Saudi Arabia’s new foreign policy is assertive, but risky

Saudi Arabia’s new foreign policy is assertive, but risky

When King Salman assumed the throne in January, most regional commentators expected continuity in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen shows, however, that Riyadh is not afraid to engage a more muscular foreign policy. The recent reshuffling of the royal succession highlights both Saudi ambitions and anxieties.

The House of Saud is facing a number of challenges. During his short tenure as ruler, King Salman has had to contend with falling oil prices, the struggle for regional power, increasing sectarian tensions, and a full-blown war in Yemen.

Against this background of increasing regional instability, a new foreign policy doctrine has emerged based on Saudi Arabia’s perceived centrality within Islam and its leadership within the Sunni faction. However, essential to Riyadh’s conduct of foreign affairs are its relationships with the United States and with Iran. Both are at a critical stage.

Towards a “post-American phase”?

Since its inception, Saudi Arabia has relied on the United States as an external provider of its security. Not any more, it seems.

After years of costly entanglements in the Middle East, the U.S. has clearly indicated their desire to ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific. Although this is progressing somewhat slowly, recent comments by the Obama Administration show that this remains a strategic priority.

In addition, differences over the United States’ handling of the popular uprisings in Egypt and the subsequent removal of President Mubarak indicate a potentially unreliable partnership with Riyadh. Thus, King Salman appears to have decided to take Saudi matters of national security into its own hands.

The intervention in Yemen is a case in point. Amidst U.S. concerns, the young defense minister and recently promoted deputy crown prince, Muhammad, initiated a four-week long air campaign to counter the advancing Houthi rebels. Although the Saudis claim that their objectives have been achieved, doubts remain over the effectiveness of the operation.

The Saudis were not able to re-install their preferred candidate, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to the office of Yemeni President. The country remains deeply divided, and secession looms. Although operation ‘Decisive Storm’ has officially been terminated, Riyadh reserved the right to continue select air strikes.

Even though the loosening of the bond with the U.S. has been evident, it should not be overstated. With the cabinet reshuffle, Adel al-Jubeira, Ambassador to the U.S. and a true Washington insider, has been appointed Foreign Minister. This is likely to result in friendlier relations with the U.S. going forward. Regardless of President Obama’s impending departure from office and despite signs of diminishing Saudi influence in Washington, the U.S. will remain important to Saudi Arabia’s security.

Contest for regional dominance

Perhaps the clearest signal to emerge from the new Saudi foreign policy doctrine, however, is that Riyadh is considering Iran a very serious contender for regional hegemony.

The House of Saud has long been convinced of Tehran’s regional ambitions and these concerns have intensified, now that a nuclear compromise looks likely. The widening Sunni-Shia rivalry across the Muslim world and the resulting complexities only deepen these perceptions. This is most evident in Syria, where Iranian-backed President Assad remains in power.

Iran is also extending influence through local clients in Lebanon and Iraq. As a result, Saudi Arabia is worried that the Houthi rebels in Yemen could act as a further Shia proxy close to the Saudi border. As a consequence, and in spite of the regional complexities, Riyadh embarked on the aggressive campaign in Yemen.

The real test for King Salman

The true test for the new king and his administration will be whether internal stability within the kingdom can be preserved. In the past, the social accord with the populace has held partly because of lavish payouts. Given the recent change of lineage, it remains to be seen whether the scores of princes now excluded from access to royal power will remain content.

In addition, much hinges on Saudi Arabia’s large Shia minority in the Eastern province. Social unrest in this oil-rich part of the kingdom could result in serious instability and a real challenge to domestic order.

King Salman’s credibility depends on the outcome of the regional quest for power. The U.S. invasion of Iraq during the ‘war on terror’ upended the delicate balance of power to Riyadh’s disadvantage. So far, Saudi Arabia has not recovered to its former position of strength. It remains to be seen whether King Salman can restore Saudi aspirations of regional leadership with his assertive new foreign policy.

But as the war in Yemen shows, this will be far from straightforward. Although the king was initially able to gather a ten-country coalition to fight the Houthi rebels, support has since slowed considerably. Pakistan refused to join the coalition and Egypt and Oman have also remained on the sidelines.

King Salman’s foreign policy must not be based on power alone. Instead, it would be wise to include diplomatic efforts to re-engage with friends and foes alike. Most crucially, only domestic reform and a more inclusive society can form the legitimacy upon which a sustainable and long-term foreign policy can be built.

About Author

Marc Moussalli

Marc Moussalli is an independent political risk consultant. Previously, he worked for major financial institutions in London and Frankfurt. As Managing Director, he advised some of Europe’s largest institutional investors. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Leicester and a BA in Business Administration from DHBW Mannheim.