America has been in Arabia for well over six decades, yet the American access to the inner workings of the Saudi world has been limited at best. There is an opaqueness to the Saudi realm, and that ambivalence has run through its tangled relationship with its American protector.
Saudi strategy is a response to its single largest challenge, the rise of Iranian power. As Iran gains greater access to resources and international influence, Riyadh fears that Tehran will project its power throughout the region in order to further its anti-Saudi program.
The tight-lipped family oligarchy in Saudi Arabia headed by a geriatric and purportedly infirm monarch has no penchant for transparency. Despite the opacity, the transition from King Abdullah to King Salman has been accompanied by a perceptible shift in Saudi foreign policy.
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.
Saudi Arabia’s strategic vision is, to put it bluntly, whatever is best for the ruling House of Saud. Discerning that vision, especially at times of strain and possibly change, has always been a challenge, given the opaqueness of the royal family and its public preference for platitudes.
A perfect storm is brewing for Saudi Arabia. Ominous clouds are gathering on the country’s domestic, regional and global horizons. Virtually every once-reliable pillar of the kingdom’s stability is facing daunting challenges.
Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the Middle East’s most assertive power. Stirred to action by the fall of Saddam Hussein, the rise of Iran, and deeply unsettled by the Arab uprisings, the kingdom has taken on an increasingly interventionist role.
After at least two decades of domestic drift under geriatric rulers and overdependence on US protection in a dangerous region, the kingdom is starting to stand up on its own. There are two reasons for this.
Saudi Arabia has probably done more than any other actor to repress the hopes and demands of the early Arab Spring protests. It sent troops to neighbouring Bahrain in March 2011 to quell an uprising, gave asylum to Tunisia's ousted dictator Bin Ali, underwrote the coup in Egypt in 2013, and generally propped up the old regimes and monarchies across the region.
Perhaps no grand strategic moment has been caught by the camera in such an unposed yet meaningful way. There on the heavy cruiser USS Quincy at anchor in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, is President Roosevelt, fresh from Yalta, on his way back across the Atlantic, having tea with Ibn Saud Abdul-Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia. An American orderly squats before His Highness to ask how he likes his tea.