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 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.
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.