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Analysis-At World Cup, Saudi crown prince moves back on to global stage

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By Angus McDowall and Maya Gebeily

DOHA (Reuters) – When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took his seat next to the FIFA president at the World Cup opener in Qatar, it capped a remarkable turnabout in his fortunes – even before the Saudi team put a new feather in his cap by beating Argentina on Tuesday.

Sitting, beaming, in the most prominent position of any guest at the global sporting showpiece, the de facto Saudi leader looked like a man back at the international top table.

In the teeth of global energy fears and with superpowers focused on the war in Ukraine and tensions between the U.S. and China, geopolitical gravity is reasserting itself for the world’s top oil exporter.

With Washington last week deeming him immune from prosecution for the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi and giving a public display of its commitment to Saudi security in warning of an Iran threat, Prince Mohammed appeared to have tamed U.S. ire.

Only weeks ago, U.S. President Joe Biden warned of “consequences” after accusing Prince Mohammed of bad faith over their oil talks in July – a meeting that was itself a U.S. climbdown after Biden had vowed to make the de facto Saudi leader a “pariah”.

Meanwhile this month Prince Mohammed has appeared at the COP27 climate summit in Cairo, the G20 summit in Bali and the APEC summit in Bangkok – all before his appearance in Qatar, a neighbour he considered invading in 2017, according to previous statements by Qatari officials.

The prince, widely known as MbS, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July and will shortly host Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh.

At home, in a young country where MbS has opened up cinemas, concerts and employment opportunities for young Saudis, Tuesday’s 2-1 shock win over Argentina seems likely to further burnish his image.

It is too soon to say that MbS has won political rehabilitation in the West – he would be an unwelcome visitor in either the United States or most western European countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday the immunity decision did not speak to a review of Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was ongoing.

But with Western economies desperate for energy stability as winter barrels into the northern hemisphere, his role in every aspect of ties with Saudi Arabia cannot be wished away.

IMMUNITY

Among Riyadh’s governing establishment, Western anger at MbS over Khashoggi’s murder is seen as a politically motivated way of putting pressure on the kingdom, said Abdulaziz al-Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and critic of MbS who held U.S. residency and wrote for the Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

U.S. intelligence said it believed MbS had ordered the operation, but in Riyadh responsibility was laid on lower-level officials.

The Department of Justice opinion last week that MbS qualifies for immunity as a head of government after his appointment as prime minister was also seen in Riyadh as political, Sager said.

“The United States tried to limit the kingdom’s importance and role regionally and internationally, but it found first that this goal was unachievable and second that it harmed its own interests,” he said.

“So there’s a process of American retreat from taking negative positions towards the kingdom.”

When the U.S. said this month it was worried about an Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia and would not hesitate to defend the kingdom, it was interpreted by some diplomats as primarily a U.S. message of reassurance to Riyadh.

A senior Pentagon official, Colin Kahl, told reporters that Iran had been poised to stage an attack like the 2019 one on Saudi oil facilities but that U.S. moves, including repositioning of missile defence systems, may have averted it.

“The U.S. measures that accompanied the warning may indicate a late awakening in the American approach to Iran’s aggressive and expansionist policy in the region,” said Sager, “regardless of the credibility of the American warning.”

HISTORIC LOW

Saudi ties with the United States and the wider West are still at a historic low point.

During the shale boom of the last decade, as demand for Saudi oil waned, the United States found it easier to put some distance between itself and an ally whose domestic policies it finds uncomfortable.

Its stance towards the Arab spring and quest for a nuclear deal with Iran in defiance of Saudi fears over regional threats led Riyadh to believe that Washington was abandoning its Gulf security umbrella.

When Saudi Arabia consequently took its security into its own hands with its war in Yemen, it saw Western criticism as hypocritical.

In the West meanwhile, Saudi fears of Iran were often seen as overplayed, its Yemen war regarded as a trigger-happy assault on an impoverished neighbour and MbS as a despotic abuser after the killing of Khashoggi.

It seems doubtful those views will change much.

But as superpower competition and energy scarcity again come to define global politics, they may find it politic to put grudges aside for now.

Saudi Arabia would likely still prefer to have a U.S. security umbrella. “The unique comparative advantage of the United States of America” is the integrated security architecture it can build in the region, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk told a recent conference in Bahrain.

“That is a demand we hear from capital to capital,” he said.

For the West, it may mean dealing with Saudi Arabia’s dominant figure.

“It’s not possible to separate dealing with the leadership from dealing with the state, especially in a hereditary monarchy,” Sager said.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall in Tunis and Maya Gebeily in Doha; Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

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