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 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.
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.