Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), generally acknowledged to be the de facto chief of government in the Kingdom, recently finished a week-long visit to Europe to complete the political rehabilitation kicked off by President Joe Biden’s July 15 visit to Riyadh.
Until now, Prince Mohammed has restricted his visits to capitals in Saudi Arabia’s backyard – first across the GCC, then, in rapid succession, Egypt, Jordan, and finally, Turkey. Almost all reporting in the European press focused on energy issues, lionizing the Kingdom as Europe’s savior in its ongoing energy stand-off with Russia.
The Greek press reported extensively on Saudi investment agreements in the country’s energy, technology, communications, and defense sectors. Saudi Arabia pledged to make Greece an energy hub for the distribution of ‘green hydrogen’ throughout Southeast Europe. The Saudis signed an MOU encompassing billions of dollars’ worth of business and investments across several industries.
Meanwhile, the French press highlighted President Emmanuel Macron’s effusive handshake with MBS upon his arrival at the Élysée Palace – even if less newsworthy than Biden’s fist bump in Riyadh. At the same time, European media has paid much less attention to these visits as an attempt by MBS to recover his international legitimacy. Only the American press focused on the boost to the Saudi Prince’s image and lamented how the world seems to have forgotten the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Generally speaking, however, journalists on both sides of the Atlantic have ignored two important, related questions. Why has Mohammed bin Salman given the impression that he has been far more forthcoming about energy supplies to Europe during his talks with President Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis than he was with President Biden? In fact, why did the Crown Prince choose Greece and France as stops for his first visit to Europe?
At the risk of rubbing salt in a uniquely American wound, it certainly appears that MBS wanted to take one more swipe at Biden by traveling to Europe, despite the American President’s hefty consumption of crow during his Saudi visit. Although we have seen few details of the conversations between Biden and MBS, what little has leaked into the public domain indicates that Biden left Saudi Arabia with only vague promises to increase oil production in the Fall. In stark contrast to his dealings with the United States, MBS presided over several business agreements and MOUs with Greece and implied that Saudi Arabia would provide Greece with ‘cheaper’ energy. More concretely, the Greeks scored a $850 million deal after the Saudi STC Group announced that its subsidiary Middle East and North Africa Hub “will cooperate with the Greek telecom firm TSSA to build a data corridor that extends from the Kingdom to Europe through a modern, high-capacity network of terrestrial optical fibers under the sea and will connect Europe with Asia.”
In France, Macron basked in high-level political discussions that covered Russia, Ukraine, and the stabilization of the world’s energy markets.
Both Macron and Mitsotakis came away with political prestige-building interactions with MBS, able to tout their respective countries’ roles in saving Europe from an energy disaster in the coming months. It certainly provides a fillip for France’s ambition to lead Europe geopolitically.
By contrast, MBS gave Biden little if anything to show for his visit that would help him politically. The Guardian makes a persuasive argument that indeed, the Saudis still hope that Trump returns to power in 2024. Therefore, hindering Biden’s political livelihood in the short term may bring about a favorable future arrangement for the Saudi leadership.
Was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s choice of Greece and then France for his first two stops in Europe pure chance, or an opportunity to undermine Turkey’s ability to challenge Saudi interests in the region? MBS has a lengthy list of complaints about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey still maintains a military base in Qatar – a base that played an instrumental role in deterring Saudi military action against Qatar during the 2017 Gulf Crisis. MBS also nurses a grievance against President Erdogan for his full-throated campaign to bring down the Crown Prince over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. At a broader geopolitical level, Riyadh and Ankara support opposing factions and outcomes in the Syrian civil war. Indeed, friction between the two states continues to play out across the region. Riyadh seeks to stabilize Iraq while Turkish artillery and airplanes carry out operations against the PKK in northern Iraq. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Erdogan has recently flirted with the regime in Tehran, hinting that he wishes to put Turkish-Iranian relations on a better footing after several years of confrontation in Syria and the Caucasus.
This courting of Iran has made Erdogan an outlier in NATO. Erdogan visited Tehran (the only NATO chief of state to do so) in July of this year, followed by a trilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi in Tehran. MBS has his own agenda with Russia and Iran, and he does not need Turkey playing the spoiler.
Which leads us back to the question: why visit Greece and France? The answer may be found in both countries’ tenuous relationship with Turkey, as well as their increasingly close bilateral ties with one another. Erdogan has disputed the maritime borders and the sovereignty of Greek islands in the Aegean, labeled the Greek Prime Minister as someone who “no longer exists for him,” and brought the two countries to the brink of war repeatedly over the last few years. It certainly looks like a case of MBS cultivating the enemy – a peer military competitor to Turkey – of his apparent rival.
The fruitful economic exchange in Athens stands in stark contrast with the rather sterile joint statement released in Ankara during MBS’ June 2022 visit, which “strongly emphasized a joint determination to start a new era of cooperation in bilateral relations [between Saudi Arabia and Turkey]… including political, economic, military, security and cultural relations” and the “possibility” of developing and diversifying trade and boosting investments and partnerships in various fields. The Ankara statement closes with the formulaic “the talks were held in an atmosphere of sincerity and brotherhood embodying the depth of excellent relations between the two countries.”
It is hardly a coincidence that MBS visited two countries that have recently signed a bilateral defense treaty. Greece has also developed strong military ties with Israel, with the apparent aim to deter Turkish ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. An arrangement with Greece would give Saudi Arabia a link to a powerful regional military grouping without incurring the political costs of openly visible links to Israel. Greece and France share another advantage over other European countries; they are the only two EU countries with a permanent, combat-capable deployment in the GCC. France opened a permanent naval and air base in Abu Dhabi in 2009, housing about 500 troops and fighter aircraft as well as supporting the French Indian Ocean naval squadron. For its part, Greece deployed a full Patriot battery with supporting units, totaling over 200 troops, to Saudi Arabia in early 2022. Greek forces now reportedly provide air defense for Yanbu’ and the Neom City project in the Kingdom’s northwest.
The story of how the Greek battery came to the Kingdom also provides an interesting sub-text to Saudi attitudes towards Europe and Turkey. Greek sources told the author that the United States approached several European countries in 2019 to deploy Patriot batteries to Saudi Arabia to backfill the redeployment of U.S. Patriots elsewhere (presumably in East Asia). Apparently, only the Greeks accepted Washington’s request. The other countries approached – reportedly the Netherlands, Spain and Germany – all declined. The Greek sources noted that each of those countries had important defense procurement contracts with Turkey and have generally adopted pro-Turkish attitudes within NATO circles. All three countries had deployed Patriot batteries to Turkey between 2011 and 2015, although Spain and the Netherlands have since withdrawn their units. This connection to Ankara may not have any bearing on their decision to reject deployments to Saudi Arabia, but perceptions in politics outweigh the facts every time. Agreeing to send a Patriot battery out of the country was a particularly difficult decision for Athens, as Greece faces a constant threat from Turkey and needs all its air defense assets. The Patriot battery in question was the only unit held in reserve and required time and money to return to operational status. Furthermore, selling the project to Greek voters at a time of intense Turkish threats was a challenge. The Greek Patriot battery has now deployed under an arrangement that requires Saudi Arabia to provide logistic support, including spare parts from Saudi stocks, but does not compensate Greece for the troop deployment.
Finally, the fact remains that Macron and Mitsotakis are the only two EU leaders who have anything approaching a coordinated defense and security policy, a point probably not lost on the Saudis. French national security experts characterized the mutual defense agreement between Greece and France, referred to earlier, as a first step in realizing Macron’s goal of European “strategic autonomy.” For his part, Mitsotakis has made it clear that he supports the European security project, much like Macron. Encouraging the EU to become a credible player in the region fits Saudi security interests. The rest of Europe so far seems unwilling to do anything other than hide behind the United States, and Saudi Arabia recognizes – in a way similar to France, perhaps – that overreliance on the United States imperils its strategic autonomy. Hence, MBS had yet another reason for favoring the two European states that have taken the first steps toward developing a more independent security posture.
Throughout his time in power, Mohammed bin Salman had not displayed much in the way of foreign affairs skills, nor has he achieved many foreign policy successes in the last few years. Perhaps his overtures to Greece and France indicate that he has matured, learned from his mistakes, or assembled a group of skilled foreign policy advisors.
This article previously appeared in the Gulf International Forum.