The accession of King Salman a year ago and the decision to lead a military intervention in Yemen mark a new phase for Saudi foreign policy. That does not mean that there is a new foreign policy doctrine or strategy. Rather, the new generation that is taking the lead in foreign policy is seeking new ways to respond to a highly uncertain environment. It is demonstrating a newfound willingness to use military force, but is also witnessing its limits. With the outcome of the Yemen war still far from clear, the direction and the tools of Saudi foreign policy under King Salman are still being tested.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has been described as a conservative power, seeking to preserve the status quo in the Middle East: upholding the system of sovereign states and welcoming the US presence in the region; and for the past three decades overtly supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By contrast, Iran has been seen since the revolution as a revisionist actor, supporting revolutionary non-state movements, while seeking an end to the US presence in the region and an end to Israel’s existence. But these paradigms are shifting; the regional system is in flux.
In Saudi Arabia’s neighborhood, the state is collapsing in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. These are not only wars for control of the state, but conflicts that will determine whether the state itself will continue to exist in its 20th century borders. The perception that the US is withdrawing from the region is compelling enough to have encouraged Russia to ramp up its military role there. And Iran’s nuclear deal may presage a wider rapprochement with the US, ending more than three decades of enmity and containment. In Syria and Iraq – though not in Lebanon or Yemen – Iran is now the political conservative, fighting for embattled regimes, albeit through a mix of non-state actors that further weaken the sovereignty of those countries. Meanwhile, Iranian diplomats are increasingly trying to pitch their country to the West as an ally against terrorism. Once seen as a country exporting revolution, Iran is now trying to recast itself as a defender of order.
For their part, the Saudis, rather than giving blanket support for counter-revolution, have responded to the uprisings according to personalities and opportunities: supporting regime change directly in Syria and rhetorically in Libya, as both rulers were seen as enemies; sending tanks into Bahrain when a monarchy was threatened; engaging reluctantly with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and then supporting the military coup against it, to return to a version of the ancien regime. Saudi policy towards Yemen is almost the exact opposite of its policy towards Egypt: first, Saudi Arabia supported what they hoped would be a controlled transition away from the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Then, when a combination of ancien regime and revisionist forces carried out a coup, Saudi Arabia led an international military intervention to try to reverse it. The difference in policy largely reflects the Saudi fear of an Iranian role in Yemen.
Internationally, Saudi policymakers are keen to emphasize that their aim in Yemen is to reinstate the internationally recognised president, thereby upholding international norms; domestically and regionally, their narrative focuses on pushing Iranian influence out of the Arabian Peninsula, thereby maintaining a traditionally Arab sphere. Yet the war in Yemen is unable to restore the status quo ante. Instead it is exacerbating the country’s existing centrifugal tendencies by introducing a dangerous new element of sectarian politics that may lead to the breakup of the state. Meanwhile, criticism is quietly growing inside Saudi Arabia as well. What is clear overall is that the traditional assumptions about Saudi Arabia’s behavior – for instance, that it would rely on arms only for deterrence, while basing its foreign policy on diplomacy and financial influence – can no longer be relied upon.
So far it is mainly the tools, and the ambition, that have changed, rather than the overall direction of foreign policy. As Saudi diplomats and academics articulate it, the Saudi authorities essentially want to protect their own internal stability; to be surrounded by friendly regimes that will do business with them and accept a Western role in the region; and to prevent the empowerment of groups with a transnational agenda that would destabilize Al Saud rule from bases in other countries. Thus, the rivalry with Iran has less to do with ethnic and sectarian issues than with opposition to Iranian power and influence in the region, just as the country saw Nasser’s pan-Arabism as an enemy. Tensions with Iran are at a particularly high pitch today because of Saudi objections to Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as Saudi concerns that the US is failing to contain or deter Iran’s expansion of influence.
However, Saudi Arabia is also cultivating non-state actors (whether tribes, militias or political parties), and is deeply involved in other countries’ internal politics. Saudi diplomats argue they are merely responding to Iran’s cultivation of non-state actors and regional proxies. But both are contributing to trans-border conflicts and a general weakening of sovereignty of several states in the region.
The suggestion that the Saudi state wants to “Wahhabize” the region is a vast oversimplification: their closest friends in the Gulf are the relatively secular UAE and Bahraini ruling families, not the Qataris, though the latter are closer in terms of religious orientation. In Lebanon, the Saudi-backed Future Movement largely comprises secular Sunnis, while in the Palestinian arena Saudi Arabia favors secular Fatah over Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas or any of the smaller Salafist groups. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia supported Zaydi Shia Islamists against Nasser in the 60s, and then worked with Ali Abdullah Saleh, a secular Zaydi, for years, seeing him as an ally against Al Qaeda.
In Syria and Yemen, however, it is mainly Sunni Islamist fighters they are supporting, from the salafi-jihadi Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Fatah in Syria to the local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Islah, in Yemen. In these particularly conflicted contexts, enmity towards Iran has come to trump the acknowledged concerns that at least some of these groups might also threaten Saudi interests. While ethnic and sectarian identity politics are not the primary concern, they do play a role in helping to define an “us” and a “them”. Without this, it is hard to explain why Saudis sympathized with Syrians being butchered by their own national army, but not with people in Darfur being killed by the Sudanese authorities – whose troops are now fighting alongside Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Domestically, too, conserving Al Saud rule means change. The ruling family is moving to the younger generation, in the succession, the defense establishment and the foreign ministry. This has also brought about a centralization of power, a more decisive but less consensus-based policy. And the country’s economic challenges, intensified by the persistently low oil price, also spell significant fiscal and economic change. This will make foreign policy decisions more contentious, as defense and aid spending compete with healthcare and education for scarcer resources.