As Saudi Arabia re-emerges as a powerhouse in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, its implications extend beyond the Gulf. The recent visit of the Saudi foreign minister to Brussels signifies the Kingdom’s intention to become an influential player in global geopolitics and geo-economics. Amidst the changing geopolitical landscape, it becomes imperative for European leaders to understand and respond appropriately to these transformations.
The Rise of Saudi Arabia: Shifting Geopolitical Equations in the Gulf
Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has been contesting regional supremacy with Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and the UAE. However, the Kingdom’s political and economic strategy seems to be shifting the balance in its favour. The evolving geopolitical conditions in the region, including the domestic challenges faced by Turkey and Iran, the reduced ambitions of Qatar, and the financial limitations of regional proxies have created a favourable environment for Saudi Arabia.
Notably, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a significant contender in this race. The changing dynamics between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Emirati President Mohammad bin Zayed indicate a strategic recalibration within the Gulf. Despite these changes, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic agility in preventing regional disagreements from escalating into open hostilities will be instrumental in its leadership aspirations.
Internationally, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has revived the strategic significance of Saudi Arabia due to its abundant energy resources. The Kingdom has started distancing itself from its earlier controversial policies, including the 2015 Yemen war and the 2018 Jamal Khashoggi incident, signalling a new era of diplomacy and economic statecraft. The nation has embarked on a multipolar approach, refusing to take sides between the West and Russia, and simultaneously hosting prominent world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Economic Transformation: The Vision 2030 and Its Implications
Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification strategy, Vision 2030, has led to sweeping societal changes, positioning the country as the economic hub of the MENA region. Although this liberalization has been marred by increased political and civil rights repression, it is essential for Europe to support the successful implementation of Vision 2030, while emphasizing that such repression may hinder their engagement.
Moreover, the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s decision to establish six funds channeling $24 billion towards Egypt, Oman, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, and Bahrain underlines Saudi Arabia’s ambition to expand its soft power in the region. However, Europeans should remain vigilant about how far Saudi Arabia will push its political self-interest as part of aid conditionalities.
On the energy front, Saudi Arabia intends to continue coordinating the policies of hydrocarbon-producing countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ ‘OPEC+’ format. However, it also seeks to boost its green energy credentials through the Middle East Green Initiative. It will be a strategic move for EU’s Green Deal Commissioner, Frans Timmermans, to challenge Saudi Arabia to advance these plans during his forthcoming visit to Riyadh.
Addressing Potential Threats: The Saudi-Iranian Confrontation
However, Saudi Arabia’s ambition faces a significant potential threat: an escalation with Iran. While the Saudi leaders seem to be opting for a dual strategy of containment and de-escalatory talks, European leaders must remain diplomatically engaged to ensure pragmatism prevails over potential escalation.
Working with Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly pose challenges for Europeans. Nonetheless, they must address human rights concerns and respond effectively to Saudi Arabia’s growing geopolitical and geo-economic leadership in the Gulf and the MENA region, given the regions’ importance to Europe’s economic, energy, and climate goals.
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