Saudi Arabia; fostering global ties, winning local confidence

By Al Emid

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has undergone significant transformations in the relatively recent past. In 1927, the United Kingdom acknowledged the independence of the Kingdom of Hejaz and Najd, and, in 1932, the House of Saud proclaimed its unification as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under Ibn Saud. In 1945, then King Abdul Aziz and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the modern-day relationship between the two countries as Saudi Arabia agreed to supply oil to America in return for guaranteed protection.

A full list of historical events that have led to changes would fill several volumes.  The formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with Saudi Arabia’s continued leadership, the Arab oil embargo and the rise in the world’s need for oil, along with the Kingdom’s huge reserves, placed the country front and center on the world stage, while also solidifying its leadership within the region.

The year 1979 marked a radical change, with the Iranian Islamic revolution leading to unrest and the seizure of the Grand Mosque by militants spurring the royal family to call for stricter observance of Islamic traditions. Meanwhile, in 2011, the spread of the Arab Spring prompted King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to proclaim an increase in welfare spending, although without political reforms. The changes continue, but at a far faster pace than ever, and are now impacting almost every aspect of the country’s foreign policy, as well as its economic, political and social fabric. So massive are these transformations that none of them can be accurately labelled as more or less dramatic than the others. They are all historic, sweeping and disruptive of the old order.

Change in stance

In its foreign policy, the country has taken a more public role in regional and international affairs. This has marked a change in its stance, according to Gerald M Feierstein, Senior Fellow and Director of Global Affairs at the Middle East Institute. Feierstein, a former US Ambassador to Yemen and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, says: “Historically, the Saudis have preferred to operate behind the scenes. They have preferred to support US policy preferences.”

Saudi Arabia is also asserting its independence and role more publicly. “That’s changed over the past few years and we now see Saudi Arabia establishing itself in front of the curtain as a strong voice and not shy about pressing about its own prerogatives,” Feierstein explains, referring to the Kingdom’s involvement in Yemen, its dispute with Qatar and its profile within the GCC region.

“We are seeing a new and much more robust Saudi foreign policy than we have seen in the past,” he notes. This has been driven, at least in part, by Saudi Arabia’s apparently changing relationship with the United States.

In the driver’s seat

The Saudis are very much driving their own policy towards Iran and not co-ordinating
with the United States. “(It was) the same in Yemen,” Feierstein says. “It was the Saudis who made the decisions that they needed to intervene in the Yemen civil war. They didn’t come and ask whether the US would support them. They came and said (in so many words): ‘This is what we have decided to do and we are looking to you to support us’,” Feierstein points out, paraphrasing the Saudi position.

“It’s those kinds of changes where the Saudis have become much more direct in their policies,” he elaborates.

Further, in one of the most surprising turns in its foreign policy, the country has moved closer to Israel, explains Lebanon-born Atif Kubursi, economics professor emeritus at McMaster University and former acting executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission. “As you can imagine, things are getting complicated, particularly the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, [which is getting] wider and more intense,” he says.

This has led to increased coordination and an explicit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would have been unimaginable in the past. The situation has also been driven by a belief that the current American President Donald Trump’s administration is pulling back from the Middle East and that the previous administration under ex-President Barrack Obama did not show sufficient regard for Saudi Arabia’s interests and concerns during the Iran nuclear negotiations.

“What upset the Saudis was that, all through the negotiations [for the nuclear deal], the Obama administration’s plea to the Saudis was that a nuclear agreement wouldn’t change the larger policy,” Feierstein says. “And the Obama administration said: ‘If we sign a nuclear agreement and you go along with it, we will continue to press on those other parts of Iranian policy that are threatening to Saudi Arabia’.”

As well as the apparent pulling back, the United States has also avoided choosing sides in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “That signaled to the Saudis that the strong relationship between the two might not be there [anymore],” Kubursi explains.

Meanwhile, there is some discomfort between Saudi Arabia and its staunchest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates. “They get along with each other, but there is some tension, because each one supports a different group in Yemen. Both have gambled on Israel to replace America as their defender, protector or partner in their campaign against Iran,” Kubursi explains.

Going deeper

At the same time, three factors muddy the already murky waters. In February, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile shot down an Israeli F-16 warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria, according to Reuters. That, says Kubursi, eroded the belief that Israel had complete air superiority in its military weaponry. As a result, Israeli invincibility and superiority have been called into question.

Also in February, allegations surfaced of corruption against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which could distract the government from its foreign policy issues.

In March, President Trump fired US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with Michael Pompeo, considered more hawkish than Tillerson. At the time of writing, the net impact of these moves on American foreign policy towards the Middle East has not yet crystallized.

The other complicating factor in this scenario is the extent to which Russia supports both Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to Anna Borshchevskaya, the Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute, with a focus on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East.

Russia wants to cooperate with both countries, she says in her analysis prepared for TRENDS. Russia’s relationship with Iran has been primarily political and based on their mutual anti-Americanism and their desire to reduce American influence in the region, especially in Syria. This has brought the partnership to new heights.  Through its policies, which include supporting Hezbollah, Russia is empowering Iran in the region, especially in Syria, she adds.

Competing more effectively

In its relationship with Saudi Arabia, Russia always looks for ways to compete more effectively with the West. The recent visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz demonstrates the Kingdom’s
belief that it has to deal with Russia. During the trip, the two countries agreed on investment deals worth several billion dollars. This approach, says Borshchevskays, represents Russia’s default position of working with all sides to ensure that Moscow remains influential. For the immediate future, Russia and Iran will not break up; however, Russia will continue to look for ways to work with Saudi Arabia, especially on investments.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia may feel that by increasing investment arrangements with Russia, it can encourage Moscow to distance itself from Iran. However, Moscow would certainly negotiate, but that does not mean it will change its position.Still, an outright war between Saudi Arabia and Iran appears unlikely, suggests Graham Griffiths, a Senior Analyst at the Dubai office of Control Risks, a global risk and strategic consulting firm specializing in political, security and integrity risks: “It’s not in either country’s interest to have a direct confrontation. Neither side has the kind of military that is either designed or capable of [being] an expeditionary force,” he explains. “If you look at their air forces and even their navies, they’re not designed for offensive operations. They are heavily invested for asymmetric defensive measures.”

Meanwhile, domestic pressures in both countries work against international adventures, Griffiths says. “Even though they are engaged in their proxy competition, they have a pretty large domestic focus and a lot of domestic challenges that they want to concentrate on. They don’t want to be subsumed by a broader conflict. So, for now, they are content to have this confrontation play out through proxy without direct engagement.”

Though limited, the possibility of direct military confrontation cannot be completely dismissed, however. The situation includes several pathways to an unintended escalation, according to Griffiths. A successful Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia, inflicting serious damage to the Riyadh airport or another sensitive target, a terrorist attack in either country, or a cyber-attack on a critical installation could cause a chain reaction of retaliation.

Encouraging outcomes

Politically, the Kingdom’s much-talked-about and very high-profile anti-corruption drive, which led to the rounding up of hundreds of prominent businessmen and members of the royal family, produced several clear results. Undoubtedly it further consolidated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s power.

In a less immediately measurable and visible effect, the anti-corruption initiative might have provided some reassurance to the foreign investors concerned about doing business with Saudi Arabia.  And it is expected to yield many positive results in the coming years. “It’s probably too early to tell,” suggests Griffiths. “You’re going to see a pause in some decision making. It won’t ultimately deter people from seizing the many opportunities that are going to be coming out [of Saudi Arabia’s economic plans].”

“At the same time, the anti-corruption drive was welcomed by segments of the country’s own population that wanted change. The drive demonstrated Crown Prince Salman’s continued willingness to take on anyone and everyone, regardless of their stature,” Griffiths says.

In the economic sphere, the Kingdom’s massive plan called Vision 2030 calls for a near-total overhaul of the economy, a reduction of its dependence on oil, economic diversification and stepped-up development of public service sectors. It embraces healthcare, recreational infrastructure and tourism, reinforcing investment activities and non-oil trade between countries, and increased government spending on its military and manufacturing equipment. While numerous analysts have questioned the feasibility of accomplishing the many and varied goals of Vision 2030, especially by the implicit deadline, the plan may have some very positive effects, argues Griffiths. The positives in the plan are directly aimed at the negative factors, such as fiscal unsustainability, popular unrest, unemployment and a chronically unbalanced economy.

“Working toward minimizing those negatives, keeping enough people happy [and] slowly starting to nurture a private sector to achieve some level of diversification are positives you can measure, rather than attempting the incredible transformation [of the whole of Vision 2030] in such a short period of time.”

Overall, enormous changes are taking place in the Kingdom and look set to continue with history-making effects. As Kubursi concludes: “These things bring in a completely different framework in the Middle East.”