A New Saudi Foreign Policy for a New Era

Bilal Y. Saab spoke to a military audience at the National Defense University’s Near East and South Asia Center on May 5, 2015. Please read his remarks below

Only a fool would say that it is business as usual in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Let me say it in very simple terms: things have changed. But to say that we are witnessing a new Saudi Arabia that is hawkish and excessively militaristic is also terribly misleading. We used to call Saudi Arabia a sleeping giant, a country that, despite its enormous financial resources, remained vulnerable from all corners and was losing the fight to its primary adversary—the Islamic Republic of Iran. How could Saudi Arabia—we kept asking—not lift a finger in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and other areas in the Middle East to protect its interests by engaging in classic balance-of-power tactics against Iran? It was almost as if Saudi Arabia had betrayed the rules of the game in international relations: Conservative, predictable, and restrained to the point of passivism.

Well now that they finally decided to take a stand and defend their interests, everybody is talking about a new, politically immature, aggressive, and irredentist Saudi Arabia bent on using military might to shape the politics of the region to its favor.

Make up your mind.

The reality, as always, is somewhere in between. The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia is finally asserting itself, and this is not surprising at all. In fact, it is long overdue. Never in the history of world politics has a country had this huge an amount of financial resources yet so little influence in regional and international affairs—with the exception, of course, of their big say on the price of oil.

What is the immediate motivation of Saudi Arabia to rise up? Why has it awakened now? Three reasons: First, a new team in Riyadh has pushed for a more activist and assertive foreign policy. Second, a major opportunity presents itself—I’ll speak in a minute about what this opportunity entails. Third, Saudi Arabia faces growing threats, all of which have to be addressed more assertively.

Let us start with the new team. It is too early to judge King Salman’s decisions. Yet analysts are already coming up with definitive judgments. There is talk of a “coup” in the Kingdom, the domination of the Sudayris, the coming of a new young political class to power. I do not pretend to know the inside story of these developments and anyone in Washington who tells you that they do is full of it. But I also attach little significance to the details. Don’t get me wrong, leadership matters, especially in the Middle East where institutions are weak and often nonexistent, but what I care about most is how Saudi Arabia will dig itself out of the profound generational problems that goes beyond King Abdullah, King Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilizing Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require teamwork.

What is the opportunity, or the positive incentive for Saudi status affirmation? At a time when other traditional powers in the Middle East such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are bleeding influence thanks to domestic conflict, political turmoil, and economic implosion, Saudi Arabia wants to seize the chance to assume leadership of the Arab world, or at least start planting the seeds. The field is wide open.

What are the threats, or the negative incentives? The imminent threat comes from Yemen. Iran’s Houthi friends in Yemen have threatened Saudi security and the stability of the entire Arab Gulf region. Despite some notable military successes in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has not yet accomplished its political goals in the country. I’d put a question mark on Riyadh’s “mission accomplished” sign when schools have closed and Saudi Airlines flights to and from the Saudi city of Najran are suspended. The decisions came after Houthi rebels struck the Saudi border town of Najran with mortar shells and Katyusha rockets. Saudi state television and the Saudi-led military coalition confirmed the Houthi attacks on the town. So “mission accomplished” is looking not so credible after all.

The battlefield is the most honest place on earth, said one US general. Right now, it sure looks like Bashar al-Assad is losing ground in Syria. However, we have been talking about this leader’s demise for three years now. Are we witnessing a real turning point in Syria? I do not know. There are some undisputable facts on the ground and a new military player in the Syrian opposition that seems to be fighting well—much more coherently and cohesively. But are the gains it is making sustainable? What does victory actually mean? Iran will not be going down without a fight in Syria and my sense is that one can expect many more ebbs and flows in this conflict before Assad falls. Even when he does, expect another war between the ultra-radical rebels and the less radical ones. How that benefits Saudi Arabia or anybody else for that matter is unclear to me. I have always believed that Assad is not the main problem, he is a detail. Those running the show in Syria are Iran and Hezbollah. The moment they change their calculations on Syria, Assad would disappear in seconds.

In Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, things are not much better for the Saudis. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has somewhat improved the status of Sunnis in Iraq’s government to reassure the Saudis, but the strategic levers of power remain in the hands of Iraqi politicians under the influence of Iran.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah might be militarily overtaxed and on the political defensive due to the burden of the Syrian conflict, where thousands of its fighters are aiding Assad’s forces, but the Iranian proxy is still dominant in Beirut. The Palestinian militant group Hamas has returned to the Iran-led “axis of resistance,” despite attempts by Saudi Arabia to keep the group in its and Egypt’s strategic orbit.

All of these threats demanded a more assertive Saudi foreign and security policy. Inaction was simply no longer an option. But the million dollar question remains: will Saudi Arabia succeed or fail? Will it make things worse for itself and the region, or better? We do not have a large sample on which to base any conclusions, but we do have a major one: the war in Yemen.

Yemen has been a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia (and other Arab Gulf countries, including Oman) since the latter was founded in the 1930s. The threats of Marxism, populism, and recently, Islamist extremism with the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have made Yemen a high Saudi national security risk. Today, Saudi Arabia sees danger in the Shia Houthi rebel takeover of parts of Yemen, particularly territory near the Saudi border. To drive the Houthis back, the Saudis—in coordination with nine other countries—launched a sustained air campaign and imposed a blockade on the Yemeni coast.

Saudi Arabia, which warned Washington about the limitations of air power in the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS, knows that airstrikes alone will not fix Yemen or stop it from falling apart. But it does believe that limited military action will help neutralize the Houthi security threat by destroying the group’s offensive military capabilities (targets included strategic missile sites, weapons depots, tanks, and fighter jets seized from the Yemeni military, which the Houthis could use against Saudi interests) and restore the elected government of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi in at least part of the country, especially in the south around the port of Aden and the air base at al-Anad.

Saudi Arabia also is hoping that the use of force will gradually alter the internal balance of power in Yemen and compel the Houthis—who receive military, logistical, and intelligence support from Tehran—to come to the table for peace talks with the elected government and other Yemeni factions, including the Separatist Southern movement, the General People’s Congress headed by former Presdent Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Saudi-backed Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Islah).

If Riyadh’s political-military approach proves effective, the need for a risky ground invasion would be drastically reduced. Key to the success of this two-pronged tactic, however, is the methodical dismantlement of the alliance the Houthis have formed with Saleh’s forces. This will require, among other things, a set of political and financial incentives, which Riyadh is already preparing.

The desire and ability of a large and well-resourced Houthi movement to fight a long war should not be underestimated, especially should Iran decide to double down in Yemen and drag Saudi Arabia and its other adversaries into a war of attrition.

The outcome of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen will have repercussions that go beyond both countries. Should Riyadh manage to pacify Yemen, it would cement its leadership in the Arab world and send a strong message to its Arab Gulf neighbors that it remains the indispensable nation within the GCC. If Yemen goes south, Saudi power and prestige will take a big hit. As a result, Riyadh’s ability to steer the GCC will dramatically decline.

That would not bode well for Saudi Arabia’s plans to check Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East. Saudi failure in Yemen would probably further embolden Iran and encourage it to continue with its expansionist policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia still enjoys a robust partnership with the Unites States against Iran, but the feeling in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals is that Washington has offered the Middle East to Tehran on a golden platter in return for a nuclear deal. It is a baseless and ridiculous conclusion, but that is the perception in the region, which is now finding application in official policy.

Many have argued that Saudi Arabia should not have escalated or engaged in excessive militarism that could make matters worse for the Kingdom and the entire region. But the reality is that Saudi Arabia’s Yemen strategy—which is designed to use military force for the purpose of political reengineering—is more measured than its critics claim and Iran’s reach in Yemen is more extensive and threatening than often assumed. A firm presence in Yemen could allow Iran to grab Bab al-Mandeb, a strategic gateway for shipping energy between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Suez Canal. With Iran already exercising some control over the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly a quarter of the world’s petroleum passes, one can imagine the devastating consequences for Gulf security and the global economy. Instead of criticizing Riyadh, Washington should take caution.

None of this makes Riyadh’s approach less risky, but it is something that the historically risk-averse Saudis are willing to tolerate given the costly alternative and the high potential rewards. As one prominent Gulf ambassador privately summarized it, “The Houthis do not have nuclear weapons, but this is Saudi Arabia’s own Cuban Missile Crisis. Would Washington tolerate the stationing of ballistic missiles by an adversary next door that could target American cities?” It helps that Saudi Arabia is not alone in this conflict, with nine other nations joining the fight. Make no mistake about it, though: this is Saudi Arabia’s war and the result could either make or break the Kingdom.

Bilal Y. Saab is a Resident Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Image: A picture of Saudia Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz lies amidst debris at the damaged entrance to the headquarters of the Saudi Cultural Center in Sanaa, caused by an April 20 air strike that hit a nearby army weapons depot, in Sanaa April 21, 2015. (Reuters)