Despite a tumultuous year, the new changes in Saudi foreign policy are affecting the region for the better.
For almost a year now, observers of Saudi Arabia have felt like they are watching a rollercoaster: continuous shuffling of high-level decision makers; a “love-and-hate” relationship with the US that resembles a passionate affair; unprecedented rows within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); moments of threat and rapprochement with Iran; changing stances in Syria. The list goes on.
The reshuffles in the government, the last of which is the removal of Prince Salman bin Sultan from the post of Deputy Defense Minister, may be seen by many as part of the preparations for a transition of power from the older generation to the younger one. This approach has its merits. Present rulers are extremely old and fragile in health and they are no doubt planning a smooth transfer between generations.
Actor reshuffle signals opportunity for progress
However, some of the crucial changes have their roots in and are a product of today’s intricate global and regional geopolitical realities. They come as an appendage to the global reshuffle resulting from the dissatisfaction about the policy of the “Western Block” in Syria.
Almost all the actors involved were either replaced or are having a very difficult time. Robert Ford, the Obama administration’s point man in Syria, was replaced. The Emir of Qatar, one of the most ardent supporters of the Syrian opposition, handed over the power to his son, the government in Turkey is having hard time because of the criticisms against its policy towards Syria.
In this context, the final removal of both the architect of Saudi foreign policy towards Syria, Bandar bin Sultan, and his deputy Salman bin Sultan, may signal a more cooperative approach from Saudi Arabia in the region. This is also because Bandar bin Sultan was the foremost “hawk” in Saudi circles against Iran.
The change of trend is becoming very visible, as Saudi Arabia extended an – although indirect – invitation to Iran, as opposed to its very critical approach in the early days of the US and Iran interim agreement. The fact that Iran has readily accepted the invitation permits some optimism concerning a possible ease in the tension between the two archrivals of the region.
This brings about the question as to what led the Saudis to apply a more harmonious foreign policy. The Saudis made demarches in several platforms, including the GCC, about their sensitivity concerning the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as a cardinal threat and banned by Saudi Arabia.
Reasons behind Riyadh’s policy shifts
One of the reasons it has eased its position on other fronts may be that the kingdom reportedly received a relatively widespread mood of acceptance to its firm demands about the Brotherhood from many countries, including Qatar and the United Kingdom.
Additionally, it looks like the Obama Administration, through its actions such as sending Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to US-GCC Strategic Defense Dialogue, “the first meeting of its kind since 2008”, is trying to advise Saudi Arabia to be more cooperative about the foreign policy issues the US is sensitive about.
These include not undermining the foundations for an unprecedented thaw between Iran and the US, and taking a different and much more prudent approach to lethal Syrian aid and opposition for not letting it end up in the ends of the extremists – as apparently it did up until now.
If Saudi Arabia continues to pursue a more cooperative foreign policy, important positive consequences may result, not only for the kingdom vis-à-vis other states, but also for the region as a whole.
Economic activity and foreign investment in Iran may be expected to escalate as a result of easing the tensions with both its global and regional archenemies (the US and Saudi Arabia). Lebanon, too, has a lot to gain financially from the new atmosphere, both in terms of increasing direct investment/number of tourists from Saudi Arabia and increasing domestic stability, as the Saudis have great influence on Lebanese politics. Even Syria may get a chance to come out of the misery sooner.
A more conformist Saudi Arabia would possibly mean increased stability and economic activity, and decreased risk premiums for the Middle East in the medium to long term.