assessments

Riyadh out to Make Fewer Foreign Policy Waves in 2019

7 MINS READDec 18, 2018 | 17:05 GMT
A Saudi flag flies in front of Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 13, 2018.
(YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)

A Saudi flag flies in front of Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 13. After a turbulent couple of years, Saudi Arabia might tone down the assertiveness in its foreign policy in 2019.

Highlights
  • After striving to decrease the level of assertiveness in its foreign policy in the second half of 2018, Saudi Arabia will continue to make efforts to ease tensions on the world stage in 2019.
  • Because Iran will remain Riyadh's biggest foreign policy concern in 2019, Saudi Arabia will work to oppose Tehran wherever possible, such as by fostering deeper — even if unacknowledged — ties with Israel.
  • Riyadh will also pursue closer ties with Moscow, both to set a direction for global oil production and to grow closer to a major actor in the Middle East.

Of all the Middle East powers that shape and influence the region, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most important. Since King Salman's ascension to the throne in 2015, the country's culture and priorities have been shifting, both internally and externally. For the country's foreign policy, this means that decisions are no longer characterized by slow-moving, careful deliberation — like other aspects of decision-making in the kingdom — but are far more dynamic, if not more erratic, under the auspices of Mohammed bin Salman, the king's son and crown prince who has become Saudi Arabia's face to the world.

The Big Picture

From questions over its war in Yemen to the fallout from the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has attracted its share of criticism in 2018. The kingdom's leaders will be hoping for a quieter year in foreign policy in 2019, all while keeping their eyes on the country's main foreign policy goal: checking the regional influence of Iran.

The crown prince's whims notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy imperatives have not changed. At its heart, the kingdom is still intent on securing itself in a conflict-prone region from domestic security threats like jihadism and anti-government sentiment and external security threats from Iran. In addition, the country is seeking to make itself more of a strategic actor in the Middle East that can challenge its rivals (mainly Iran and Turkey) by accumulating soft and hard power against them, even as it works pragmatically with them when necessary. Through it all, Saudi Arabia is intent on maintaining its security umbrella under the United States while diversifying its range of economic and security partners to help ensure it does not become too dependent on Washington. Ultimately, following recent events that have put a strain on its foreign policy, Saudi Arabia is looking forward to a 2019 in which it secures itself from the threat of countries like Iran — albeit with less hubbub than in 2017 and 2018.

Two Years of Strain

The crown prince's role as the public face of the kingdom has become an increasing liability. In 2017, Saudi Arabia led a blockade of neighboring Qatar, temporarily detained Lebanon's prime minister and cut some investment ties with Germany. Indeed, some of the issues that Saudi Arabia perceived as purely domestic matters have had a profound impact on Saudi Arabia's foreign relationships. One such issue is an anti-corruption probe that began in November 2017 in which Saudi authorities arrested a number of business leaders, creating fears about the rule of law among foreign investors.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia got into a diplomatic spat with Canada over a relatively innocuous tweet about Riyadh's human rights policies. Then, of course, there was the furor over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

But amid its attempts to limit the damage from the Khashoggi affair, Saudi Arabia has also sought this year to calm some of the tempests it caused in 2017. In the Levant, the kingdom opened the purse strings to provide a significant amount of money to cash-strapped Jordan, one year after refusing to renew an aid package to Amman. It has also offered political and economic reassurances to Lebanon after the tumult in the countries' bilateral ties in 2017. (In fact, Mohammed bin Salman's erstwhile Lebanese guest from last year, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, extolled the virtues of the close Saudi-Lebanese ties in media interviews earlier this month.)

A map showing the balance of power in the Middle East.

Closer to home, Saudi Arabia still wishes to exert control over Qatar, as evidenced by the Gulf Cooperation Council's continued blockade against the country. But Riyadh's recent decision to host the latest GCC summit at the highest level — even as Qatar chose to send lower-level representation — indicates the kingdom's efforts to woo Doha back into the regional fold.

And while Saudi Arabia won't hesitate to use more military power in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels if it feels it will not suffer any diplomatic consequences from Western allies, the horrors of the civil war have created a sufficient degree of international pressure that Riyadh acceded to recent peace talks that have opened up the possibility of a political solution to the long-running conflict.

What to Expect From 2019

In 2019, Saudi Arabia will continue to reaffirm its close ties with Middle Eastern allies as a bulwark against Iran. Although Saudi Arabia's first priority in forming an anti-Iran alliance is to form bonds with other Arab states anxious about Tehran's regional influence, more unconventional relationships are also in the offing. Without a doubt, the relationship that will attract the most interest in 2019 is the tie between Saudi Arabia and Israel. A once hostile relationship, the kingdom's ties with Israel are actively shifting, as both acknowledge their respective reasons for wanting to contain Iran in the region. What's more, Israel even has technology and investment to offer Riyadh. In their courtship, however, only Israeli officials and private sector corporations have proven willing to note the warming ties, as unofficial and official Saudi Arabian channels remain hesitant about noting the burgeoning ties with Israel. Still, if a conflict erupts between Iran and either Saudi Arabia or Israel, the latter two could engage in more overt cooperation.

Without a doubt, the relationship that will attract the most interest in 2019 is the tie between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

A newly announced, vague Red Sea alliance is also a perfect example of Saudi Arabia's desire to pull together friends, allies and neighbors into public blocs. Although the GCC has never functioned as a supremely efficient vehicle of Saudi policy (as demonstrated by the blockade of Qatar that began in 2017), Saudi Arabia still values the strategic value of such geographic blocs. The announcement of the alliance is an acknowledgement of Riyadh's clear awareness of the deepening competition among China, Russia, the United States and other regional states, including Turkey and Iran, in strategically important places like the Red Sea. At the same time, competition will be the name of the game beyond the Red Sea's western shore, as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, as well as Turkey, Iran, China and Russia, all jockey to invest in development-hungry Africa.

And given the continued uncertainty over oil prices, Russia and Saudi Arabia will continue to coordinate in the year to come, especially as Moscow and Riyadh are critical to the success of a decision to cut oil production between OPEC and non-OPEC countries. Beyond energy, Riyadh realizes that it must cultivate close ties with Moscow, especially as the latter seeks to increase its reach and standing in the Middle East.

A Return to Form?

Outside the immediate region, Saudi Arabia is still pursuing its well-worn tactic of sowing cash and reaping political influence in countries like Pakistan — something that is unlikely to change in 2019. And although Islamabad did not offer Riyadh any real foreign policy or security commitments in accepting a multibillion-dollar Saudi loan in October, Pakistan did give Saudi Arabia something it really wanted: public reassurances about the strength and stability of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during this year's Future Investment Initiative, an event from which many international corporations withdrew after Khashoggi's murder.

Looking east, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy goals will dovetail closely with its economic reform goals. In Asia, Riyadh plans to significantly increase investment on joint projects, including Saudi Aramco's plans to invest $500 million alongside Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. in an Indian refinery. At the same time, Asian investment in Saudi projects is also important for the success of Riyadh's economic reform plans.

Whether pursuing traditional foreign relationships with the likes of Pakistan or branching out to foster newer or stronger ties with the likes of Israel, Russia and the countries of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia will be active as always on the international front in 2019. And after some turbulence created by the mercurial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the world stage in 2018 and 2019, Riyadh will be hoping for a quieter 2019.

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