are resuming diplomatic relations, their opposing interests in regional conflicts are likely to cause tensions to remain high. In Yemen, Jon said “the Iranians have greater ability to spin up the Houthis than to spin them down.” (3/17/23) 

Jon also sat down with CNBC to discuss how Saudi Arabia was using the deal to push their own agenda in the region. He said that for Saudi Arabia, the deal was a signal that they are “in control of their own destiny.” (3/12/23)

Jon also spoke to The Wall Street Journal about China’s role in fostering the Saudi-Iran deal. He said the deal allows Chinese leaders “to advance perceptions of their own global role” while undermining the U.S. contention that a U.S.-led rules based order is the only way to advance security. (3/12/23) 

Jon spoke with The Washington Post about the United States’ reaction to the Saudi-Iran deal. He said that the Biden administration was “of two minds” because while it “wants the Saudis to take increasing responsibility for their own security,” the administration wants to blunt China’s influence in the region and doesn’t want Saudi Arabia “freelancing and undermining U.S. security strategies.” (3/10/23) 

Jon told Reuters that Beijing's involvement in the deal adds to a perception of growing Chinese power and influence and contributes to a narrative that the United States' global presence is shrinking. (3/10/23)

Natasha Hall spoke with Middle East Eye about Syria’s warming relations with other Arab states in recent weeks. Natasha said that “this is an inflection point in a four-year trend for actors who want to move forward with normalization,” with high-level diplomats meeting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and “real material support going to the regime.” (2/27/23) 

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program