June 23, Meet the Press:
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) June 23, 2019
Last month, the UAE said it would withdraw its troops from the northern port of Hodeidah. In reassuring the international community that it had coordinated this with Saudi Arabia, it explained it was just trying to follow terms set down by a United Nations peace agreement in Stockholm in December. The UAE’s announcement came just as Iran was breaching its side of the nuclear agreement and allegedly attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, the Houthi rebels published evidence for their drone attacks on airports in the Emirates.
In other words, by removing its military from Hodeidah, the UAE is backing away from Saudi Arabia and the United States’ hard-line opposition to Iran. In doing so, the UAE is signaling to Iran that it wants diplomacy instead of military confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz between the two countries.
Bolton’s departure now creates an opportunity for both sides to step down from the brink, says Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC.
“The ball is in Iran’s court. For months and months, the suggestion by senior Iranian officials has been that, ‘If Trump really wants to talk to us, the step he could take is to get rid of John Bolton,’” Vatanka said. “Trump says he disagreed with so much of what Bolton represented. Iran can turn around and say, ‘We hope you also disagreed with him on the Iran question.’”
Trump said last month that he would be open to meeting Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and suggested he could also allow short-term loans to help Iran muddle through the country’s economic crisis, brought on in large part by US sanctions. Iran has rejected the possibility of talks until sanctions are lifted, but Vatanka says a meeting at the UN General Assembly later this month is still a possibility.
Today’s stubbornly-low oil prices are standing in the way of Saudi Arabia’s grand ambitions.
The OPEC kingpin wants to balance its massive budget and simultaneously pull off a $2 trillion valuation for Saudi Aramco, the country’s crown jewel. Both of those challenging efforts require much higher oil prices.
Saudi Arabia’s surprise decision over the weekend to install a new oil minister, its third in just over three years, reflects a sense of urgency about boosting prices ahead of the planned Aramco IPO. The listing would be the largest in history and is at the heart of the sweeping Vision 2030 plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy.
“The Saudis are inevitably frustrated. They have gone above and beyond” to lift prices, said Ryan Fitzmaurice, energy strategist at Rabobank.
Saudi Aramco President and CEO Amin Nasser said no one was hurt in the attacks and that emergency crews had contained the fires and brought the situation under control within hours. The kingdom’s energy ministry is expected to announce the status and timeline for recovering its production capacity on Tuesday evening.
Saudi Arabia has “a great deal of explaining to do” on how it could not defend its “most critical” oil facility from drone attacks at the weekend, said Gary Grappo, former U.S. ambassador to Oman.
The Kingdom spent an estimated $67.6 billion on arms in 2018, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Saudi Arabia was just behind the U.S. and China in terms of defense spending, Grappo told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday.
“I think the Saudi leadership has a great deal of explaining to do that a country that ranks third in terms of total defense spending … was not able to defend its most critical, and I can’t underscore that enough, its most critical oil facility from these kinds of attacks,” said Grappo, who was previously in senior positions at the U.S. embassies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Baghdad, Iraq.
Like some of the recent tanker attacks, it may never be possible to prove to the world’s satisfaction exactly who was responsible for what beyond all deniability. This is a further warning about the longer-term risks involved. The Iranians can keep claiming that the Houthi did it, and even if they admit supplying the weapons and training the Houthi, they can always claim that the Houthi made the decision to attack on their own. Even implausible deniability makes such attacks a good way to strike without establishing a clear line of responsibility, and a low-cost, lower-risk way to inflict serious damage.