How Saudis overcame “reputational damage”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, New Delhi, Sept 11, 2023

European Union’s super bureaucrat Ursula von der Leyen chose April Fools’ Day last year to threaten China that it would suffer “reputational damage” in the world community for backing Russia’s Ukraine war. Being a civilisational state, China let pass that arrogant, presumptuous, egotistic remark.  

The concept reeks of neo-colonial mentality. Saudi Arabia’s tryst with reputational damage has been of a different kind. The Kingdom has had spectacular success in overcoming the reputational damage related to the killing of the ex-CIA asset Jamal Khashoggi. It makes a worthy case study for India, which also is haunted by the spectre of reputational damage for allegedly committing trans-border crimes. 

From an Indian perspective, there are seven “takeaways” from the Saudi experience. First, Saudi Arabia stood its ground; second, it sought no help from third parties to reach out to the power brokers in DC; third, it seized the initiative to set in motion an investigative mechanism of its own which came up with cognitive reasoning in a very short period of time; four, it followed up by sentencing the Saudi perpetrators of Khashoggi’s murder to imprisonment; five, it didn’t allow the “reputational damage” to impede normal life; six, it turned a new page so that “a new normal” became possible, which is resilient and geared for the long haul that is strengthening the Kingdom’s strategic autonomy; and, seven, in the final analysis, the “decoupling” from the US helped the Saudis to shake off the reputational damage.  

Needless to say, the last point is the crux of the matter. Saudi Arabia’s assertion of strategic autonomy has taken myriad forms that caught the Biden Administration by surprise. This was not how Saudi Arabia was expected to behave under pressure with its ponderous decision-making process, the statecraft moving at a glacial pace, its comprador class among the elites only too eager to capitulate and the ruling elite’s unipolar predicament and so on. 

But the “new normal” also dictated that Saudi Arabia did not get into an acrimonious brawl with the Biden Administration but instead subjected the latter to benign neglect of a kind that was most hurtful for the US’ interests and regional influence and bruised its vanities of being the only game in town in the Middle East. 

In reality, Saudis had no alternative, given the profoundly troubling geopolitical reality that Khashoggi was being groomed by the Deep State in the US for a higher political destiny than that of a mere dissident — and that was something Riyadh couldn’t have tolerated, as the stability of the regime was being threatened from America, which was ironically the Kingdom’s provider of security and a strategic ally of several decades.  

It takes years or even a decade to lick into shape a mole so that it can perform as a strategic asset like Khashoggi for the US intelligence, and the fury over his untimely murder surged in media attacks on the Saudi regime — targeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

However, as months passed, it became more and more difficult to demonise the Crown Prince under whose watchful eyes, the Kingdom embarked on a historic path of reform. Three major achievements through the past 5-year period can be seen as game changers. First, Vision 2030, the transformative and ambitious blueprint to unlock the potential of the people and create a diversified, innovative, and world-leading nation. The reform programme has already begun to show impressive results. 

Two, OPEC+ which was the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has liberated the world oil market from the US’ clutches through the past 5-year period and in turn put the two energy superpowers on the driving seat. The transition is hugely consequential in geopolitical terms. Incredibly enough, the new matrix fine-tuning the global market is taking place independent of American leverage. OPEC+ is working effectively, overcoming all external attempts to undermine it. 

Three, Saudi Arabia’s induction as a full member of the BRICS — again, with Russian backing — is expected to carry forward the new impulses of the Kingdom’s independent foreign policy, which in turn is expected to galvanise the creation of a new international trade and financial architecture. 

Although a sub-plot in this context becomes the normalisation with Iran, which at one stroke created a paradigm shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East region with the regional states steadily doing away with American midwifery in settling their intra-regional issues. A natural consequence of it has been the sharp decline in the US’ regional influence which has become evident during the current Israel-Palestine conflict.

All in all, the Saudi compass is laying the foundations for an emerging regional power that is destined to contribute to the international system and the world order. The US has understood that it lost the plot and is moving with alacrity to mend fences with Saudi Arabia. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in June last year came tantalisingly close to an act of atonement. That was only to be expected. 

A few examples from the last month alone testify to the dynamism of Saudi diplomacy and the total collapse of the US’ strategy to “isolate” the Kingdom    visit by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil (a BRICS member state, which is due to join OPEC+ in January); winning the bid in a landslide in secret ballots to host the World Expo 2030 (Saudi Arabia won 119 of the 165 votes, easily defeating South Korea and Italy thanks to the huge backing by the Global South); the $7 bn local currency swap agreement with China’s Central Bank (latest sign of strengthening relations with China and a step toward delinking from the petrodollar); leading by example the OPEC+ decision on voluntary cuts of oil production “to ensure a stable and balanced oil market” (revealing at the grouping’s virtual meeting on November 30 that it would be continuing its 1 million barrels per day reduction, ie., roughly 45 percent of total production cut of 2.2 million bpd envisaged); and, of course, placing itself at the front and centre of high-stakes public diplomacy over the Gaza war, with China again as its preferred partner (while a Saudi-Israeli normalisation, which might have been a major foreign policy win for the Biden Administration, has become politically radioactive for Riyadh.)

The moral of the story — especially for countries like India — is that firmness tempered with tact and patience pays. The Saudi secret lies in avoiding nasty confrontation but instead quietly, systematically shaking off the critical dependence on the US by diversifying the Kingdom’s external relations. 

The mother of all ironies in all this is that the US not only assassinated a senior Iranian general in a third country and the then president in the White House even bragged about it. Equally, the US took revenge on Osama bin Laden and dumped his corpse in the high seas. 

It has kidnapped dozens of Russian nationals travelling abroad and locked them up in prisons in an attempt to persuade them to work for the US intelligence. Now, in June, with a similar objective, the US intelligence kidnapped an Indian transiting through Prague. Evidently, the US intelligence was stalking him on Indian soil. 

It is a frightening thought that the Five Eyes may have penetrated the core of the Indian security establishment. Yet, state secretary Blinken vows not to let go India, the US’ indispensable partner for the undoing of China. It almost seems as if he knows something about Indian statecraft  that we do not. Indian diplomacy has truly tied itself in knots.