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. In Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Saudi powerbrokers have used money and violence in an attempt to bend the region to their will.
What drives Saudi Arabia’s regional politics? More importantly, what are the costs of so much intervention?
For more than fifty years, the kingdom’s primary regional and domestic messages have been framed around maintaining stability and security. In response to recent criticisms that Riyadh was unnecessarily provoking a row with Iran, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir offered up the familiar refrain, writing in the New York Times that Iran was fomenting danger in every corner of the region, from Syria to Yemen, and made clear “Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran to undermine our security or the security of our allies. We will push back against attempts to do so.” In a dangerous neighborhood, confronted -- we have regularly been told -- by a broad range of threats, the reality is that Saudi Arabia is arguably the most dangerous of all. Whatever the earnestness of its past concerns about domestic and regional security, Saudi leaders now use these terms to advance an agenda that should come under scrutiny.
Tough talk masks a set of deep anxieties that have less to do with Iran than with the kingdom’s contradictory and destabilizing interests. These include a combination of regional and domestic elements: securing the power of Saudi-aligned regional autocrats, and rolling back democratic forces in places like Bahrain and Egypt and Yemen, maintaining its position as the dominant regional oil power, chipping away at the empowerment of historically marginalized communities who are unwilling to yield to Riyadh’s demands, and just as importantly, assuring that its own citizens refrain from demanding too many political rights.
In pursuing a broad political agenda, the kingdom has become increasingly violent, beholden to dangerous pathologies, and unpredictable. Because powerful Western backers, primarily the United States and Great Britain, not only condone, but also directly support the militant turn, Saudi leaders have been empowered to lash out recklessly. They are able to do so with little accountability. Thousands of Yemenis, Bahrainis and Syrians have suffered as a result. And the real dangers that lurk in the region, particularly support for terrorism and radicalism, have flourished.
The depth of Saudi Arabia’s impact on the region is perhaps most evident in Yemen, where it has been waging a war for almost a year. Publicly, the Saudis have claimed that their objective in Yemen is to restore the legitimate government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled the country and its presidency in 2015. Driven from power by a group of rebels known as the Houthis from Yemen’s northern mountains who had been locked in a long struggle with the government in Sanaa’ over the absence of a role in government, the Saudis have much invested in returning the president to rule. Riyadh was instrumental in engineering his rise to power in 2012 and in maintaining a friendly autocratic state in southern Arabia. As the Houthi hold has strengthened over the last 18 months, with the help of another former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and in spite of a relentless Saudi bombing campaign, Riyadh has also justified its war by claiming the Houthis are a fifth column for Iran. Although untrue, it is a message that is well-received and supported by the kingdom’s Western patrons.
The main result has been chaos and devastation in Yemen. Struggling militarily, Saudi Arabia has been sucked into a quagmire of its own making. It is now beholden to the false claims it used to justify the war in the first place. Over 6,000 Yemenis have died as a result, most of those killed by Saudi bombs. Riyadh has blocked all inquiries and evidence of war crimes and there is very little international pressure to convene a proper investigation.
In addition to the terrible humanitarian toll, there are also clear political consequences unfolding. To support the war and to sustain the claim that it is Iran rather than itself driving regional violence, Riyadh has recklessly stoked anti-Shiite sectarianism. The effects are on broad display in Yemen as well as in Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia itself where militants mimic the sectarian line and use it to justify mass murder. In late January 2016 Saudi and Egyptian bombers targeted Shiites in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, killing four people. It was the fourth such attack in the last twelve months. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has also strengthened support for both al-Qaeda and ISIS there. Riyadh’s leaders claim to be committed to combatting terror. Foreign Minister al-Jubeir noted that authorities had arrested and prosecuted hundreds of terrorists. But Saudi Arabia’s approach to the wars in Syria and Yemen have done more to assure the endurance of terrorism than anything.MJR1]In spite of all the evidence that Saudi Arabia’s behavior is destabilizing, official Western support for the kingdom remains unchanged, particularly in the United States. This can partly be explained by inertia and, with much of the region in turmoil, unwillingness on the part of American policymakers to provoke a political crisis with a long-time partner. American support also is the consequence of profit. The kingdom serves as a lucrative market for American weapons systems. Less obvious, but no less true, Saudi Arabia’s role in “securing” the flow of oil out of the Middle East is also overstated. The reality is and has been, no matter the level of oil prices, that oil is not scarce globally. The kingdom is hardly indispensable when it comes to energy.
For American policymakers, there are few compelling reasons to maintain the status quo, even if it is the easiest thing to do. Instead, it is time to reflect on whether the Saudi-American relationship is served by mutual interest. Is it reasonable to look away while the Saudis wage regional war, back militant proxies, and seek to crush the very political reforms that are necessary in the region? American policy need not be antagonistic or coercive, but it need not be pliant either. Of course, it is possible that a more critical relationship would not change much on the ground in places like Yemen. These concerns are likely overstated, though, considering the Saudis have long proven unable to advance their interests without military assurances from outside. In order for Riyadh to be more accountable and to assure less destabilizing behavior on their part, their deepest fear should be made real – a less willing American partner.