By Ebrahim Deen

The rise of the Islamic State Group (IS) and resurgence of Iran is now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with likeminded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions which are looser and more issue specific in contemporary times, and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters such as youth unemployment will in the short to medium term force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival.

History and foreign policy impetuses

Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity, and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought. This took the form of partnerships with the British post World War I until the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, and with the U.S post World War II up to today. The Kingdom’s vast oil resources –it is currently the largest oil producer and possesses the largest amount of reserves– enabled it to gain influence and acquire strategic partner status with the U.S during the Cold War.

Domestic matters will force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival

Its aversion to communism and ability to cultivate coalitions with other Gulf States aided in this regard. The kingdom, in contemporary times, is now an aspiring regional hegemon; it has largely ensured its territorial integrity, possesses large cash reserves and military hardware, and as will be observed below, is willing to act financially and militarily to fulfil its national interests.

Although foreign policy and national interests in the Kingdom are an elite driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses a disproportional influence in shaping the state’s path. Noteworthy is the observation that domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.

Foreign policy during Abdullah’s era

Regarded by western commentators as a ‘reformer’, foreign policy under Abdullah sought to diversify bilateral Saudi relations. Visits to China, Russia, India, and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 were noteworthy in this regard. These were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the U.S’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The Kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state sponsored discrimination.

The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran

Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the Kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It thus supported Saddam during the eight year long Iraq-Iran war, and was opposed to the 2003 invasion. The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.

The Arab Spring

However, the Kingdom still maintained warm relations with the U.S, and would confer with it before adopting decisions, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam enabled the Iranian regime to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the U.S’s then opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed after the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings.

Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the Kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the U.S’s role in enabling this. Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies and Egypt, during the latter end of Mubarak’s term, largely followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in responding to regional issues. The Kingdom thus felt that the U.S, which had been a close Mubarak ally, had betrayed him, and would adopt a similar position were the regime in Saudi Arabia threatened. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia views the Brotherhood as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior Brotherhood figures refused to support its role during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013. This was especially true since the Assad regime had at the time been accused of using chemical weapons, flouting one of the Obama administration’s ‘red lines’. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase support to proxy groups such as Hezbollah. The Kingdom is of the perception that Iran seeks regional hegemony, and that its rise will blunt Saudi Arabia’s relatively strong regional influence. This is especially true since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf States including Qatar and the UAE, is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hezbollah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of holding elections.

The Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt

The Kingdom was especially angered for not being informed about the initial U.S-Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future U.S support, believing that in a situation where the regime is threatened the U.S will not offer its full support and prefer to instead call for negotiations and compromise.

Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive foreign policy. First it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over 700 billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and provided funding to withstand protests. The funding was used to quell protests through increases in public sector spending, especially in Jordan where they allowed the Abdullah II regime to stave off the need for subsidy removal.

The Kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Al Khalifa regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command with a proposed hundred thousand strong deployable force. Agreements on a shared GCC police force and the opening of a centre (the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies) to promote GCC security coordination were also signed.

Second, the Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through financing remnants to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, together with the UAE and Kuwait, the Mursi regime was overthrown and replaced by a former military head Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party, and Saudi-Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining participatory Islamists (the Justice and Construction party, Libya Dawn forces in Libya, and Ennahdha in Tunisia).

This culminated in the March 2014 decision declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation adopted by Gulf states, and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. It is noteworthy that even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran through removing an ally. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition sought to distinguish between participatory Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groupings such as Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Shaam, supporting the latter.

Abdullah’s death: change of course?

Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. These have resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole wasn’t viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE –Sisi and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (crown prince of Abu Dhabi) were requested not to attend Abdullah’s funeral. Moreover, the Kingdom has severely reduced its aid to Egypt, providing long term loans and fuel grants instead. Since November 2016 it has even halted oil shipments to Cairo as a result of Egypt’s opposition to a UNSC resolution criticising the Iranian supported Syrian regime, and because it believes that Cairo had become increasingly dependent on its largess and was failing to restart its economy.

Key in influencing these decisions has been the Iranian nuclear deal and rise of the Islamic state group (IS). The Kingdom views these as greater threats than participatory Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence. This is particularly true since the Assad regime has consolidated its control in Syria, and with Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s supported candidate, became Lebanese president.

IS, on the other hand, has been active in the country, claiming bombings on Mosques frequented by Shia and Special Forces, and its leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime. In May 2015 for example, the group undertook attacks on Shia sites of worship in Katif and Damam killing around twenty nine people, while an attack on a Mosque in Asir in August that year killed fifteen Saudi security personnel.

Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists.

Moreover, the group has been critical of the Kingdom’s leadership of the Sunni world, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime as a result of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance. It is noteworthy that some within the Saudi clerical establishment are partially sympathetic to IS’s ideology, that Saudi citizens have been involved in the financing of militant groups in Syria, and that they comprise a sizable portion of IS’s international recruits.

Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists. Ennahdha’s Rached Ghannouchi, the Jordanian Brotherhood’s Hamam Saeed, and Hamas’s Khaled Mishaal had all visited the kingdom in 2015. Further, it has re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party and financed and armed it in its attempt to reassert influence in Yemen.

The kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm Syrian opposition in Syria, while in December 2016 it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic, even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troups fighting IS.

In addition, in January 2016 the Kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an attempt in foreign policy terms to both stall the improving relations between the Islamic Republic and the west, and to ensure that Gulf allies followed suit.

Yemen

Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s re-prioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were a part of a ten member coalition which the Kingdom headed, and were without initial U.S endorsement.

The Yemeni Islah party (Yemen’s main participatory Islamist faction) has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground troupe component, consisting of around 50000 forces has since been implemented. Thus far the effort has had some successes, the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south. However Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many Northern regions. Moreover, it is unlikely that these will be dislodged easily as Houthi influence in Yemen is largely a result of disillusionment with Yemeni politics and opposition to Saudi meddling in the country; the Houthis have strong institutional bases and grassroot support in Northern provinces such as Sada.

It is noteworthy that Salman’s renewed relations with participatory Islamists constitutes tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Erdogan and the previous Emir of Qatar (Hamed bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision is more a result of the kingdom’s belief that the group has been weakened and now poses no real threat to the regime. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these participatory Islamists possess some influence regionally and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS.

US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.

The regime’s lingering long-term fears of participatory Islamists can be observed in its treatment of Sisi’s Egypt. Despite Salman’s dislike for Sisi –it is reliably reported that Sisi sought to ensure that Salman was bypassed and power transferred to Muqrin after Abdullah’s death, even endorsing the use of Egyptian forces if necessary. Although Sisi has been dismissive of Gulf regimes and their willingness to fund the coup, the Kingdom still maintains relations with Sisi and has not sought to engage closely with the Muslim Brotherhood. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to that of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action such as what occurred in Yemen.

Further, US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession. The administration was likely given little warning about the then impending Saudi intervention in Yemen in March 2015 and was likewise not informed about Nimr’s execution. The US had however retroactively supported the Yemen intervention, providing logistical and armament support to Saudi coalition forces, and securing a United Nations Security Council resolution (2216) endorsing the intervention.

However, during Obama’s term, this was informed more by the US’s need to placate the Kingdom in light of the Iranian nuclear deal. President Trump seems to signal a change, reinforcing support to Saudi forces in Yemen, and vowing to implement tougher measures against Iran. Further, the administration’s proposed ban on citizens travelling to the country does not include Saudi Arabia, but encompasses Iranians. although these moves can be seen as a convergence, US and Saudi regional interests still deviate, especially in light of Trump’s intent to provide priority to East Asia, specifically China, and his stance on shrinking the US’s military.

Implications

Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and re-prioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and especially Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon. In Syria, the only reason the December 2016 ceasefire has largely held is because Saudi Arabia had been sidelined ,while Turkey, a fellow regional heavyweight with a direct presence on the ground, is a guarantor together with Russia. Political talks to negotiate a transitional agreement are however proving more difficult, owing to the Assad regime’s strengthened position and increased demands from Iran.

Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon.

This will ensure that the Kingdom continues its support to rebel groups, especially if Hezbollah and Shia militia groups are permitted to continue operating in the country. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which is increasingly resembling a regional Cold War. Already in Yemen for example, since the Saudi intervention, over eighty percent of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance, up from sixty per cent prior to the intervention; fifteen million people don’t have access to healthcare and twenty-one million don’t access to clean water, up fifty-two percent from before the intervention; and ten governorates are on the verge of experiencing famine.

Foreign policy constraints

Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. Balancing is more informed by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE for example is more fearful of domestic participatory Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, wherein the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has blamed it for much of the country’s problems, refusing to finance and arm it and preferring to make use of Emirati troupes and private contractors instead.

Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. Dubai and Oman have important economic ties with the Islamic republic, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars/North Dome GAS field. All three of these refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with the Islamic republic while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, and thus offered to play a mediating role between Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite the Erdogan regime’s continued opposition to the Islamic republic’s interests in Syria.

Second, the drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. 2015 saw the oil price drop by over thirty-five per cent from its 2014 level, and this trend has to date continued in 2016 despite the strong Saudi-Iranian tensions. The Kingdom, which relies on oil income for between seventy-seven and eighty-eight per cent of government revenue has thus been forced to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic social programmes. This has caused its reserves to drop from around 735 billion dollars in 2014 to around 623 billion by the end of 2015, and the budget deficit for 2016 stood at seventy-nine billion, ensuring that the kingdom will need to make use of more of its reserves.

The drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states.

Levies on petrol and gas have increased by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent respectively and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value added tax with income tax soon to follow by 2018. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the Kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime in Egypt.

Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the 15-24 year old group stands at over thirty per cent and around two-thirds of the country is aged under thirty.

Opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest

The 2016 budget allocated around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services, however much more will need to be implemented, including finding employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. It is argued that this is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammed (thirty-one) and the relatively young Mohammed bin Nayef (fifty-seven) as deputy crown prince and crown prince respectively. The Kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes. David Hurst thus argues that the other fourty-five executed with Nimr in January 2016 was a sign aimed at domestic dissenters. Most of these comprised Al-Qaida linked militants, some of whom had been on death row since 2004. Executing them at this juncture when levies and taxes are increasing is meant to illustrate that rebellion against the monarch would not be tolerated.

Things however can change quickly. The region is currently in flux, the chances for miscalculations are abound, especially in terms of further regional upheaval. The increasing regional interference of Russia is worrisome in this regard, especially as the country moves to fill the gap in Egypt and more overtly supports Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince was not unanimously endorsed by the allegiance council. This may pose problems, especially were the king to suddenly be unable to govern. Mohammed bin Salman, who currently acts as a de-facto prime minister and is largely in charge of the countries defence policy, is viewed as lacking the capacity and credentials for such a high office by some within the royal family. His appointment was seen as risky and informed more by his proximity to his father than his ability to govern.

Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is seen by most in the royal family as legitimate, does not fully agree with some of the policies adopted by the deputy Crown Prince, especially those concerning Yemen, and may thus act to freeze him out of political office once he ascends to the helm. This would most likely lead to a rethink in Saudi foreign policy and the means best suited for its achievement. However for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.

* Ebrahim Deen is a senior researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre.

* This article was first published by Open Democracy on 20 February 2017.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The recent handing over of two islands – Tiran and Sanafir – to Saudi Arabia by the Egyptian government emphasises that the Sisi regime remains so in need of external support to buttress its domestic control that it is willing to anger significant sections of the population. The islands’ importance to Israel and the fact that Israel agreed to the handover also point to strengthening cooperation between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Cairo in an effort to contain Iran’s resurgence.

 

The announcement about the islands was made as the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, undertook his first official trip to Egypt since acceding to the thrown in January 2015. Other deals signed during his visit included a twenty-two billion dollar agreement for Saudi Arabia to supply Egypt with energy, and the establishment of a sixteen billion dollar joint Saudi-Egyptian investment fund. Recent tensions between the two regional powers had heightened after Egypt’s refusal to commit troops to the Saudi war in Yemen, and because of Egypt’s support for Russia's Syrian intervention. Egypt is also critical about strengthening ties between Riyadh and Ankara, and because of the Kingdom’s support for Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood Islah party. Tensions had been simmering since Salman became king, however, with his suspicion that Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, had plotted against his acceding to the throne.

 

Riyadh nevertheless views Egypt as an important ally in its attempt to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, and sees its large and well-equipped military as a critical deterrent to Iran’s regional forays. Moreover, Egypt’s Sidi Kerir port and SUMED oil storage terminal can be used by Saudi Arabia to slow down and disrupt Iranian oil exports. Before 2011 Iran had dispatched over 200 000 barrels of oil per day from the port, has used the storage terminal for oil shipped to Europe since diverting shipments through its own Kharg Island port causes a month delay. With this agenda, Salman has reduced his criticism of Egypt – and especially of Sisi – and continued to buttress it. Significantly, however, recent assistance packages to Egypt have been more as loans and investments than aid; only around two billion of the sixty billion in recent deals is aid.

 

But there is also a third player involved; for the transfer to have occurred Israel’s approval was required in terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. The two islands essentially block access to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba, thus blocking access to the critical Israeli port of Eilat. Israel thus regards control of the Tiran Straits and the waters around both islands as critical since much of its maritime trade passes through en route to Eilat. A perception that this access would be disrupted was a major factor informing Israel’s involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis and 1967 six day war. They were twice captured by Israel, which controlled them from 1967 to 1982. Guarantees over waterway access were thus key stipulations in the Camp David agreement. The transfer of the islands means Israeli vessels will now traverse Saudi waters to reach Eilat.

 

Tel Aviv’s acquiescence and statements by Israeli and Saudi officials indicate that firm guarantees had been provided by Saudi Arabia regarding Israel’s freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran. Israel has been informed about the secret negotiations regarding the islands from the beginning, and written guarantees that Riyadh would abide by the terms stipulated at Camp David were given in talks that involved Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. (Although Israel and Saudi Arabia are officially in a state of war, they have collaborated on a number of issues recently, and Riyadh had informed Israel about then-secretive nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran.)

 

For Egypt, transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia has little negative strategic implication. The islands are uninhabited, have few resources, and technically belonged to Saudi Arabia though administered on its behalf by Egypt since 1950, when Saudi Arabia requested Egypt to play this role, believing that Egypt could protect them from Israel. Returning the islands was thus an opportunity to renew Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to continue receiving assistance for Egypt’s stalling economy and Sisi’s power base.

 

The move has elicited much criticism from Egyptians, especially since Sisi had inserted a stipulation in Article 151 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution prohibiting territorial transfers. The clause was intended to augment Sisi’s nationalist credentials, and because the army garnered support for its 2013 coup by arguing that the former president, Mohamed Morsi, was ceding parts of Sinai to Hamas, and endangering Egyptian sovereignty through his alliance with Qatar.

 

Sisi thus argued that the island transfer restores sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, which owns the islands, and was not a ceding of Egyptian territory. But prominent political figures such as Hamdeen Sabahi, Khaled Ali, Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood criticise this reasoning, and Ali has lodged court papers to halt the deal. Although this sees some fissures in the regime’s support base, it is unlikely to pose a significant threat.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 2 March declaring Hizbullah a terrorist organisation is the latest in a string of moves by Saudi Arabia to blunt the perceived increase in Iran’s regional influence. The resolution will have dire consequences for Lebanon’s already fragmented and gridlocked institutions, but may have an effect opposite to that intended by the GCC; it could push Lebanon further into Iran’s orbit.

 

The GCC verdict followed Saudi Arabia’s decision on 19 February, which halted its four billion dollar aid to Lebanon’s state security institutions, and the subsequent GCC states’ ban on their citizens from visiting the country. At the heart of these decisions is the perception of increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon, especially after the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. GCC states were furious over Beirut’s decision not to endorse an Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation statement criticising attacks on Saudi diplomatic offices in Tehran in January. Lebanon’s dissociation from international actions that may interfere with its fragile sectarian balance is seen by the increasingly assertive Saudi regime as a sign of Beirut’s proximity to Iran. Saudi Arabia believes this proximity is proven by the inability and unwillingness of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to disarm Hizbullah, and by the group’s activities in Syria. Saudi officials had already conveyed these concerns to Lebanon’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, Samir Mouqbel, in January, and had indicated that Saudi Arabia might reverse its decision if Lebanon were to change course.

 

The Saudi move will seriously impede Lebanon’s economy, which is heavily reliant on GCC tourism, investments, and five billion dollars in remittances sent by Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf. These remittances will dry up if GCC states act against the 750 000 Lebanese workers. It is possible that the GCC will impose further sanctions on Lebanon, which will be disastrous since the country relies on Gulf support to maintain its banking sector and currency.

 

However, these measures may have the opposite and unintended impact of pushing Lebanon closer to Iran. Already the Islamic Republic has offered to compensate for the shortfall if Beirut officially requests assistance. Further, those most affected, ordinary Lebanese citizens, may become disillusioned with the GCC – particularly Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, the measures will have little effect on Hizbullah, which is not reliant on GCC funds for its social service, patronage or any other activities, and because this will further increase the chasm in weaponry and training between it and the LAF. The party has thus confidently criticised the GCC, suggested that GCC states were cooperating with Israel, and pointed out that the GCC decision would have a harsher impact on average Lebanese nationals.

 

The Saudi and GCC positions will not collapse Lebanon’s confessionalist political system, whose sectarian nature prevents strong parties from dominating political institutions. Power balancing and coalition formation are promoted through the stipulation of cabinet and government positions on a sectarian basis. Although many within the March 14 coalition – Hizbullah’s rivals – have supported Saudi Arabia and criticised Hizbullah, talks to elect a president have continued between March 14 and the Hizbullah-led March 8 coalition. Lebanese politicians benefit from the system, and fear that too strong appeals to identity politics could result in a situation similar to that which sparked Lebanon’s fourteen-year civil war in 1975. Further, global powers – including the USA and France – regard Lebanon’s stability as paramount, especially in light of the growth of the Islamic State group, and have acted to mitigate the effects of the GCC decision by offering to mediate between the two parties.

 

What the GCC and Saudi positions indicate is an increasing willingness – especially by Saudi Arabia – to adopt aggressive stances to weaken Iran and ensure GCC allies close ranks – as happened in January when Saudi allies severed ties with the Islamic republic. Small and relatively week states such as Lebanon and Yemen will increasingly be forced to support one or other side in this Cold War-like regional atmosphere. In Beirut’s case the risk is larger because of the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, especially with Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria. The Lebanese political establishment needs urgently to resolve its political problems, elect a new president immediately since the twenty-two month wait for a consensus candidate has imperilled much of the country’s institutions, and citizens have been forced to resort to patronage and sectarian networks to ensure the partial provision of state services.

By Afro-Middle East

The accession to the throne of Salman Bin Abdulaziz has led to a reprioritisation of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. The rise of the Islamic State group (IS) and resurgence of Iran are now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of democratic/participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with like-minded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters, such as youth unemployment, will increasingly force the regime to look inward in the struggle for regime survival.

 

History and foreign policy impetuses

 

Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the Saudi kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought and took the form of partnerships with the United Kingdom and the USA. These partnerships, together with its vast oil wealth, have enabled it to grow in strength. From the mid-2000s, Riyadh has acted more as a regional hegemon and deployed its financial and military power in the pursuit of its national interest. Although foreign policy in the kingdom is an elite-driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses disproportional influence. Domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.

 

Foreign policy during Abdullah’s era

 

Under Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia aggressively increased and diversified its bilateral relations. In 2006 and 2007 alone, Abdullah visited China, Russia, India and Pakistan. These visits were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state-sponsored discrimination. Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.

 

The MENA uprisings

 

The kingdom, however, maintained warm relations with the USA, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam had enabled Iran to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the US’s role in enabling this; Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies. The kingdom felt that the USA betrayed Mubarak, and that the US would take a similar stance if Abdullah were in that position. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were democratic Islamists. Riyadh views these groups as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior MB figures refused to support its role during the 1990–91 Gulf War.

 

Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013, even when Bashar al-Asad was alleged to have used chemical weapons. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase its regional and global influence. This is especially since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hizbullah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of its holding of elections. The kingdom was especially angered at not being informed about the initial US–Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future US support.

 

Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive and independent foreign policy. First, it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over seven hundred billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and successfully provided funding to withstand protests. The kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Hamid regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command and shared Gulf police force.

 

Second, Riyadh sought to reverse the successes gained by Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through supporting former regime officials, together with the UAE and Kuwait, to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, the Morsi regime was overthrown and replaced by former military head Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party in light of Islah’s links to the MB, and Saudi–Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining democratic Islamists. This culminated in the March 2014 decision, adopted by Gulf states, declaring the MB a terrorist organisation and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. Even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran by removing the Assad regime, which is closely allied to the Islamic republic. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition groups sought to distinguish between Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, supporting the latter.

 

Abdullah’s death: change of course?

 

Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. This resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the Brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole was not viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE.

 

The Iranian nuclear deal and rise of IS have been key influences in these decisions. The kingdom views these threats as posing a greater threat to it than that of democratic Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence.

IS on the other hand has been active in Saudi Arabia, claiming bombings on mosques frequented by Shi'a and special forces. Further, the group’s leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime because of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance.

 

Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward more democratic Islamists, with leaders from Ennahda, Hamas and the Islamic Action Front all visiting Saudi Arabia in 2015. It has also re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party. Further, the kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm opposition groups in Syria, while in December it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni, countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic – even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus, and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troops fighting IS. In addition, in January 2016, the kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an unsuccessful attempt to stall the improving relations between Iran and Western states.

Yemen

 

Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s reprioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were part of a ten-member Saudi-led coalition and were without initial US endorsement. The Yemeni Islah party has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground force, consisting of around 5 000 troops has since been deployed. Thus far the effort has had some successes; the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south and in recent weeks has been gaining ground in and around Sana’a. However, Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many northern regions, and will be difficult to dislodge in light of their institutional links and grass-roots support.

 

Salman’s renewed relations with democratic Islamists constitute tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Turkey’s president (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and the previous emir of Qatar (Hamid bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision to re-engage democratic Islamists is more the result of Riyadh’s belief that these groups have been weakened and no longer pose an immediate threat to the regime’s survival. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these Islamists possess some influence regionally, and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to those of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties, and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action. Further, US–Saudi relations have largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.

 

Implications

 

Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and reprioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen peace talks scheduled for January have already been postponed indefinitely, while the Munich truce between the Syrian regime and opposition fighters is already proving difficult to implement. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which increasingly resembles a regional cold war.

 

Foreign policy constraints

 

Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. The balance of power is influenced more by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE, for example, is more fearful of domestic Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, where the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has thus refused to finance and arm the party. Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. The UAE and Oman have important economic ties with Iran, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars / North Dome gas field. All three of these countries refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, especially since Ankara now has tense relations with Russia, and has thus offered to play a mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the Erdogan regime’s opposition to Iran’s interests in Syria.

 

Second, the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas prices will impede the kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. The price drop has even meant that it has had to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic programs, causing these to drop by over a hundred billion in 2015 alone. Riyadh has increased levies on petrol and gas by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent, respectively, and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value-added tax with income tax soon to follow. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime.

 

Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However, issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the fifteen to twenty-four year old group stands at over thirty per cent, and around two-thirds of the country is under thirty. The 2016 budget allocates around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services; however, much more will need to be done, including providing employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. This is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammad bin Salman (aged thirty) and the relatively young Muhammad bin Nayef (aged fifty-six) as deputy crown prince and crown prince, respectively. The kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult, especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes.

Things however can change quickly, and chances for miscalculations abound, especially in light of the complex regional and international alliances involved. Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the allegiance council did not unanimously endorse the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as deputy crown prince and de facto prime minister. However, for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Allegedly, the current Saudi-led onslaught on Yemen has already caused destruction that resembles the destruction wrought in Syria over the last four years. However, the war in Yemen, like the Syrian crisis, cannot simply be viewed through a domestic Yemeni lens,  for Yemen has become a playground for various regional forces carving out their alliances and rivalries within the matrix of the greater Middle East cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These alliances, rivalries and the intentions of the various actors – including those who are geographically only peripherally attached to this regional system – must be understood within the framework of this confluence of multiple aims and objectives.
Two of those peripherally-attached countries are Turkey and Pakistan. While Turkey straddles the boundaries between the Middle East and Europe and Central Asia, and Pakistan occupies the area separating the Middle East from South Asia, both countries are often inextricably drawn into the conflictual Middle East regional system, usually despite their best efforts. The war in Yemen is illustrative of these dynamics. Pakistan’s response to the Saudi war on Yemen is a good recent case to explore these machinations.
Pakistani-Saudi relations
 
The history of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations is long, and has frequently been described by roleplayers in both countries as strong and dependable. The close collaboration between the two states in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan is often cited to substantiate this point. Additionally, the Pakistani ruling party and its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also enjoy exceptionally close ties with the Saudi royal family. When Sharif’s government was overthrown in 1999 by the then-military chief General Pervez Musharraf, Sharif chose Saudi Arabia for his exile, and has since benefited from Saudi largesse, both in his personal capacity and on behalf of Pakistan during his current tenure as prime minister. Examples range from 200 tonnes of dates gifted to Pakistan to a $1.5 billion loan to support the Pakistani economy – both in 2014.
The general Pakistani population also holds the kingdom in high regard, and a recent survey showed that ninety-five per cent of Pakistanis view Saudi Arabia favourably. The prestige that Saudi Arabia claims for itself as the caretaker of the two holiest Islamic sites no doubt plays a significant role in this sentiment.Military cooperation between the two countries is also decades old. Pakistani pilots flew Royal Saudi Air Force jets in 1969 to repel incursions from South Yemen; more than 15 000 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s; and Pakistani troops were deployed to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war in 1990. Pakistan also assisted Saudi Arabia in providing trainers and anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry to Saudi-backed rebels in Syria. And there is much speculation that Pakistan, the only Muslim state with a nuclear arsenal, could include Saudi Arabia under its nuclear umbrella in the event of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons power, or that it might transfer nuclear weaponry or weapons technology to Riyadh.
It was therefore not far-fetched to assume that Pakistan would support Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Expectations for such support were bolstered by Saudi and other Gulf officials, and by a visit of the Pakistani defence minister, Khawaj Asif, to Riyadhas the Sharif government mulled over the level of support it could offer to the Saudis in Yemen. Arab media, especially the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel, were reporting that Pakistan would despatch jet fighters and warships to take part in the Yemeni campaign, Operation Decisive Storm. However, after various high level delegations from Pakistan, including military officials, cabinet members and the Pakistani prime minister had visited and assured the Saudis of Pakistani support, Sharif put the matter to the Pakistani parliament for a decision. In aunanimous decision, the parliament decided to turn down the Saudi request for assistance in Yemen, fearing that it could spark Shi'a-Sunni sectarian violence inside Pakistan. Parliament was also concerned about stretching the army too thinl by engaging in a foreign war while Pakistan itself faced multiple internal insurgencies.
Saudi and Gulf anger
 
That the Saudis were upset by Pakistan’s stance was obvious to most observers of the two countries, despite Saudi attempts at suggesting that they regarded the Pakistani decision as anissue internal to Pakistan. In contrast, the sharp outburst by the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, calling Pakistan’s decision to withhold troops ‘contradictory, dangerous and unexpected’ indicated that senior decision-makers within the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, were bitterly disappointed by Pakistan. Thereafter, diplomatic initiatives between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia over the former’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen came to a standstill, despite a meeting between Pakistani president Mamnoon Hussain and the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The meeting was, at best, symbolic rather than a real effort to evaluate and reinvigorate bilateral relations.
It remains unclear whether Pakistan’s decision on Yemen indicates the country inclining toward Iran as the latter furthers its reconciliation with western countries, and whether a new Pakistani-Iranian relationship will be at the expense of the South Asian state’s previous cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is possible that the decision was simply a demonstration of Pakistan’s desire to chart an independent foreign policy formed solely in its national interests – particularly its concern to contain sectarian tensions internally, as parliamentarians suggested during their five-day deliberations on Yemen. Certain Pakistani commentatorswould certainly prefer their country to act simply on the basis of its own interests, and not to become embroiled in battles between other Muslim states.
Iran replacing Saudi Arabia?
 
Caution must be exercised with respect to the question about Pakistan’s allegiances. From the perspectives of the two antagonists – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the battle over Pakistan is most likely azero-sum game, with Pakistan being forced to choose one over the other. After all, Iran freed from sanctions would be able to provide similar kinds of support to Pakistan as Saudi Arabia, especially in terms of oil concessions and economic aid. With Iran expected to receive around $100 billion just from funds held in escrow from past oil sales, it is likely to be able provide cheap oil and aid to Pakistan.
The Pakistan foreign ministry welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal, expressing its desire to expand trade between the two countries, and to continue with the Iran-Pakistan pipelineproject, which will likely run from Asalouyeh in the Iranian Southern Pars gas field, through the Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, to Karachi and Multan. Multan might also become the site from where the pipeline will extend towards Delhi in India. The pipeline project will go a long way in helping Pakistan solve its energy needs, and will also build on Pakistani collaboration with China, which seems willing to step in and bolster Pakistan in the event of a Gulf or Saudi withdrawal. China is busy constructing the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will link southwestern Pakistan to northwestern China, playing a crucial role in regional integration of China, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Mushahid Hussain, a senior Pakistani political figure and chair of the Pakistan-China Institutedescribed the project as an integration of South Asia and East Asia into a ‘Greater South Asia’. He provides a window into how the Pakistani foreign policy establishment might be calculating a decreasing dependency on Gulf and Arab partners.
Another, more important, factor that might push Pakistan closer to Iran is security. Pakistan shares a 904 kilometre-long border with Iran which has seen them cooperate in addressing the Balochi insurgency affecting both countries for decades. Further, because of Iran’s influence in Afghanistan and among politicised Shi'a groups in Pakistan, it represents a force that Pakistan would not want to convert into an enemy. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. While it does have influence over certain Sunni militant groups in Pakistan, most of them depend on logistical support from within the Pakistani security establishment. In other words, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the former is more capable of negatively affecting Pakistan’s security. Iran has a ready network of suppliers to funnel weapons into Pakistan through Balochistan, a route that is not available to Saudi Arabia.
It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that Pakistan might begin inclining more towards Iran than in the past. Saudi Arabia could play the card of drying up Pakistan’s foreign remittances – as it has done with Yemenis and Somalis previously – by forcefully repatriating Pakistani workers in the kingdom. Their wages remitted to Pakistan represent nearly one-third of its total remittances. Together with remittances from Pakistanis in the UAE, the combined amount accounts for half of the country’s annual total of $18.4 billion in remittances. But it is doubtful whether Saudi Arabia would be ready for such a shock to its economy; Pakistanis represent the second largest group of foreign workers employed in the kingdom after India.
Another indicator that might give a better sense of how Pakistan is juggling its relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia is the level of diplomatic activity with Iran. While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had no high profile exchanges – except for the meeting between Salman and Sharif – since the Pakistani decision to remain neutral on Yemen, the Iranian foreign minister, Javed Zarif, visited Pakistan in April as well as early August; the April visit was while the Pakistani parliament was deliberating on whether to support the Saudi campaign in Yemen. And, earlier this week, on 25 August, a technical delegation from Iran’s commerce ministry landed in Pakistan to explore the possibility of increasing the bilateral trade between the two countries to $5 billion.
Conclusion
 
Pakistan’s decision to stay out of the Yemen conflict is not simply based on concerns that Shi'a-Sunni sectarian tensions might increase within its populace, or that it could not afford to distract its security apparatus away from the various insurgencies within its borders. Rather, it represents a larger regional shift that will likely see Pakistan pivot away from Saudi Arabia into Iran’s embrace, a move that will also be supported by China. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies must be sensing this shift. What steps Saudi Arabia will take to counter this possibility in Pakistan and other countries as Iran grows in confidence remains to be seen. Within the Middle East regional system, the Saudis have played on the hackneyed fault lines of Arab-vs-Persian and Sunni-vs-Shi'a in order to rope in countries such as Jordan and Egypt, as witnessed in the Yemen campaign. Is this a viable option, however? Instead of visiting destruction upon a country, as in Yemen, in order to gain the upper hand in its cold war with Iran, Saudi Arabia might be better off engaging Iran directly. Pakistan seems to be choosing a less hostile course – even if it is not a preferred method of Saudis policymakers. If other countries in the region, especially Turkey, follow the same course, Saudi Arabia might quickly find itself running out of options in its bid for regional hegemony over and against Iran.
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