Yemen conflict reveals shortcomings of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy

Yemen conflict reveals shortcomings of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy

With its vast oil riches and status as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long practiced conservative and discreet foreign relations. But since his ascent to the throne, King Salman has embarked on a more muscular foreign policy, as demonstrated by the recent air campaign in Yemen.

It did not take long for Salman to implement substantial changes as King of Saudi Arabia.

Since his ascent to the throne in January, the king changed the royal succession and installed a new crown prince. His favourite son, Muhammad bin Nayef, was given sweeping powers and was promoted to Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence, and Chair of the influential Council for Economic and Development Affairs.

The king also reshuffled his cabinet to include loyal non-royals, such as the new foreign minister. As a consequence, the ruling clique now consists of family members or close affiliates of the Sudayri branch of the House of Saud. A break with the past and a new approach to Saudi foreign policy can now be detected: It is more independent and more muscular, but also more risky.

Instability in the Arab world

King Salman’s foreign policy transformation is driven by a number of factors. Chief amongst them is the worrying reality that, since the short-lived Arab Spring, the Middle East is descending into ever-larger disarray. From a Saudi perspective, this requires decisive Arab leadership that the new king in Riyadh is willing and able to provide.

For instance, after shedding Mubarak and democratically electing its first president, Egypt has gone back to the days of military strongmen, which Riyadh supports. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia quelled civil unrest in 2011 by sending in troops to support the ruling family, an arrangement that persists to this day.

Geopolitical considerations also play their part in the recent change to Saudi foreign policy. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Shia arch rival for regional domination, has gained greater influence through a web of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. This is partly facilitated by the American retreat after years of costly entanglements in the region, and further highlighted by the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran as a consequence of a likely nuclear agreement.

In addition, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq upended the delicate regional balance of power by replacing the government of Saddam Hussein with a majority-Shia government. Hezbollah, a further Iranian client, has meanwhile cemented its influence in Lebanon.

What is more, Syria is ravaged by a devastating war between Assad (supported by Tehran) and a fractured opposition that so far has resulted in over 210,000 casualties and millions on the run. Finally, Riyadh considers Yemen’s Houthi rebels to be aligned with Tehran and thus another Shia proxy in its neighbourhood that must be fought.

War in Yemen underscores limits of new strategy

The war in Yemen is the clearest manifestation of a change to a more independent foreign policy. The war and the driving force behind it, Minister of Defence Muhammad, are immensely popular in Saudi Arabia.

However, it remains somewhat unclear what Riyadh’s ultimate goals in Yemen might be. Perhaps the war is solely intended to send a signal of its leadership’s new assertiveness.

Crucially, the campaign, initially named “Decisive Storm” and later rebranded “Restoring Hope”, is far from successful. The rebels are holding their ground and even furthering their advance. Despite its advanced weapons, Saudi Arabia will find it impossible to annihilate the Houthis from the air alone, but so far there are no signs of a risky ground invasion. Saudi air strikes continue and, after a brief ceasefire, the scheduled internationally-supervised peace talks have been postponed indefinitely.

There is a real risk of Riyadh being dragged into a long and expensive war in Yemen. Low oil prices and Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut output in combination with necessary weapons purchases will put pressure on the royal purse.

At the recent meeting in Camp David, President Obama has voiced reservations about the campaign, and has urged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council to pursue a diplomatic solution.

Washington nevertheless provides essential logistical and intelligence support for the ongoing campaign, and thus risks further involvement in an unwanted war.

The Sudayri Modus Operandi?

King Salman’s legitimacy – and the continued authority of the Sudayri branch of the al-Saud royal family – depends on the success of his muscular new foreign policy based on Saudi regional leadership.

In particular, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the key architect behind the campaign, has based his royal ambitions on a successful outcome of the air strikes. Total victory over the perceived Iranian proxies in Yemen is thus a requirement.

However, it has been argued that a long Sudayri-rule could be problematic for the kingdom. In the past, Sudayri leadership has been considered confrontational, risky, and aggressive towards adversaries. Previous rulers from this branch of the royal family have also been accused of overspending and corruption.

It remains to be seen whether King Salman’s rule will be tainted by these allegations. In any case, the kingdom must embark on structural reforms, and Riyadh must diversify its oil-based economy. The shale revolution will put additional supply-induced pressure on prices, and the house of Saud must embrace reforms to foster a more inclusive society and maintain domestic coherence.

The major limitation of Saudi Arabia’s muscular foreign policy is its over-reliance on military power. For the foreseeable future, Riyadh is nevertheless likely to remain a heavyweight in the Gulf region. King Salman and the Sudayri clan should demonstrate true leadership qualities by pushing for a political settlement to end the conflict in Yemen – or risk eventual decline.

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.