Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s ouster from his position earlier this week was the first real indication that Saudi Arabia’s government has begun to reassess its unusually assertive approach to its foreign policy in recent months. Now, following the announcement of an impromptu meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Thursday, it appears that a genuine overhaul may be underway with the kingdom attempting to patch up its rocky relationship with Qatar.
A report published by the AFP on Thursday indicates that Bandar was dismissed from his position as a result of pressure from the United States. According to one expert, Bandar’s handling of Syria had so irritated Washington that it demanded his removal back in December. Given the defiance that Riyadh has reserved for Washington over the past months, it may be difficult to envision Saudi top brass relenting to American concerns and firing a veteran diplomat. However, diplomatic reports indicate that Bandar had been sidelined as early as February from the crucial Syrian dossier, which was instead assigned to Interior Minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayef.
The shakeup indicates the consternation that the kingdom’s rulers may have felt over the radical approach officials like Bandar were spearheading in the wake of the west’s rapprochement with Iran last year. Those talks, coupled with Washington’s cold feet on intervening in Syria, shook the kingdom enough to consider altering its typically conservative, behind-the-scenes approach to foreign policy. But while splashy gestures such as the rejection of a highly-coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council and aggressive attempts to upgrade the GCC to a regional union may have made a strong statement about Riyadh’s position, it’s not clear that they’ve truly yielded the desired results.
On one side, the Obama administration has not wavered on its position on either Syria or Iran — two of the primary issues plaguing once-strong relations between Riyadh and Washington. On the other, Qatar has only buckled down on its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has gone from an irritant to a serious bilateral dispute between the two countries. At the same time, Gulf states like Oman have begun to display their wariness towards Saudi attempts at binding the region together, setting back Riyadh’s agenda even further.
It may have become impossible to ignore that this hardball strategy was doing more harm than good. There are already clear signs that Thursday’s Gulf meeting has at least changed the messaging around the Saudi dispute with Qatar, with one minister referring to it as “a storm that has passed” and “a thing of the past.” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal also seems to have dialed back his rhetoric on Qatar, telling reporters that GCC countries “are free in their policies, provided they do not harm interests of other members.” This is a stark departure from his government’s insistence that reconciliation could only be reached once Qatar changed its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is important to remember however that, though the Saudis may have well returned to their previously cautious approach to diplomacy, their foreign policy objectives have not changed. Banishing Bandar will likely result in smoother relations with the Obama administration but the anxieties about Washington’s policy towards the region— and Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position as a result — will remain and will continue to guide the kingdom’s strategy, though its tactics may be less visible.