Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the Gulf states ahead of the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit is intended to help rebuild his international reputation, sullied by his numerous missteps.
With his stop in Qatar, MBS is also trying to continue healing the intra-GCC rift that began in 2017.
Substantively, MBS wants to forge a unified Gulf position on Iran, which has expanded its nuclear program and exerts significant influence throughout the region.
The GCC summit is unlikely to produce a roadmap to extricate Saudi Arabia from the war in Yemen.
In early December, the controversial Crown Prince and heir apparent of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (commonly known as MBS), visited all five of the smaller Gulf states—Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Along with Saudi Arabia, the five are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose leaders hold a summit each December to try to unify their positions on major issues. Saudi Arabia is hosting the December 14-15 summit. The most noteworthy stop on MBS’s tour was Doha, where he was received at the airport by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The visit continues the process of healing a four-year rift with Qatar. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, joined by Egypt, sought to blockade Qatar to force it to align its regional policies with theirs. Although the rift was formally ended at the previous GCC summit, and Emir Tamim met with MBS in the Kingdom in September, tensions remain. The UAE and Bahrain still have not sent their ambassadors back to Doha. MBS’s visit to Qatar signaled that Saudi Arabia, for its part, considers the dispute ended and hopes that Emir Tamim will attend the summit.
Continuing to heal the intra-GCC dispute is perhaps not the primary objective of MBS’s Gulf tour. The trip suggests that MBS—and not his father, King Salman—will chair the GCC summit in Riyadh, at least in practice if not in name. With the global spotlight on him, MBS undoubtedly hopes to highlight the achievements of the summit and shift attention away from his culpability for the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. MBS, although not necessarily the Kingdom writ large, continues to struggle with international isolation over the Khashoggi killing, punctuated by the February 2021 release of a declassified U.S. intelligence report blaming him for that action. Appearing as a statesman who is focused on forging Gulf unity—countries that are key to U.S. and Western security—might, MBS hopes, ease international unrest over his eventual accession to the Saudi throne. On the other hand, and particularly in Washington, his involvement in that killing alone—no matter whether he is popular in the Kingdom for internal reforms or on other issues—is certain to prevent him from being invited on official head of state visits, even after he becomes King.
The MBS visits also seek to forge a unified Gulf position at the upcoming summit on several issues of key concern to all six GCC countries. Differences among the Gulf states are almost certainly to emerge, even if the final communique of the GCC summit papers over any splits. On the paramount issue of Iran, MBS, backed strongly by the UAE and Bahrain, argue for U.S. and Gulf pressure economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Even though Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been holding talks with Tehran to lower tensions, they see Iran as not only intent on developing at least a threshold nuclear capability, but also as intent on continuing to support armed factions throughout the region. As an indicator of the Saudi and UAE hardline, the two issued a joint statement after MBS’s visit to UAE on December 7, stating that “Lebanon must not be a launching pad for any terrorist acts and an incubator for organizations and groups that target regional security and stability, such as the terrorist Hezbollah group,” referring to Iran’s most powerful regional ally. MBS has resisted French efforts to restore Saudi-Lebanon diplomatic relations, broken in October over the issue of Hezbollah’s preponderant influence in Lebanon. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman engage Iran regularly and argue that the optimum means to roll back Iran’s influence is by resolving the various internal conflicts in the region. Yet, all the GCC states distrust Iran’s expansions of its enrichment of uranium and its insistence on maximalist demands at talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal—demands that have brought the Vienna talks to the brink of collapse.
Another priority for MBS is Yemen, where Saudi forces remain bogged down nearly seven years after his prediction, as then deputy Crown Prince, of a short and victorious intervention that would roll back Iranian regional influence. Even the Kingdom’s closest Gulf ally, the UAE, appears to have recognized that the Saudi-led Arab coalition effort to defeat the Iran-backed Zaidi Shia Houthi movement has failed, and the UAE pulled its ground forces off the front line in 2019. Yet, MBS has thus far failed to accept a political resolution in Yemen that gives the Houthis a significant share of power. There are no indications that an agreed GCC-wide plan to provide MBS with a face-saving exit strategy from Yemen is likely to emerge from the GCC summit. Still, politically, MBS likely wants a GCC expression of support for the Saudi effort in Yemen more than he wants a way out of the conflict.