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Saudi Arabia is reconciling with the regime it once tried to topple

Manfew diplomats Admit defeat, but that’s exactly what the Saudi foreign minister did at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, the annual big security discussion. Saudi Arabia is trying to make Syria’s bloody dictator Bashar al-Assad a pariah. Still, Prince Faisal bin Farhan hinted that Mr Assad’s isolation was coming to an end, when asked about rumors that his country might change course. “There is a growing consensus that the status quo is not going to work,” he said.

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Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has spent tens of billions of dollars to topple two unfriendly regimes: the Assad regime and the Houthi rebels, a Shia rebel group that controls much of Yemen. In the coming months, it may concede that both efforts have failed. This is not because the Saudis have developed an affinity for their enemy. Rather, it is another sign of how the kingdom, like some of its Gulf neighbours, increasingly sees the rest of the Arab world as a nuisance.

The Saudis were early supporters of the uprising against Assad. In 2012, they began sending weapons and money to Syrian rebels. Of course, the insurgency ultimately fizzled: small arms from the Gulf and the West were no match for the larger investments made by Iran and later Russia. But even after Mr Assad’s crushing victory, the Saudis (as well as Qatar) refused to restore relations with him and his seat in the Arab League, which Syria was suspended from in 2011.

They are not so stubborn anymore. In Munich, Prince Faisal said what other Gulf diplomats said privately: There was no longer any clear path to depose Mr Assad. “We all have policies, but we don’t have any strategy to implement that policy,” he said. “There is no path to the highest purpose of all of us.”

Diplomats believe that Saudi Arabia may announce a rapprochement with Syria at the next Arab League summit, usually held in March (it will be hosted by Saudi Arabia this year). A foreign ministry official said it would attach conditions. Mr Assad, for example, should distance himself from his Iranian patrons, something he may agree in principle but not in practice.

Compared with the situation that may loom over Yemen, the turnaround in attitudes toward Mr Assad is hardly a U-turn. The country has been in turmoil since the 2011 uprising against its longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. His successor, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was an empty shell who proved unable to hold the country together. That left a vacuum that was eagerly filled by the Houthis, who have fought the insurgency on and off since the 1990s.

In late 2014, they marched on the capital, Sanaa, and then on to Hodeidah, the main port on the Red Sea. By March 2015, they had reached the southern city of Aden. Mr Hardy fled by boat. That prompted the Saudi-led Arab coalition to intervene. The so-called Operation Decisive Storm has dragged on for eight years with indecision, plunging Yemen into a humanitarian crisis. An estimated 19 million Yemenis require food assistance to survive; three quarters live below the poverty line.

It has also been costly for the Saudis. There are no official figures, but the kingdom has spent tens of billions of dollars on the war. At the height of the fighting, some were paying as much as $1 billion a week.

The Saudis are negotiating a deal that would allow them to withdraw. It will not unseat the Houthis or end Yemen’s chaotic civil war. But it would give them assurances that the Houthis would stop dropping drones and missiles across the border into Saudi Arabia. “This has affected the Houthis more than they could have imagined,” said one frustrated Yemeni observer. It could be signed in the coming months – possibly in the holy city of Mecca around the Ramadan holidays that begin in late March this year.

Ask Gulf diplomats about their foreign policy priorities for the next few years, and they tend to offer lofty lists that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Scandinavian embassy: economic ties to developing countries, greater Foreign aid programs, joint efforts to combat climate change. When they talk about their Arab neighbours—which they are usually reluctant to say—they describe the region as a burden.

Frustrated with widespread corruption in Lebanon, the Saudis have cut funding to their traditional clients. They are reluctant to pour more money into Egypt, which is currently experiencing its second economic collapse since 2016: a seemingly bottomless pit of demand. They might boost Tunisia, which is in its own debt crisis – but only because the cost (around $1 billion or so) is relatively modest.

Restoring relations with Mr Assad does not mean the Saudis will pour money into rebuilding the country he destroyed. Ending the war in Yemen also doesn’t mean they’ll be spending a lot of money on reconstruction efforts, which the World Bank estimates will cost $25 billion. Following the example of former President Donald Trump, many Saudis, including officials, say this is a “Saudi first” era, a time to spend money at home and reduce entanglements — especially failures — with foreign countries.

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