Saudi Arabia is trying to patch things up with bitter rivals Iran and Turkey, showing MBS knows the US isn't batting for him anymore

Saudi Arabia is trying to patch things up with bitter rivals Iran and Turkey, showing MBS knows the US isn't batting for him anymore
Iran saudi biden mbs
A composite image of US President Joe Biden, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Reuters
  • Biden is stepping away from the Middle East and trying to get back on good terms with Iran.

  • At the same time, Saudi Arabia has reengaged with estranged foes like Iran, Turkey, and Qatar.

  • Experts say it shows Saudi Arabia feels it can't rely on the US anymore.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Saudi Arabia has started reaching out to its rivals in the Middle East, suggesting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knows US support for his country is no longer guaranteed.

In April, the Financial Times reported that Saudi Arabia and Iran, which cut diplomatic ties in 2016, were conducting secret talks. They came as Saudi Arabia also started reaching out to Syria, Iraq, and Oman, working to move past a decade-long rift with Turkey, and bettering relations with Qatar following an end to their four-year blockade.

Indeed, during a rare interview aired on Saudi state TV in late April, Crown Prince Mohammed, known also as MBS, shocked onlookers with his placatory tone when he said he was "seeking to have good relations with Iran."

The tone could not be more different from the prince's past attitude, exemplified in March 2018 when he compared Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.

mohammed bin salman
Mohammed bin Salman in Hangzhou, China, in 2016. Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's newfound engagements with Iran and others indicates that the kingdom knows it can no longer rely on the US to back its cause, experts told Insider.

Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has sought to stabilize and shrink US presence in the Middle East, ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, announcing a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and signaling a return to the Iran nuclear deal, from which President Donald Trump yanked the US in 2018.

The US is Saudi Arabia's foremost western ally, and Riyadh has historically enjoyed US political and military backing.

Over the past two decades, the US has sold swathes of arms to Saudi Arabia and Washington has regularly pledged to defend Saudi Arabia if it is threatened. With US support, Saudi Arabia has been emboldened to cut ties with or strike out at its neighbors, as it did with Turkey and Qatar.

The US seen as 'fundamentally unreliable' in the Middle East

David Schenker, who served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department until this January, told Insider the Saudis "don't know what the security commitment of the US is" and, as a result, are being "more accommodating and looking for a modus operandi with Iran."

Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program, agreed.

"They know they can no longer count on US support if they maintain the same regional policies that they have had since 2015 up until now," she told Insider.

"What Saudi Arabia has done with Qatar and Iran, even reigniting closer coordination with Omanis and doubling down on their relationship with Iraq, all these are Saudi attempts to revive the network of friends that they have lost over the past few years."

"Losing the US support against Iran deepens the feeling of insecurity," Farouk said. "The Saudis don't have another power to fall back on."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, on June 3, 2020. Iranian Leader Press Off. / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, told Insider that Saudi Arabia was preparing itself for a future where US backing is uncertain.

"One of the things Saudi Arabia is doing is engaging an effort of strategic diversification, and all the US-aligned countries in the Middle East are having to move forward in a situation where the US is seen as fundamentally unreliable a guarantor as it used to be 25 years ago," he said.

Regional fatigue?

In the past, the US would more often than not be leading or moderating peace talks between disputing factions in the region, but in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the US says it is playing no part.

"If they're talking, I think that's generally a good thing," Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf earlier this month. "If countries are talking directly together without us in the middle, that's maybe even better."

Farouk said, however, that it is unlikely that the US wasn't privy to the content of the Saudi-Iran discussions as "the US always wants to know what's going on."

Though the uncertainty over the US commitment appears to be key to Saudi Arabia's decision to engage with Iran, the three experts all pointed out that a broader regional fatigue is also responsible.

"All the major regional payers in the Middle East are in some manner or another exhausted," Ibish said, "they are overextended, they are bogged down, they are overreached."

Therefore, the flurry of diplomacy from Riyadh could simply be a break, and not the end of the story, he said.

"Very few of the underlying causes for the tensions and conflicts that we saw in recent years have been resolved. It could be that this is just a breather," Ibish said.

Read the original article on Business Insider