Saudi leader works Arab region in drive to reinstate standing

Relations between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have improved since Caid Essebsi became president, leading to increased economic and diplomatic contacts by officials from both countries.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Closer ties. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Carthage Palace, November 27. (SPA)
Closer ties. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Carthage Palace, November 27. (SPA)

TUNIS - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was warmly greeted, despite some protests in Tunis, as he toured Arab countries ahead of his closely watched participation at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

His multi-country trip through the Arab region was considered part of a Saudi diplomatic offensive aimed at fending off the influence of a de facto alliance that includes Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups as well as the pro-Islamist governments of Qatar and Turkey.

Crown Prince Mohammed received an intense welcome when he arrived in the United Arab Emirates on November 22, the first leg of his six-country Arab tour.

“We are proud of our deep-rooted ties. Close cooperation and a fruitful partnership lie in store for our countries. The UAE will always be a loving and supportive home for our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa offered the crown prince red-carpet treatment at al-Sakhir Palace in Manama, two days later.

Hundreds raised the Saudi and Egyptian flags in Cairo in a show of support for Crown Prince Mohammed as his motorcade travelled to a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on November 27.

The same day, Crown Prince Mohammed was warmly welcomed by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, 92, who, in a symbolic gesture of esteem, braved the cold and wind to greet the crown prince as he stepped from his plane at Tunis-Carthage International Airport. He later awarded the Crown Prince Mohammed Tunisia’s highest national medal — the Order of the Republic.

“You are welcome in your country Tunisia even when our traditions here say you do not welcome loved ones who are at home,” Caid Essebsi said.

Caid Essebsi’s welcome overshadowed protests by activists and NGOs in Tunis over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October and the role of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.

Algerian Energy Minister Mustapha Guitouni said Crown Prince Mohammed’s expected trip to Algiers after the G20 meetings “is a friendly and brotherly visit with no link to the oil prices on the world markets.”

“As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours friendly Arab nations in advance of the G20 summit, Saudi diplomacy aims to achieve two goals: put the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi behind it and thwart Qatari efforts to benefit from the kingdom’s predicament,” said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

The two faces of Tunisia’s reactions to the crown prince’s visit illustrate the diplomatic and political face-off in the Arab world between Saudi-led bloc hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and another bloc including Brotherhood backers, Qatar and Turkey, and Riyadh’s nemesis Iran.

Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and their allies, as well as Turkey, Qatar and Iran, found in the Khashoggi killing an opportunity to undermine the image and credibility of the Saudi crown prince, even though US President Donald Trump softened such efforts by reiterating the United States’ firm commitment to Saudi Arabia.

In addition to meeting with Caid Essebsi, Crown Prince Mohammed also met with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who heads a government coalition that includes Islamists, while in Tunis.

Relations between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have improved since Caid Essebsi became president, replacing Moncef Marzouki in December 2014, leading to increased economic and diplomatic contacts by officials from both countries.

Under Marzouki’s rule, marked by an alliance with the Islamist Ennahda Movement, Tunisia moved closer to Turkey, Qatar and Egypt, then led by Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

Under the rule of the Islamist led-coalition in Tunisia from 2011-13, cooperation between Tunisia and Qatar and Turkey expanded across various fields, including the military.

During that time, Tunisia’s relations with its traditional Arab partners, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, grew cold and tense. Relations were particularly strained with the UAE, which had been Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner in the Arab world after Libya, with most Emirati investment projects frozen after 2011. The diplomatic rift peaked in September 2013, when the Emirati ambassador was withdrawn.

Caid Essebsi returned to Tunisia’s traditional diplomatic approach, prioritising relations with all Arab states to serve the country’s economic and diplomatic interests.

Ties warmed between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait under Caid Essebsi, with Saudi Arabia pledging $850 million in investments and aid to the country at Tunisia’s 2020 investment forum in 2016. Last October, Saudi warplanes joined Tunisian jets in an air force drill over Tunisian airspace.

After Crown Prince Mohammed left Tunisia, sources told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would lend Tunisia $500 million at favourable interest rates and will finance two projects worth $140 million each.

Algeria’s leaders, who had sometimes been at odds with Saudi Arabia over oil policy and regional issues in the Arab world, said they would welcome Crown Prince Mohammed as a young leader opposed to the role of Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam in general.

“[Crown Prince Mohammed] will get an ardent open arms welcome in Algeria mainly because of his anti-Islamist broad vision,” said Algerian political writer Zine Cherfaoui.

“Algeria had suffered from the financial and ideological support from the Gulf area to the extremist Islamists. [The crown prince’s] rise in power in Saudi Arabia is seen in Algeria as a break with the traditional support from the Gulf region to the Islamists,” he added.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s tour through the Maghreb epitomises the fight for influence in the Arab world between Saudi-led bloc and Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance in the region, experts said.

“Crown Prince Mohammed is intent on warding off Ankara-Doha axis. He is aware that the two countries are striving to grab more influence. That is why the importance for Saudi Arabia to recover the ground,” said Francois Aissa Touazi, of the Cap Mena think-tank.

“Turkey is one of the main economic partners of Algeria and Tunisia and Qatar had invested a lot in the Maghreb.”