Strategic Tantrum: Saudi Arabia’s Shifting Foreign Policy

November 4, 2013
By Burgan Hobbs

Washington DC – When Saudi Arabia refused to take a seat on the UN Security Council we reported that it little to do with actual Saudi grievances vis-à-vis the UN and more likely indicated a shift in Saudi foreign policy. Recent statements by high-level officials strongly indicate that Saudi Arabia is embarking on a doctrinal shift in its foreign policy – specifically its posture with the United States.

According to Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan the kingdom will make a “major shift” in its relations with the United States. At the annual National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations on October 22 in Washington, DC Banadr’s cousin Turki Al Faisal referred to President Obama’s conduct in Syria as “lamentable”. Such an open declaration of a policy shift and criticism of the U.S. is virtually unprecedented. Secretary of State Kerry is visiting Riyadh this week to address the growing rift, but it is unlikely that his visit, or the recent Saudi tantrum, will affect either sides growing strategic divergence.

Backdrop 

The Saudis have perfected secret diplomacy, bribery, and prefer backdoor negotiation to achieve goals, so why is the secretive kingdom intensifying its display of displeasure with the U.S.? The nature of evolving Saudi policy is a cause for concern both in terms of the US-Saudi relationship, but also for the implications it has in a broader regional context.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies since the founding of the kingdom in 1932, in a relationship of “realist” convenience rather than one of ideological affinity. Both countries benefit from the other by providing something that each desires, but neither can easily obtain on its own. Riyadh receives security guarantees through their American military minder; thereby bolstering regime stability and Washington is ensured secure supplies of oil for the global economy to function. With remarkably few hiccups, the “oil-for-security” relationship has been mutually advantageous, despite the cognitive dissonance that exists.

Events such as the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and especially following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, strained relations between Washington and Riyadh, but such periods were transitory and lacked the deeper strategic logic that underpins the current policy shift. However dramatic the current rift in the U.S.-Saudi “special relationship” appears, it did not come about suddenly. Riyadh’s shifting calculus has been underway since at least 2011 and the current impasse is a culminating point of intersecting motivations.

Motivations

Saudi Arabia’s posturing is motivated by a profound sense of insecurity, not strength, as the kingdom struggles to manage the centrifugal forces altering the political landscape of the region. Several crosscutting phenomena underlie Riyadh’s strategic shift. First, the geopolitical environment of the MENA is in flux, more so today than at any time since the end of the colonial period. The Arab Spring has fomented widespread discontent, instability, and civil wars that show no sign of abating. The autocracies that dominated the post-colonial era have largely fallen, and the Gulf monarchies maybe next. The Gulf States have managed the prospects of instability at home surprisingly well, but this may prove a tactical stop gap victory.

Second, Saudi Arabia’s post-Arab Spring policy has been a counterrevolutionary strategy of bribery and repression at home, and the undermining of opposing forces abroad – specifically Iran. The Sunni monarchy has relied heavily on manufacturing sectarian division as a bulwark against Shi’a Iran and supporting Salafist proxies thought to be amenable to Saudi influence. Over much of the last decade, the Saudis lost strategic ground as Iran expanded its influence in Iraq, the Levant, Yemen and according to the Saudis, the Gulf region. Only recently has Riyadh managed a reversal of Iranian fortunes. Riyadh’s successes include the routing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the near collapse of the Assad regime in Syria. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi Monarchy eliminated a potential ideological and political alternative to Saudi influence. In Syria, Iran’s main ally in the Arab world was faltering and Assad’s departure represented an opportunity space for Saudi influence to fill the power vacuum. For the Saudis, the ultimate indignity came with the U.S. refusal to use military force in Syria despite intense lobbying by Riyadh. This signaled that Washington could no longer be trusted.

As an interesting comparison, Qatar’s post-Arab Spring policy has been revolutionary. Doha embraced the tumult as an opportunity to project its influence and serve as an alternative power pole to Riyadh and Washington.  This is because Qatar has developed a relatively independent and dynamic foreign policy, whereas Saudi strategy is locked into a game of bandwagoning with the U.S. against Iran. Saudi Arabia cannot change structural power dynamics and balance against either the U.S. or Iran on its own. This is why U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is viewed with such hostility. The Iranian bogyman has become the modus operandi for Saudi foreign and, to some extent, domestic policy. The sectarianism that serves as a prime justification for repression at home and bold actions abroad depends on an anti-Iranian alliance. A warming of U.S.-Iranian relations is not merely unacceptable to Riyadh – it is an existential threat.

Third, an unfavorable geopolitical environment and a possible U.S.-Iranian détente take place at a time of domestic transition in the kingdom. The second generation of the ruling family, which is comprised of the remaining sons of the kingdom’s founder, are dying off. King Abdullah, age 90 and ailing,   is unlikely to hold power much longer. Abdullah’s immediate successor is likely to be either Crown Prince Salman (age 78) who is reported to be suffering from dementia or Second Deputy Prime Minister Muqrin (age 70) who appears to be in good health. A third generation member of the Saudi Monarchy could reasonably accede to the throne within the next several years. The generational transition will be a very uncertain time for the kingdom. The younger generation will have a challenging time balancing internal family interests.

Constrained Foreign Policy

On its surface, it would seem that recent events call into question the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.  Furthermore, it would appear that Riyadh is willing to forgo a critical ally and strike a bold new course for itself, independent of Washington. This is, however, an oversimplification of Saudi motivations and the ways in which Riyadh’s foreign policy is changing. U.S.-Saudi relations are at a tipping point, but Riyadh is far more constrained than its statements suggest. The regime is aware of its limitations and Riyadh’s upbraiding of Washington is meant to send a message it cannot easily dismiss. That is, the U.S. should reconsider its Middle East policy and take Saudi interests more seriously in its calculations. The stark reality is that the Saudis have more to lose than the Americans. Riyadh may find that the Washington is willing to alienate its long-time ally because détente with Iran is worth the risk.

Burgan Hobbs is a Geopolitical Analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.