Saudi foreign policy is anything but mad

Mohamed Bin Salman has made a splash since he was handed the reins of control from his father King Salman. The kingdom has since entered into a war with the Houthis in Yemen, engaged heavily as a partner in constructing the ‘Deal of the Century’, announced ambitious reforms in NEOM and Vision 2030, imprisoned a whole swathe of influential social figures, ripped apart unwritten rules within the family, broken the sanctity of ARAMCO, and promised lucrative deals to woo Donald Trump despite an ailing economy.

However, behind this explosion of events is a perfectly logical reasoning that suggests there is more method to the madness than is often appreciated. It also suggests that regardless of who is at the reins, a more assertive foreign policy is required if Saudi Arabia is to protect its status and power in the region.


Existential Crisis

Saudi Arabia genuinely sees itself in an existential crisis. To its north, it sees an Iraqi government dominated by Iran. Moqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri have paralysed Baghdad as they seek to form a power-sharing agreement, and both are digging their heels in as they bid to appoint their preferred candidate in charge of the behemoth interior ministry. Sadr believes that if Hadi al-Amiri’s preferred candidate Falih al-Fayyadh of the Popular Mobilisation Force is appointed, then he would be impotent even if he has more popular support. Nevertheless, the disagreement appears more an internal family affair among the Iran-leaning parties of who should lead than an Iraqi issue.

Both have deep loyalties to Iran. In 2006 and 2010, Sadr saved Nouri al-Maliki’s government from collapse despite there being a war between them after Tehran intervened and ‘ordered’ Sadr to set aside his grievances for the greater ‘Shia’ good. Hadi Al-Amiri spent more than two decades in Iran in exile, and fought with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, Iraq is the stomping ground of over 60 militias who have professed at one point or another, loyalty to Iran and have resisted attempts by the central government to disarm following the defeat of ISIS in Iraq.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah continues to hold the Lebanese government to ransom as the parties continue to fail to reach an agreement over cabinet appointments. When Hezbollah sought to capitalise on Saudi weakness by allying with President Aoun (thereby extending Hezbollah’s influence into the army ranks), Riyadh raged. Senior advisor to Iran’s Khamenei declared at the time of Aoun’s appointment that it was “a great triumph for the Islamic Resistance movement in Lebanon and for Iran’s allies and friends”. Hariri went to see the Saudis, tendered his resignation (most likely under duress), and remained under ‘house arrest’. The aim? To pressure Hezbollah to respect the status quo. Hezbollah, upon consideration, probably believed a weak Hariri would probably be easier to deal with than some of the names that were touted as replacements. Moreover, Hezbollah prefers to be in opposition; not government. Such a position enables a more powerful narrative of being a ‘resistance’ that Hezbollah prides itself on. French President Macron intervened, advised President Aoun that he did not need to rely on Hezbollah for power and that he could rely on international support, and Hariri returned to Beirut, reneged on his resignation, and the tender balance of power was restored.


“[appointment of Michel Aoun] is a great triumph for the Islamic Resistance movement in Lebanon and for Iran’s allies and friends” –

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

In Syria, Iran managed to convince its militias in Iraq to fight for Assad. Until Russia intervened to deliver the decisive turn in the war, Assad put up stiff resistance with the assistance of the Iranians. To the East is Iran itself, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern provinces which have a sizeable Shia population sympathetic to Shia Iran. Feeling mistreated and tolerating fatawa that declare them outside the fold of Islam, the East has always been viewed as susceptible to protest and uprising. Perhaps there is no clearer reflection of this than the execution of Nimr al-Nimr despite extensive international pressure. For Saudi Arabia, he was a lightning rod for Shia grievances, pro-Iran, and a clearly useful ally for Tehran during a particularly tense period for Saudi Arabia. Morality aside, the execution demonstrated a Saudi state more in fear than one assured of its position.

To the South, Saudi Arabia sees a Yemen that almost fell entirely under Pro-Iran Houthi control. Houthi took Jawf and Amran in the North before storming the capital. Ironically, Houthis swift campaign was made easier by Riyadh’s enmity to the Muslim Brotherhood. Jawf and Amran were Islah territories (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood). The local tribes abandoned Islah for fear of losing Saudi patronage.

In any event, the apathetic international reaction encouraged Houthi to march further southwards to Taiz, Lahj, Dhaali’, until he found his forces at the gates of Aden. At this point, Saudi Arabia felt it faced Iran in the North, East, and a tightening of the noose from the South. It is in this context that Operation Decisive Storm was announced. Some have attributed it to Bin Salman’s desire to be seen as a warrior. However, this is unlikely. Bin Salman will have noted Khaled bin Sultan’s adventures against the Houthis in 2009 which ended in a humiliating end to his prospective bid for possible Kingship.

To the West, Saudi Arabian officials privately acknowledge that Egypt is not the ally they hoped it would be. Sisi has taken much in Saudi aid but provided little in return. Egyptian involvement in Yemen is negligible and Sisi has been supporting Assad since the outset of the conflict (Saudi backed the revolution in the early days).

Whichever way you look at it, Saudi Arabia is clearly on the back foot against Iran’s expanding influence. Iran is also well aware of the extent of its influence. In 2014, Tehran MP Ali Reza Zakani and close ally of Khamenei brazenly stated that Iran now controls Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and would soon control Sanaa. Moreover, the unique nature of Iranian foreign policy which taps into proxy resources instead of heavily spending its own resources makes the task of pushing back far more complicated. Iran inspires by ideology. Saudi Arabia lacks any vision to inspire allies. While Iran uses the notion of the rise of an oppressed minority seizing their rights which resonates among many Arab Shia, Saudi Arabia has thrown money at a number of potential allies with little success.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is not an easy nation to sympathise with in the region. While Saudi Arabia promises $110 billion dollars to Donald Trump’s US in deals, and while Netanyahu publicly insists on the need for Sisi and Bin Salman, Iran is seen as a clear anti-imperial antagonist, supporter of the Palestinian cause, and a nation hard done by since the revolution in 1979 that subsequently saw the brutal Iraq-Iran war. It is worth noting here that the generation who fought in the war are the generation who dictate Iran’s foreign policy today.

In Saudi Arabia’s defence, it has attempted on numerous occasions under King Fahd and King Abdullah to open dialogue with Tehran with varying degrees of success. Rafsanjani was a well-known friend to the Saudis. Riyadh however feels that for all the talk, Iran has continued to pursue an aggressive expansion while Saudi has maintained a cautious foreign policy that has avoided interfering in Iranian domestic affairs.


Jittery neighbours

Saudi Arabia sees itself as the ‘elder brother’ in the region and has, in the past, exerted enormous influence on the other much smaller Gulf states such as the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain etc… However, as these states see Saudi Arabia weaken as a result of internal divisions and as Iran’s influence becomes felt domestically in places such as Bahrain and Kuwait, these Gulf countries have begun to explore their own independent relations with Iran. There is an Arabic saying describing someone with a foot in both camps as one who “holds a stick from the middle”. Kuwait has received Iran’s speaker of parliament Ali Larijani on numerous occasions and Qatar has often been accused of Iran sympathies given they share one of the world’s largest gas fields with Tehran. Both countries argue that Iran cannot be ignored and that dialogue of some sort is needed to solve differences. Bahrain has a sizeable Shia population but has found a dependable ally in Saudi Arabia which sent in tanks in 2011 to assist with putting down an Arab Spring style uprising that threatened to bring about a Tehran-leaning government.

Qatar has been particularly problematic for Saudi Arabia. In 1996, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani overthrew his father in a white coup while the latter was in Switzerland receiving treatment. Seen as an upstart, Saudi Arabia threatened to invade and Egypt’s Mubarak expressed disdain. Since then, Qatar has slowly and gradually developed an efficient soft power foreign policy by backing the Muslim Brotherhood, civil society movements, and establishing effective lobbies in key Western capitals. Until the Arab Spring, the other Gulf states were prepared to turn a blind eye and Qatar did much to help ease tensions whenever they would flare up. However, the Arab Spring which swept the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and Aljazeera’s fanning of the flames of revolution very quickly made the tiny Gulf state into a very real threat to the regional status quo.

Morality aside, from Al Saud’s perspective, Qatar was fanning a fire that could bring down all of the ruling families in the Middle East. However, Qatar’s growing economic independence, and the independence of its lobbying networks, restricted Saudi Arabia’s ability to bring Doha in line. For Qatar, the momentum of the Arab Spring had the potential to send its influence soaring to that of a regional superpower; akin to Europe’s Venice once upon a time. An Arab Spring in Saudi would have devastating consequences for Al-Saud. Riyadh felt, perhaps rightly, that even if Qatar did not target Saudi in its coverage, it certainly was not taking steps to prevent the possibility of instability. Nor would Qatar and Aljazeera come to Saudi Arabia’s rescue in the event of protests. Morality aside, Al Saud saw an existential crisis on the horizon.

Then there is the UAE which seems to have been inspired by the Qatari foreign policy model and begun to pursue an expansive foreign policy of its own. UAE is now heavily involved in backing Haftar in Libya, organising military forces in Yemen, challenging Qatar-Turkey soft power in East Africa by facilitating peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and investing heavily in think tanks and lobbyists in key Western capitals against Qatar, Turkey and anyone else it sees as an enemy.

However, the UAE does not suffer from the same media scrutiny as Saudi Arabia. While the UAE is heavily involved in Yemen, seizing territory, mobilising forces, and embedding itself in the political structure of Hadi’s government, media attention has focused predominantly on Bin Salman who, in reality, appears to be following the advice of Bin Zayed. Any raised eyebrows in Riyadh at the disparity in media coverage, and UAE taking advantage to further cement itself, are tempered by Bin Zayed’s insistence that Qatar and Iran remain the main enemies and that in the grand scheme of things, the UAE is looking out for Saudi Arabia (or Bin Salman at least…for now).

Moreover, Bin Zayed has developed a close relationship with Bin Salman, advising him since he was Deputy Crown Prince and believed to have been instrumental in convincing Bin Salman to act against former Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef before engaging its full lobbying power in Washington to convince uneasy US officials that Bin Salman was a better alternative than the cautious (and favourite) Bin Nayef.

Bin Salman’s heavy reliance on Bin Zayed has been criticised by influential Saudis such as Safar al-Hawali who allegedly wrote in a book that landed him in prison that ‘If we follow the UAE’s lead, we will meet with disaster’.

In short, Saudi Arabia sees itself as Iran’s ultimate target and that it is only a matter of time before the instability that it blames on Iran in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen will reach Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is well aware that in such a situation, it will not be able to rely on Qatar, or the UAE, or Egypt, or Kuwait, or Europe.


Urgent reforms

Saudi Arabia’s woes are not just regional. Domestically, the country has been complacent for decades, relying on oil for nearly all of its revenues. At the same time, the sizeable revenues from oil have resulted in complacency in spending. Subsidies are high. Handouts following crises such as floods are common. The ruling family continues to grow and many receive handouts from those oil revenues. The vast wealth has also tempered an appetite to invest in industries domestically. The economy has been prone to being caught up in politics with the presence of monopolies, factions, and external military deals often have a political dynamic such as improving diplomatic relations with European countries or the US. During diplomatic spats, some nations are banned from tenders as in the case of Germany during 2018.

Following the drop in oil prices, the kingdom now finds itself facing a crisis and in desperate need of diversification. However, to do so means to smash vested interests and monopolies, open up the industries, and encourage greater transparency and regulation. The latter in particular is a tough ask, particularly as Bin Salman struggles to keep the peace within the family. Businesses took note of what they perceived as the clear targeting of the Bin Laden Construction company which had its contracts regarding renovation of the Holy Mosques removed after a crane fell in the Mecca.


Bin Salman

Moreover, Bin Salman’s position is not secure. Having trampled on family traditions, imprisoned swathes of influential figures in society who have voiced opposition to his policies, come under scrutiny over Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become imbued and conflated with Bin Salman’s desire to stay in power. Rapprochement with Israel is a red line for the Saudi population, and Arabs generally. However, as Qatar’s Hamad Bin Jassem claimed in France24, “when the Arab [states] talk to Israel, it is not because they like Israel. They do it because they think it is the key to open the White House or the Senate” If true, then Bin Salman’s willingness to entertain Israel, and his involvement in the ‘Deal of the Century’ most likely stems from deep concerns that Washington is not convinced he is the man to lead Saudi Arabia and he fears potential plans to unseat him.

In other words, Saudi Arabia sees itself facing an existential crisis. This view is not restricted to Bin Salman, but felt across Al-Saud and Saudi policymakers generally. There is a general consensus that caution is no longer in the benefit of the kingdom and that there needs to be a flexing of its muscles as Iran closes in, and as Qatar and the UAE take advantage of Saudi weakness to pursue independent foreign policies that will inevitably be at the expense of Riyadh. This crisis is compounded by an impending economic crisis, and the ambitions of a young prince was has forced himself on his own family and is scrambling to find stable ground to cement his power and authority. This is clearly reflected in Saudi Arabian foreign policy, and the key influences that govern decisions coming out of Riyadh.