Oct 21, 2013 | 11:30 GMT

7 mins read

Saudi Arabia's New Strategic Paradigm

Saudi Arabia's New Strategic Paradigm

The divergence in U.S. and Saudi interests that began with the events of 9/11 has reached a critical stage with the launching of the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic engagement. Saudi Arabia cannot accept a new regional landscape in which its archenemy, Iran, has more room to project power, so Riyadh is undergoing a doctrinal shift in its foreign policy behavior. As the world's largest exporter of crude oil, Saudi Arabia has always been a major global player, but it is only now assuming a foreign policy posture independent of Washington. Still, there are limits to how far the Saudis can go.

On Oct. 18, Saudi Arabia announced that it was rejecting its invitation for the two-year, non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council it had been elected to a day earlier. In a statement, the kingdom's Foreign Ministry said it could not fulfill its obligations as a member because the global security body is beset with double standards. The Saudis accused the U.N. Security Council of a dereliction of duty by failing to facilitate a resolution to the Palestinian issue, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (particularly nuclear ones) in the Middle East and stop the Syrian regime from killing its citizens. 

The criticism can be seen as an indirect way of speaking out against the United States, since Washington has been the primary player in these matters. Riyadh openly taking such a strong position against Washington is significant in and of itself, considering how close the kingdom has been to the United States. The Saudi position was backed by another key U.S. and NATO ally, Turkey, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul came out with strong words of support while visiting the kingdom for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that brings some 2 million Muslims from around the world to the Saudi city of Mecca.

Riyadh's Motivations

Despite Riyadh's official explanation, the country's real reasons for rejecting the U.N. Security Council seat have to do with Saudi Arabia's increasingly unfavorable geopolitical environment. The unprecedented move highlights a deeper Saudi paranoia over evolving U.S. policy in the region.

Three key trends define this climate: First, there is a historic domestic transition underway, with the royal family's third generation expected to assume power after the last of the founder's sons, who have managed the modern kingdom's affairs for the bulk of its history, pass away. Second, this critical transition has been complicated by higher levels of Arab unrest, which have undermined regional post-colonial autocracies. Third and most important, the kingdom is trying to navigate through its domestic and regional challenges while its historical foe, Iran, is trying to consolidate and enhance its own geopolitical gains of the past 12 years through a possible rapprochement with the United States — Saudi Arabia's protector for nearly 70 years.

This complex situation poses an intolerable threat to Saudi security, and its long-time tools (such as unqualified U.S. support) for managing such risks have dulled. However, the Saudis have been preparing for this shift for some time. Before the Arab Spring, the Bush administration pressured the kingdom to adopt political reforms, and Iraq fell into the Iranian orbit years ago. The latter development compelled Saudi Arabia to launch its first major military engagement outside its borders, leading a Gulf Cooperation Council task force to quell Shia-dominated opposition protests that were threatening Bahraini stability and the country's Sunni monarchy in March 2011.

The United States shares the Saudi interest in preserving the Bahraini monarchy and did not do much to support the Bahraini uprising. However, the Saudis did not trust the United States' abilities and worried that Washington would become unwilling to support the regime when faced with pressure from human rights lobbies and widespread media coverage condemning Bahraini crackdowns on Shiite protesters — especially given the United States' recent experience in Iraq and Arab agitation for democracy, a value cherished by Washington. 

When Arab unrest reached Syria and turned into an armed insurrection, the Saudis saw a historic opportunity to reverse Iranian forays into the Arab world. Riyadh was pleased that the United States shared its goals in Syria and hoped that international efforts would help topple the Alawite state. The Obama administration wanted to see the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus fall but not at the cost of empowering transnational jihadists. The chemical weapons incident on Aug. 21 once again elevated Saudi hopes that the United States would engage in military action that would lead to the expulsion of Iranian allies from Damascus. But the optimism proved short-lived, with the United States reaching a deal with Russia to stand down.

The Need to Create a Stir

Occasional U.S.-Iranian cooperation since 9/11 has always angered the Saudis, but they took comfort from the fact that these were mostly tactical dealings. Now that U.S.-Iranian relations are undergoing a strategic shift, Riyadh cannot afford to stand by and issue statements warning against the dangers of rapprochement with Tehran. The Saudis cannot just register their strong displeasure; they need to create a stir.

The decision to reject the U.N. Security Council seat and accuse the international body of failing to promote peace represents the first step in this new Saudi strategy. Riyadh has also been signaling that it is now going to embark on a foreign policy independent of the United States.

In an Oct. 17 article in al-Monitor, for example, Nawaf Obaid, a key Saudi foreign policy strategist and adviser to King Abdullah, said that the kingdom is moving away from dependence on the West for regional security and will lead an attempt to create a new security arrangement for the Arab world. Obaid, who is known for promoting a controversial hawkish stance toward Iran, said that even though the Obama administration has opened talks with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's government, Riyadh cannot trust Iran since the two countries are on opposite sides of major regional issues — particularly Syria. He also warned that the Saudis will increase support for the Syrian rebels.

Saudi Arabia's Limits

This brings us to the question of the limits of an independent Saudi foreign policy. Despite some tough talk, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to oppose U.S. policies directly. Riyadh's rhetoric is more likely designed to attract U.S. attention and support to shore up Saudi Arabia's domestic and regional positions.

The Saudis essentially have two tools with which to protect themselves against a rehabilitated Iran — financial wealth made possible by crude exports and anti-Shia sectarian militant proxies. These can help Riyadh shape the ground realities in Syria and other regional hotspots, but they cannot do much to deal with other issues facing Riyadh, such as preventing the Arab Spring from spreading across Saudi borders. To control the effects of the Arab Spring, the Saudis and its Gulf allies have been cooperating to keep Egypt afloat. But they do not have the financial wherewithal to fully subsidize Egypt, much less other countries.

Moreover, Riyadh needs the United States and the West to keep the Saudi energy sector — the lifeline of the country — running. Saudi Arabia also relies heavily on the West for weapons, especially since Iran has the most powerful indigenous military force in the region. Therefore, we can expect Saudi Arabia to refrain from engaging in any major action that conflicts with U.S. regional interests. Put differently, if the United States improves ties with Iran, the Saudis will have little choice but to live with it.

Ultimately, Saudi moves could be indirectly disruptive to U.S. calculations for the region. The new Saudi foreign policy paradigm can create complications for Washington on a number of regional issues. Riyadh still has enough clout to influence the behavior of Syrian rebels in any attempts to forge a political settlement. Likewise, Riyadh can influence the actions of the Egyptian military amid upheaval in the most populous Arab state, and the Saudis have considerable sway in intra-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Nonetheless, the United States appears to believe that a possible strategic detente with Iran is worth the risk of alienating its long-time Sunni ally.

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