Riyadh asserts its authority

Published in MEED, 15 November 2017

Is Riyadh over-extending itself on the international stage? Since King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud’s youngest son Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the critical figure in the kingdom’s ruling family – first as defence minister in January 2015, then as deputy crown prince in April 2015, and most recently as crown prince in June 2017 – the kingdom has made several highly public interventions on the regional stage at odds with its tradition of soft diplomacy.

They have included the decision to launch a war in Yemen in March 2015, the implementation of a boycott (alongside the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) of fellow-GCC member Qatar in June this year and, most recently, forcing a change of leadership in Lebanon’s government by inveigling prime minister Saad Hariri to resign after being summoned to Riyadh by his Saudi sponsors on 3 November.

Alongside the actions have come some strong words and unconventional diplomatic moves. Saudi Arabia recently accused Iran of an “act of war” against it after Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh. At the same time, Mohammed bin Salman has been publicly cosying up to US president Donald Trump and is reported to be doing the same in private with the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

For a country like Saudi Arabia that was once renowned for being discreet, these are significant breaks with the past and they are causing a stir in capitals around the region.

“Saudi foreign policy is so much more aggressive than Iranian policy,” said Seyed Jalal Dehghani Firoozabadi, a professor at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, speaking at the RUSI think-tank in London on 30 October.

While Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more assertive than in the past, there is a question mark over whether it adds up to a coherent position.

“I get the sense that Saudi policy making in the region is more reactive and ad hoc than proactive and calculated,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “It appears that Mohammed bin Salman and the team around him are reacting to events rather than setting the regional agenda.”

There are, however, a few common denominators to all the disparate initiatives: one external and one internal.

On the one hand, there is Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with and fierce distrust of Iran. In addition, there is the desire of Mohammed bin Salman to push his country in a new direction – something that is as true on the international front as the domestic one.

In terms of Iran, Saudi Arabia claims Tehran is funding and arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen, providing them with the wherewithal to launch missiles at Saudi cities. Iran’s close links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah meanwhile are an increasingly sore point, given the group’s apparent involvement in training Houthi fighters, and its support for Syrian President Bashir al Assad, whom Riyadh would love to oust.

The case of Qatar is more complex, but one of the ostensible reasons for the boycott is Doha’s relations with Tehran, which are warmer than those of most GCC states.

Underlying all this is Riyadh’s fear of being outgunned by Iran’s military machine and outmanoeuvred by its political influence across the region. Riyadh has also expressed concerns about the possibility of the Islamic Republic one day acquiring nuclear weapons.

In the face of this, Mohammed bin Salman’ Saudi Arabia seems intent on doing what it can to confront Iran sooner rather than later, before the situation escalated beyond its control.

“Iran must be held accountable for its nefarious actions outside this [nuclear] agreement,”  said Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al Jubeir told a Chatham House conference in London on 24 October. “The Iranians have to realise they cannot continue with business-as-usual, with death and destruction in the region.”

In many ways, the change in Saudi foreign policy matches what is happening domestically.

Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on a radical reshaping of the Saudi economy to reduce its dependence on oil revenues, and against this backdrop has launched an anti-corruption campaign that has seen hundreds of princes, senior officials and businessmen arrested.

However, progress on the kingdom’s economic reform programme has been fitful, with some subsidies reinstated after being removed, and the economy falling into recession this year.

The foreign policy sphere presents a similar picture.

For all the activity, Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t yet have any clear wins he can claim on the international stage. The war in Yemen was meant to be a quick war but instead is proving an expensive morass, while the strong-arm tactics against Qatar have not led to Doha backing down, and on the contrary, appear to be pushing it closer to Iran.

The pressure placed on Lebanon, which appears to have been a clumsy attempt to bring an end to Hezbollah’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, could backfire, with Saudi Arabia’s allies in the region and beyond urging it to step back.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el Sisi called for de-escalation in remarks to journalists on 8 November. When asked about the prospect of attacks on Iran and Hezbollah, he said “I am always against war”, according to the Reuters news agency.

Mohammed bin Salman has yet to show that he is capable of flexibility or compromise when challenged. But, without a clear win in any of the disputes that Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in, there will need to be a renewed bout of diplomacy and negotiation at some point if things are to settle down.

With so many major issues already demanding attention, an additional concern is Riyadh’s capacity to respond to any unexpected crises.

“It seems that Riyadh is already over-extended in Yemen militarily, while the diplomatic and economic embargo on Qatar appears to have stalled,” says Coates Ulrichsen. “With Mohammed bin Salman engaged in further consolidation of power domestically and struggling to show results on the Aramco IPO and National Transformation Plan, there is a concern that there simply is not enough Saudi bandwidth to take on anything substantively new.”