By Hassan Aourid
Until last Saturday, I was hopeful that the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul was not more than a case of censure that might result in his transfer home to face trial or might silence him. But revelations on Saturday night and Sunday indicated an abrupt and dramatic change that might amount to an assassination. This would turn his disappearance into a rerun of the disappearance and murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, coincidentally in the same month as the disappearnace of Khashoggi. Ben Barka’s assassination brought the Moroccan establishment to its knees, tainting its image. It also forced the opposition to radicalise, and threatened reconciliation efforts. Similarly, the Khashoggi case could transform into a burden too weighty for Saudi Arabia to bear.
Nothing is certain, but should Khashoggi’s assassination be confirmed, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East region will have taken a dangerous turn. Such a development will also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s future and its relations with Turkey, scuppering the idea of a ‘Sunni NATO’ and adversely affecting Saudi relations with the West – including the USA, particularly following President Trump’s recent pronouncements on bilateral relations. The West cannot remain silent and prioritise its interests over its values if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered.
I made Khashoggi’s acquaintance in May at a conference on security and political arrangements for the Middle East and North Africa convened by the Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul. The gathering gathered a galaxy of intellectuals and pundits from the Arab and Islamic world alongside international observers from the rest of the globe. Khashoggi was among the participants and was a keynote speaker at the closing session.
Speaking polished English in a calm tone, he provided a sensible assessment of the situation across the Arab world, from countries that embraced change and defended it inside and outside the Arab world to those that are openly inimical to change or ask to be left alone after facing adversity and seeing their nations torn apart. The kernel of his presentation was his defence of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and what he regarded as the risks that Iran’s nuclear programme and expansionist designs pose to the region.
It was no secret that Khashoggi was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s new policies, or, rather, new developments in his country led him to keep his distance from decision makers after having been an astute defender of his country, and it policies and institutions.
The new policies and new methods for conducting public affairs in Saudi Arabia have forced him into self-exile and a liberal opposition to the situation in his country. He was not loathe to air his views, whether on television channels, forums or meetings, or in the columns of The Washington Post, which were characterised by depth and audacity. I was a regular reader of his articles to understand what was happening in the Saudi kingdom.
Two months ago, I read one of his Washington Post articles where he referred to David Kirkpatrick’s book on the critical situation in the Arab world. I subsequently bought and reviewed the book.
Khashoggi wanted to prevent liberal and reformist movements from being left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes by encouraging them to align with with the dynamics of their societies. To put it differently, he wanted to have them recognise Islamic views regardless of differences since they were a reflection of a societal reality and an internal dynamic. Turning them into an enemy might hamper their evolution and drive them into withdrawal and, eventually, extremism. It was a principled position, which he articulated without neglecting the core principles underpinning modernist thought, including the emancipation of women, the introduction of legal standards for political action, balance among branches of government, and democratisation. This vision is bothersome for regimes that unilaterally decide the fate of adversaries and dissidents by pitting one movement against the other. It is also troublesome for regimes focused on dealing with the present to the detriment of the strategic, regimes that refuse to abide by standards, or account for their actions.
Particularly striking and central, to Khashoggi’s credit, was his defence of his country’s strategic interests, a reflection of his maturity and credibility. Some dissidents are driven by their impetuosity to confuse views, persons and regimes with the strategic interests of their countries, losing their credibility in the process. They might find themselves in an ephemeral media bubble and descend into oblivion as soon as it bursts. Khashoggi did not fall in this category, and he thus kept his credibility intact. He stands for something new that observers of Saudi Arabia’s affairs tend to overlook: liberal views which want to be immersed in global trends and universal experience. He was not the first to voice or embrace these tendencies, but he became one of its voices and mouthpieces. His mysterious disappearance signals a dramatic shift; the confirmation of his murder will worsen matters. Yet his forced disappearance will not kill his ideas. When an individual is silenced, the ideas he embraced or was made to embrace by the social dynamics in his country or region will not wither and die. On the contrary, they become more dangerous when they haunt people who were made victims, martyrs and ultimately icons. Khashoggi is now an idea that poses a greater danger to the current establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The tragic disappearance of a person whose sole weapon was his pen brings to mind an incident that changed the course of the Middle East when the henchmen of the Ottoman caliph, then the embodiment of Islamic unity, executed Arab nationalists in May 1916 in Damascus. When Emir Faisal bin Hussein, a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans and later king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, heard the news, he sprang to his feet in a fit of rage, removed his headdress, and shouted a line that has become famous and marked a break with a system that was hitherto seen as the custodian of Islam: “Death has never been so appealing, oh Arabs!” The rest of the story is history. The smallest spark can ignite the largest fire.
The gruesome murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was designed to be a clear and firm message for Saudi dissidents, and reflected the current Saudi sense of impunity. Saudi Arabia, and particularly its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), however, seemed to have miscalculated the consequences of the murder. The incident caused immediate international ructions, and increased pressure on Saudi Arabia. It is still unclear, however, whether there will be long-term consequences or whether Saudi Arabia will succeed in covering up the murder.
Khashoggi’s murder indicates MBS’s paranoia and intolerance for criticism. Khashoggi, after all, was a supporter of the country’s monarchy and an establishment figure – even if he was somewhat critical of MBS. He had been an adviser to another Saudi prince, Turki bin Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence service; had worked in Saudi Arabia’s London and Washington embassies; and had initially supported MBS’s ‘reform’ initiative. He was, thus, an insider who had turned his back on MBS, making him, arguably, more dangerous than a dissident. Further, even in the authoritarian monarchy that Saudi Arabia is, the man western media and politicians liked to tout as a great ‘reformer’ has deepened the levels of repression, even arresting dozens of members of the royal family in November 2017, and detaining influential religious scholars such as Salman al-Awda and human and women’s rights activists. These efforts have helped concentrate power in the crown prince’s office, as well as expanded his and the state’s coffers through large amounts of extortion money.
Khashoggi’s murder was undertaken with the brazenness with which MBS has defined himself, taking place in a consulate, with a large kill team flown in using their own passports, ignoring a Turkish camera monitoring the entrance to the consulate. This allowed Turkey to easily gain intelligence about the murder, including video and audio recordings. The attitude also reflects the sense of impunity that MBS has developed, an attitude that is justified when one considers his actions over the past three years – since being appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence - that he has not had to account for. These include the brutal war against Yemen and the massacre of civilians – including schoolchildren; the blockade on Qatar; the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri – and forcing him to resign; last year’s detention of members of the royal family and the extortion of substantial parts of their wealth; the weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and his insulting of Palestinians and warming relations with Israel. He therefore had every reason to believe that he would escape accountability for Khashoggi’s murder as well.
Saudi Arabia had initially denied that Khashoggi has been killed, claiming he had exited the consulate. However, about ten days later, as Turkish sources leaked ever more information and because international attention and condemnation increased, the Saudis suggested that the murder was carried out by ‘rogue killers’, in an attempt to insulate MBS. They also finally acquiesced to Turkey’s request to search the consulate and the house of the consul-general. It is highly unlikely that MBS knew nothing about the murder, especially since seven of the fifteen-person hit squad are from his personal security detail. The Saudi suggestion that it was a botched interrogation is also difficult to sustain considering that autopsy and forensic specialist Salah Abdulaziz Al-Tubaigy was part of the Saudi team that arrived at the consulate and that he, it is reported, brought a bone saw with.
Khashoggi’s killing will have immediate short-term consequences for the Kingdom. It has already attracted hostility from the US senate, which in 2017 narrowly failed to halt Saudi arms sales for weapons destined to be used in Yemen. The most vocal critic is right-wing senator Lindsey Graham, a former defender of the Saudis, who said, ‘MBS is toxic. We should sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia’. Already, twenty-one of the twenty-two-member senate foreign relations committee called for the implementation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act. The administration now has four months to investigate human rights abuses relating to Khashoggi’s murder; if confirmed, the act stipulates the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on the culprits. However, the US president, Donald Trump, has dithered between condemning the murder, defending the Saudis, insisting that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were too important to the USA to be jeopardised, and promising ‘severe punishment’. Yet, his is clearly reluctant to take any action against Saudi Arabia, only partly because of arms sales. Other factors include his own business interests with the Saudis, his obsession with Iran and the Saudi support for his anti-Iran initiative, and because MBS is a firm ally in supporting Israel. Further, it is unclear whether the US senate’s righteous indignation will continue or dissipate with midterm elections coming up and Republicans not wanting to seem divided.
The British, French and German governments issued a joint statement condemning Khashoggi’s murder and advocating an independent credible investigation; the G7 issued a similar statement. But there is no indication that this will result in any concrete action against Saudi Arabia, even if the previous image of MBS they touted – as a moderniser – becomes tarnished.
More Immediately, there has been a significant withdrawal from the Saudi ‘Future Investment Initiative’, MBS’s project to attract funds to Saudi Arabia for his economic ‘modernisation’ and liberalisation project, scheduled for later this month. Cancellations and/or high-level pullouts have come from companies such as Ford, JP Morgan Chase, Virgin Group, Blackstone and Standard Chartered; media organisations such as Fox, CNN, Bloomberg, Financial Times, and the New York Times; and senior political and economic figures such as the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the finance ministers of France and Netherlands, the trade secretary of the UK, and IMF head Christine Lagarde. Uber, which Saudi Arabia has shares in, and Fox Business Network, which was a cosponsor of the event, have also withdrawn –Fox Business also withdrew its sponsorship. These withdrawals are sufficient to threaten a collapse of the summit, disrupting MBS’s project in, at least, the short term.
Within the MENA region Saudi Arabia has received support from allies Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, as well as from Kuwait and the Palestinian Authority, all of which have called for an investigation, but expressed their support for the kingdom. Most of these countries are dependent on Saudi largesse, while the UAE and KSA have a strong economic and military partnership and alliance against Qatar and Iran.
A significant development in the region might be Saudi relations with Turkey, which have been cool, mainly as a result of Turkey’s support of Qatar. The manner in which Turkish intelligence services and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have responded, suggest that they have calculated on pushing Saudi Arabia into a corner, as they have done, but may hope that this will force Saudi Arabia to improve relations with Turkey, on terms dictated by the latter. The current situation represents a public relations coup for Turkey and a disaster for Saudi Arabia. However the Saudis respond, Turkey will emerge in the stronger position. The Turks have also used the incident to strengthen relations with the USA, which were also strained in the recent past, releasing American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has been in Turkish custody since 2016. Turkey will likely demand that some high-level Saudi official take the fall. They might not aim as high as MBS, however.
Within Saudi Arabia, the murder has had limited impact, and while there is concern about the possible consequences of external pressure on MBS’s standing, there is no indication yet that he will be removed from his position or disciplined in any way. This will be disappointing both for the Saudi opposition as well as dissident and disaffected members of the royal family who wait anxiously for an opportunity to hit back at the crown prince. At the moment, it seems that the worst consequence for MBS might be his father Salman instructing him to take a low profile in the immediate future while attempts are made to contain the fallout of the Khashoggi murder. MBS remains Salman’s favoured son and nominee as his successor.
It is quite likely that, in the long-term, the pressure on the kingdom will slowly dissipate as western geopolitical and economic needs come to the fore again. Many western companies will seek to benefit from the aggressive expansion of the Saudi 230-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund (Public Investment Fund), which has recently purchased shares in renewable energy, property, and motion production companies around the world. MBS is already deploying Saudi finances to limit the fallout from the murder, releasing 100 million dollars in funding to the US State Department’s counterterrorism programme.
Trump has already said he will not suspend sales of arms to Saudi Arabia because, he claimed, Russian and Chinese companies would replace American ones. Whatever the USA decides, switching heavy weapons’ technology from American to any other is not an easy or short-term process and the Saudis and Americans will remain tied in their arms seller-buyer relationship in the medium term.
While the immediate global response to the Khashoggi murder has imposed substantial pressure on Saudi Arabia, it is unclear that this will have any impact on Saudi Arabia in terms of reducing its repressive actions internally and externally, ending its war in Yemen, or easing its aggressive policies in the region. It is therefore not certain that this will help create space for Saudi dissenters – even within the royal family – to voice their dissent, even if MBS and his security services become more careful about how they suppress opposition.
By Madawi Al-Rasheed
The dominant narrative through which many observers understand Saudi Arabia depicts a progressive and modernist leadership struggling to gradually transform an allegedly conservative and traditional society. The amplified divide between the modernists, often believed to be consisting of the princes and their western-educated technocrats on the one hand, and the traditionalists, a large cohort of religious clerics, tribes, and almost everybody else in Saudi Arabia on the other, fails to provide a robust analytical framework to understand Saudi Arabia. However, this persistent narrative has made the country an enigma, not only in its Arab neighbourhood, but across the Muslim world.
The alleged binary opposition between Saudi modernists and traditionalists persists for purely political reasons. The narrative is a convenient paradigm that shows the country as blessed by enlightened leadership which, in the past, had been crippled by the vast sea of Saudi conservatism, traditionalism, and, by implication, backwardness. This paradigm had become the foundation for regime propaganda. Its advocates are not only outside observers, but also many Saudi intellectuals.
In an extremely busy twenty-four hours in Saudi Arabia this past weekend, a series of moves by the palace sought to consolidate the power of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman – who already effectively runs the kingdom, centre all power in his office, and pave the way for his accession to the throne – even before his father, King Salman, dies. In the process, the power grab upends the slower, more consensual decision-making processes in the royal family, and establishes MbS, as the crown prince is known, as a more authoritarian ruler concentrating power in his person rather than in the family that has ruled the country since the 1930s. The moves this weekend (and earlier) achieve four major objectives for Muhammad: granting him control over a vast pool of assets around the world; putting him in charge of the Saudi voice outside the country through media networks owned by Saudis he has arrested; consolidating his power over the three main branches of Saudi military and security services; and removing (if temporarily) any voices of dissent to his father’s abdication and his becoming king.
The past weekend saw Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announcing his resignation in Riyadh, at the instruction of MbS; the arrests of eleven members of the royal family (including two sons of the former king, Abdullah – Mut'ib and Turki), four ministers and dozens of former ministers, government officials and businesspeople, the disappearance of Abdulaziz bin Fahd (the son of another former king; while some reports say he was killed while trying to escape arrest, others suggest he was renditioned to Abu Dhabi where he is incarcerated and tortured); the death in suspicious circumstances of Mansour bin Muqrin (the son of a former crown prince, who perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni border); the warning that assets of hundreds of other Saudis will soon be seized; and the dramatic ramping up of rhetoric against Iran and Lebanon. All of this threatens serious long-term consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally.
The arrests and freezing of assets of the detainees were conducted ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive under the auspices of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee (headed by MbS), but it is clear that the reasons are much more comprehensive, and the move was planned before the committee was even inaugurated.
The arrests are part of an MbS pattern, with Salman’s acquiescence, of consolidating control over the levers of the country’s power, particularly the political, security, economic and media sectors. He has already centralised political power in his office – despite concern among many royals. Indeed, some sources claim that Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in the helicopter crash on Saturday night, had sent a letter to some 1 000 princes urging them not to support MbS’s accession to the throne. These same sources also claim that Mansour’s helicopter was deliberately targeted by state forces under instruction from MbS.
With the latest arrests, the crown prince has now taken over the military and security structures of the kingdom. In June, then-crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was also interior minister, was fired (and has been under house arrest since), and a month later the interior ministry was stripped of many powers, which were given to a new homeland security agency headed by the king, thus giving MbS control of the country’s internal security and large amounts of security personnel and military materiel. As defence minister, MbS also controls the country’s defence forces. With this weekend’s arrest of Mut'ib bin Abdullah, MbS now also controls the third important security-military department, the National Guard. The Guard is an important arm of the Shammar branch of the royal family, and is a conglomeration of the tribal forces in the kingdom; the Shammar effectively control the various tribes through their control of the National Guard. By removing Mut'ib, MbS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, he also is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations. The influence of the National Guard is indicated by the fact that it was responsible for coercingKing Saud to hand over power to his brother Faisal in 1964, following a power struggle between the brothers over the division of political power. By surrounding Saud’s palace in early 1964, the Guard rendered it impossible for Saud to rule.
The arrests of the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Rotana Media and ART – Walid bin al-Ibrahim, Walid bin Talal and Salih Kaamil respectively – gives the Saudi regime effective control of Saudi media that broadcast outside the kingdom. (The palace already tightly controls the media internally.) This will ensure a common narrative on issues such as foreign policy, MbS’s accession to the throne, and the demonisation of dissent.
Furthermore, dozens of clerics, scholars and academics, who might have been opposed to or critical of Salman’s abdication in favour of his son, were jailed in September for no apparent reason. This move also signalled to the clerical establishment, whose influence MbS wants to curtail, that only supportive voices from its ranks will be tolerated. The clergy will be a concern for MbS, who has been talking of Saudi Arabia as a ‘secular’ state, and about diminishing the role of religion and the clergy, which would upset a compact between the royal family and the clergy about them supporting each other. Like the National Guard, the clergy too had a hand in the abdication of Saud in 1964. It took only twelve senior clerics’ support, including that of the grand mufti, to legitimise Saud’s ouster.
The latest arrests also help shore up MbS’s economic control in the kingdom, and are, at least in part, related to the need for him to mobilise funds to drive his ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to move the country away from its dependence on oil, and improve an economy that is worse than it has been in decades. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit stands at ten per cent of GDP; unemployment has increased to twelve per cent; and popular discontent has forced him to drop plans to reduce state subsidies (which he hoped would free up funds for Vision 2030). The need for extra funding is exacerbated by his plan to construct a 500 billion dollar megacity (dubbed Neom), which has attracted substantial interest from Israeli businesses. Moreover, the Yemeni war, ongoing for two years and with no end in sight, is draining the kingdom’s coffers by between 100 and 500 million dollars daily. It has been estimated that the seizing of the wealth of the businesspeople arrested thus far will add around 33 billion dollars (half the 2017-18 budget deficit) to Saudi state coffers, a substantial contribution to the 2030 and Neom projects. With hundreds more people on the list for their assets to be seized, that figure could increase dramatically. Furthermore, MbS’s plan to list the oil company Aramco on the New York Stick exchange was not universally supported in Saudi Arabia; nor were his plans for Neom. The dissenting voices on these matters have now largely been neutralised through their detention.
It is suspected by many that Hariri’s forced resignation is partly also part of the effort to bolster Saudi state finances. Hariri’s assets are worth more than a billion dollars, and his business interests are mainly based in Saudi Arabia. Since the economic downturn that hit the Saudi construction industry, Hariri has been unable to pay his debts to the kingdom. His stake in Saudi Oger is worth just under a billion dollars, a reasonable contribution to MbS’s coffers. Interestingly, the disappeared Abdulaziz bin Fahd was the Saudi point person in charge of Saudi Oger, and, thus, Hariri’s partner. Hariri has, since his ‘resignation’, been rumoured to be interned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, along with others arrested on Saturday. However, Hariri’s removal also has political objectives. MbS, with the support of the USA and Israel, hopes to increase the pressure on Iran through its proxies and associated groups. Thus the removal of Hariri can be read as part of the effort to escalate tensions in Lebanon, and to begin an offensive against Hizbullah.
He identified Iran’s role in Lebanon and the region, and his dissatisfaction with Hizbullah as reasons for the resignation. Yet, shortly before he left for Saudi Arabia, he met with Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor on international relations to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; and Hariri’s party’s relations with Hizbullah have not been any rockier than usual.
MbS’s power grab has already caused much disquiet within the house of Saud, which previously divided government portfolios between the different family branches to prevent fractious succession battles, and to ensure continuity. Saturday’s moves have upended this policy, centralising immense power in MbS’s office. It is likely that the families of Nayef, Abdullah and Muqrin will join forces, especially if Salman abdicates power in favour of his son in the next weeks. Abdulaziz’s disappearance and Abdullah’s death will aggravate this urge. Any rumblings of protest from within the National Guard at the firing of its former boss, Mut'ib, to whom the Guard had been fiercely loyal, would be an indicator in this regard.
Further, despite earlier expressions of enthusiasm for MbS’s ‘modernisation’ proposals – especially from Saudi youth, it is uncertain whether the majority of Saudi citizens will accept MbS’s plans, even though Saudi Arabia has a bulging youth population, especially after the recent crackdown. He has already alienated many critical clerics who had previously called for such modernisation, and who enjoy much popular support, as well as created fear in the business community, and anger in many sections of the royal family.
Additionally, the arrests of young reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki and Mustafa al-Hassan, together with the arrests of cleric Salman al-Awda in September, suggest two faces of MbS’s ‘reform’ initiative. Despite, for example, voicing support for increased freedoms, relaxing conditions on Saudi women’s restrictions to drive, and advocating (rhetorically) a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, MbS instituted two committees (the Union of Electronic and Software Security, and the National Authority for Cyber Security) in October to monitor and control social media, and curtail freedoms. Already, the head of the Union of Electronic and Software Security, Saud al-Qahtani, called on Saudi tweeps to report citizens sympathising with Qatar in the issue of the blockade on that country. Another example of MbS’s two-faced policies is his commitment to ‘privatise’ Saudi assets such as Aramco, while the recent crackdown shows that he is just as happy ‘nationalising’ private assets of those he dislikes.
The increasingly gung-ho attitude from the Saudi palace will also have serious regional consequences. MbS and his deputies have hardened the kingdom’s stance toward Iran, used war-like rhetoric in reference to Iran and Lebanon, further threatened the Houthi in Yemen, and instituted a full blockade on Yemeni ports. While a war with Iran is unlikely, Riyadh’s moves threaten to destabilise Lebanon’s complex, sectarian consociational political system in a manner that could have disastrous consequences; some Lebanese are talking about the possibility of another civil war.
While there is concern in the Middle East about where this will lead to, MbS and his authoritarianism have won unqualified support from the USA and Israel. Both the US president, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner enjoy a close relationship and mutual admiration with the crown prince. Kushner returned to the USA from a personal visit to Saudi Arabia just a week before the recent arrests, sparking speculation that MbS briefed him about his plans for the arrests and for Lebanon. After the arrests, Trump tweeted that he had ‘great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing’. Israel, which MbS reportedly visited in September, has also been jubilant about the new crown prince and his keenness to normalise relations with the Zionist state. The events of the past weekend have been pounced upon by Israel, with its envoys around the world being instructed to use the Hariri ‘resignation’ to attack Hizbullah and Iran. Whether this was coordinated with Saudi Arabia or not, events in the kingdom are proving useful to Israel in its battle with Iran, and, ultimately with the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty. From the time he was appointed deputy crown prince by his father in April 2015, he began to present himself as the face of the kingdom’s future, and many of his actions – domestically, regionally and globally – have been crafted to concentrate power in himself, show Saudis and the world that he is tough, willing to deal decisively with his enemies, fully in league with the United States, and to prepare for his coronation. This year, the blockade against Qatar, increased sabre-rattling on Iran, normalising relations with Israel, developing intimate relations with the the US Trump administration, and the events of the past weekend have all had a singular motive: strengthening MbS’s hand in preparation for his being handed the throne by his father. The latest arrests and firings are an attempt to silence criticism of his ascension to the throne, and to shore up his military, economic and media power.
Furthermore, MbS is transforming Saudi Arabia into a strong regional client that will help the USA maintain global ascendency, and serve, together with Israel, as a US proxy in the Middle East. MbS has set himself up as the new regional strongman whose role has been rubberstamped by Trump. The US administration has given him wide permission to consolidate his position in a way that will allow him to become an effective instrument of the USA in the region. The focus and escalating rhetoric on Iran (and its proxies) helps consolidate this position by ensuring that Saudi Arabia, the USA and Israel will be on the same page, with a common enemy that they each can rally their constituencies against.
By Ebrahim Deen
The rise of the Islamic State Group (IS) and resurgence of Iran is now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with likeminded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions which are looser and more issue specific in contemporary times, and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters such as youth unemployment will in the short to medium term force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival.
Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity, and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought. This took the form of partnerships with the British post World War I until the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, and with the U.S post World War II up to today. The Kingdom’s vast oil resources –it is currently the largest oil producer and possesses the largest amount of reserves– enabled it to gain influence and acquire strategic partner status with the U.S during the Cold War.
Domestic matters will force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival
Its aversion to communism and ability to cultivate coalitions with other Gulf States aided in this regard. The kingdom, in contemporary times, is now an aspiring regional hegemon; it has largely ensured its territorial integrity, possesses large cash reserves and military hardware, and as will be observed below, is willing to act financially and militarily to fulfil its national interests.
Although foreign policy and national interests in the Kingdom are an elite driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses a disproportional influence in shaping the state’s path. Noteworthy is the observation that domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.
Regarded by western commentators as a ‘reformer’, foreign policy under Abdullah sought to diversify bilateral Saudi relations. Visits to China, Russia, India, and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 were noteworthy in this regard. These were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the U.S’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The Kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state sponsored discrimination.
The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran
Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the Kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It thus supported Saddam during the eight year long Iraq-Iran war, and was opposed to the 2003 invasion. The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.
However, the Kingdom still maintained warm relations with the U.S, and would confer with it before adopting decisions, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam enabled the Iranian regime to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the U.S’s then opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed after the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings.
Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the Kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the U.S’s role in enabling this. Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies and Egypt, during the latter end of Mubarak’s term, largely followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in responding to regional issues. The Kingdom thus felt that the U.S, which had been a close Mubarak ally, had betrayed him, and would adopt a similar position were the regime in Saudi Arabia threatened. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia views the Brotherhood as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior Brotherhood figures refused to support its role during the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013. This was especially true since the Assad regime had at the time been accused of using chemical weapons, flouting one of the Obama administration’s ‘red lines’. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase support to proxy groups such as Hezbollah. The Kingdom is of the perception that Iran seeks regional hegemony, and that its rise will blunt Saudi Arabia’s relatively strong regional influence. This is especially true since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf States including Qatar and the UAE, is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hezbollah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of holding elections.
The Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt
The Kingdom was especially angered for not being informed about the initial U.S-Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future U.S support, believing that in a situation where the regime is threatened the U.S will not offer its full support and prefer to instead call for negotiations and compromise.
Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive foreign policy. First it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over 700 billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and provided funding to withstand protests. The funding was used to quell protests through increases in public sector spending, especially in Jordan where they allowed the Abdullah II regime to stave off the need for subsidy removal.
The Kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Al Khalifa regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command with a proposed hundred thousand strong deployable force. Agreements on a shared GCC police force and the opening of a centre (the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies) to promote GCC security coordination were also signed.
Second, the Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through financing remnants to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, together with the UAE and Kuwait, the Mursi regime was overthrown and replaced by a former military head Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party, and Saudi-Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining participatory Islamists (the Justice and Construction party, Libya Dawn forces in Libya, and Ennahdha in Tunisia).
This culminated in the March 2014 decision declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation adopted by Gulf states, and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. It is noteworthy that even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran through removing an ally. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition sought to distinguish between participatory Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groupings such as Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Shaam, supporting the latter.
Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. These have resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole wasn’t viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE –Sisi and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (crown prince of Abu Dhabi) were requested not to attend Abdullah’s funeral. Moreover, the Kingdom has severely reduced its aid to Egypt, providing long term loans and fuel grants instead. Since November 2016 it has even halted oil shipments to Cairo as a result of Egypt’s opposition to a UNSC resolution criticising the Iranian supported Syrian regime, and because it believes that Cairo had become increasingly dependent on its largess and was failing to restart its economy.
Key in influencing these decisions has been the Iranian nuclear deal and rise of the Islamic state group (IS). The Kingdom views these as greater threats than participatory Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence. This is particularly true since the Assad regime has consolidated its control in Syria, and with Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s supported candidate, became Lebanese president.
IS, on the other hand, has been active in the country, claiming bombings on Mosques frequented by Shia and Special Forces, and its leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime. In May 2015 for example, the group undertook attacks on Shia sites of worship in Katif and Damam killing around twenty nine people, while an attack on a Mosque in Asir in August that year killed fifteen Saudi security personnel.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists.
Moreover, the group has been critical of the Kingdom’s leadership of the Sunni world, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime as a result of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance. It is noteworthy that some within the Saudi clerical establishment are partially sympathetic to IS’s ideology, that Saudi citizens have been involved in the financing of militant groups in Syria, and that they comprise a sizable portion of IS’s international recruits.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists. Ennahdha’s Rached Ghannouchi, the Jordanian Brotherhood’s Hamam Saeed, and Hamas’s Khaled Mishaal had all visited the kingdom in 2015. Further, it has re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party and financed and armed it in its attempt to reassert influence in Yemen.
The kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm Syrian opposition in Syria, while in December 2016 it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic, even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troups fighting IS.
In addition, in January 2016 the Kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an attempt in foreign policy terms to both stall the improving relations between the Islamic Republic and the west, and to ensure that Gulf allies followed suit.
Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s re-prioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were a part of a ten member coalition which the Kingdom headed, and were without initial U.S endorsement.
The Yemeni Islah party (Yemen’s main participatory Islamist faction) has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground troupe component, consisting of around 50000 forces has since been implemented. Thus far the effort has had some successes, the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south. However Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many Northern regions. Moreover, it is unlikely that these will be dislodged easily as Houthi influence in Yemen is largely a result of disillusionment with Yemeni politics and opposition to Saudi meddling in the country; the Houthis have strong institutional bases and grassroot support in Northern provinces such as Sada.
It is noteworthy that Salman’s renewed relations with participatory Islamists constitutes tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Erdogan and the previous Emir of Qatar (Hamed bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision is more a result of the kingdom’s belief that the group has been weakened and now poses no real threat to the regime. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these participatory Islamists possess some influence regionally and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS.
US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.
The regime’s lingering long-term fears of participatory Islamists can be observed in its treatment of Sisi’s Egypt. Despite Salman’s dislike for Sisi –it is reliably reported that Sisi sought to ensure that Salman was bypassed and power transferred to Muqrin after Abdullah’s death, even endorsing the use of Egyptian forces if necessary. Although Sisi has been dismissive of Gulf regimes and their willingness to fund the coup, the Kingdom still maintains relations with Sisi and has not sought to engage closely with the Muslim Brotherhood. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to that of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action such as what occurred in Yemen.
Further, US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession. The administration was likely given little warning about the then impending Saudi intervention in Yemen in March 2015 and was likewise not informed about Nimr’s execution. The US had however retroactively supported the Yemen intervention, providing logistical and armament support to Saudi coalition forces, and securing a United Nations Security Council resolution (2216) endorsing the intervention.
However, during Obama’s term, this was informed more by the US’s need to placate the Kingdom in light of the Iranian nuclear deal. President Trump seems to signal a change, reinforcing support to Saudi forces in Yemen, and vowing to implement tougher measures against Iran. Further, the administration’s proposed ban on citizens travelling to the country does not include Saudi Arabia, but encompasses Iranians. although these moves can be seen as a convergence, US and Saudi regional interests still deviate, especially in light of Trump’s intent to provide priority to East Asia, specifically China, and his stance on shrinking the US’s military.
Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and re-prioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and especially Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon. In Syria, the only reason the December 2016 ceasefire has largely held is because Saudi Arabia had been sidelined ,while Turkey, a fellow regional heavyweight with a direct presence on the ground, is a guarantor together with Russia. Political talks to negotiate a transitional agreement are however proving more difficult, owing to the Assad regime’s strengthened position and increased demands from Iran.
Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon.
This will ensure that the Kingdom continues its support to rebel groups, especially if Hezbollah and Shia militia groups are permitted to continue operating in the country. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which is increasingly resembling a regional Cold War. Already in Yemen for example, since the Saudi intervention, over eighty percent of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance, up from sixty per cent prior to the intervention; fifteen million people don’t have access to healthcare and twenty-one million don’t access to clean water, up fifty-two percent from before the intervention; and ten governorates are on the verge of experiencing famine.
Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. Balancing is more informed by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE for example is more fearful of domestic participatory Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, wherein the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has blamed it for much of the country’s problems, refusing to finance and arm it and preferring to make use of Emirati troupes and private contractors instead.
Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. Dubai and Oman have important economic ties with the Islamic republic, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars/North Dome GAS field. All three of these refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with the Islamic republic while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, and thus offered to play a mediating role between Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite the Erdogan regime’s continued opposition to the Islamic republic’s interests in Syria.
Second, the drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. 2015 saw the oil price drop by over thirty-five per cent from its 2014 level, and this trend has to date continued in 2016 despite the strong Saudi-Iranian tensions. The Kingdom, which relies on oil income for between seventy-seven and eighty-eight per cent of government revenue has thus been forced to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic social programmes. This has caused its reserves to drop from around 735 billion dollars in 2014 to around 623 billion by the end of 2015, and the budget deficit for 2016 stood at seventy-nine billion, ensuring that the kingdom will need to make use of more of its reserves.
The drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states.
Levies on petrol and gas have increased by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent respectively and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value added tax with income tax soon to follow by 2018. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the Kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime in Egypt.
Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the 15-24 year old group stands at over thirty per cent and around two-thirds of the country is aged under thirty.
Opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest
The 2016 budget allocated around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services, however much more will need to be implemented, including finding employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. It is argued that this is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammed (thirty-one) and the relatively young Mohammed bin Nayef (fifty-seven) as deputy crown prince and crown prince respectively. The Kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes. David Hurst thus argues that the other fourty-five executed with Nimr in January 2016 was a sign aimed at domestic dissenters. Most of these comprised Al-Qaida linked militants, some of whom had been on death row since 2004. Executing them at this juncture when levies and taxes are increasing is meant to illustrate that rebellion against the monarch would not be tolerated.
Things however can change quickly. The region is currently in flux, the chances for miscalculations are abound, especially in terms of further regional upheaval. The increasing regional interference of Russia is worrisome in this regard, especially as the country moves to fill the gap in Egypt and more overtly supports Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince was not unanimously endorsed by the allegiance council. This may pose problems, especially were the king to suddenly be unable to govern. Mohammed bin Salman, who currently acts as a de-facto prime minister and is largely in charge of the countries defence policy, is viewed as lacking the capacity and credentials for such a high office by some within the royal family. His appointment was seen as risky and informed more by his proximity to his father than his ability to govern.
Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is seen by most in the royal family as legitimate, does not fully agree with some of the policies adopted by the deputy Crown Prince, especially those concerning Yemen, and may thus act to freeze him out of political office once he ascends to the helm. This would most likely lead to a rethink in Saudi foreign policy and the means best suited for its achievement. However for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.
* Ebrahim Deen is a senior researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre.
* This article was first published by Open Democracy on 20 February 2017.
By Afro-Middle East
The accession to the throne of Salman Bin Abdulaziz has led to a reprioritisation of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. The rise of the Islamic State group (IS) and resurgence of Iran are now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of democratic/participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with like-minded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters, such as youth unemployment, will increasingly force the regime to look inward in the struggle for regime survival.
History and foreign policy impetuses
Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the Saudi kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought and took the form of partnerships with the United Kingdom and the USA. These partnerships, together with its vast oil wealth, have enabled it to grow in strength. From the mid-2000s, Riyadh has acted more as a regional hegemon and deployed its financial and military power in the pursuit of its national interest. Although foreign policy in the kingdom is an elite-driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses disproportional influence. Domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.
Foreign policy during Abdullah’s era
Under Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia aggressively increased and diversified its bilateral relations. In 2006 and 2007 alone, Abdullah visited China, Russia, India and Pakistan. These visits were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state-sponsored discrimination. Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.
The MENA uprisings
The kingdom, however, maintained warm relations with the USA, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam had enabled Iran to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the US’s role in enabling this; Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies. The kingdom felt that the USA betrayed Mubarak, and that the US would take a similar stance if Abdullah were in that position. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were democratic Islamists. Riyadh views these groups as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior MB figures refused to support its role during the 1990–91 Gulf War.
Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013, even when Bashar al-Asad was alleged to have used chemical weapons. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase its regional and global influence. This is especially since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hizbullah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of its holding of elections. The kingdom was especially angered at not being informed about the initial US–Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future US support.
Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive and independent foreign policy. First, it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over seven hundred billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and successfully provided funding to withstand protests. The kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Hamid regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command and shared Gulf police force.
Second, Riyadh sought to reverse the successes gained by Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through supporting former regime officials, together with the UAE and Kuwait, to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, the Morsi regime was overthrown and replaced by former military head Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party in light of Islah’s links to the MB, and Saudi–Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining democratic Islamists. This culminated in the March 2014 decision, adopted by Gulf states, declaring the MB a terrorist organisation and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. Even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran by removing the Assad regime, which is closely allied to the Islamic republic. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition groups sought to distinguish between Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, supporting the latter.
Abdullah’s death: change of course?
Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. This resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the Brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole was not viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE.
The Iranian nuclear deal and rise of IS have been key influences in these decisions. The kingdom views these threats as posing a greater threat to it than that of democratic Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence.
IS on the other hand has been active in Saudi Arabia, claiming bombings on mosques frequented by Shi'a and special forces. Further, the group’s leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime because of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward more democratic Islamists, with leaders from Ennahda, Hamas and the Islamic Action Front all visiting Saudi Arabia in 2015. It has also re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party. Further, the kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm opposition groups in Syria, while in December it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni, countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic – even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus, and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troops fighting IS. In addition, in January 2016, the kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an unsuccessful attempt to stall the improving relations between Iran and Western states.
Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s reprioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were part of a ten-member Saudi-led coalition and were without initial US endorsement. The Yemeni Islah party has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground force, consisting of around 5 000 troops has since been deployed. Thus far the effort has had some successes; the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south and in recent weeks has been gaining ground in and around Sana’a. However, Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many northern regions, and will be difficult to dislodge in light of their institutional links and grass-roots support.
Salman’s renewed relations with democratic Islamists constitute tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Turkey’s president (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and the previous emir of Qatar (Hamid bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision to re-engage democratic Islamists is more the result of Riyadh’s belief that these groups have been weakened and no longer pose an immediate threat to the regime’s survival. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these Islamists possess some influence regionally, and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to those of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties, and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action. Further, US–Saudi relations have largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.
Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and reprioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen peace talks scheduled for January have already been postponed indefinitely, while the Munich truce between the Syrian regime and opposition fighters is already proving difficult to implement. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which increasingly resembles a regional cold war.
Foreign policy constraints
Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. The balance of power is influenced more by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE, for example, is more fearful of domestic Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, where the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has thus refused to finance and arm the party. Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. The UAE and Oman have important economic ties with Iran, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars / North Dome gas field. All three of these countries refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, especially since Ankara now has tense relations with Russia, and has thus offered to play a mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the Erdogan regime’s opposition to Iran’s interests in Syria.
Second, the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas prices will impede the kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. The price drop has even meant that it has had to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic programs, causing these to drop by over a hundred billion in 2015 alone. Riyadh has increased levies on petrol and gas by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent, respectively, and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value-added tax with income tax soon to follow. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime.
Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However, issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the fifteen to twenty-four year old group stands at over thirty per cent, and around two-thirds of the country is under thirty. The 2016 budget allocates around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services; however, much more will need to be done, including providing employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. This is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammad bin Salman (aged thirty) and the relatively young Muhammad bin Nayef (aged fifty-six) as deputy crown prince and crown prince, respectively. The kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult, especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes.
Things however can change quickly, and chances for miscalculations abound, especially in light of the complex regional and international alliances involved. Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the allegiance council did not unanimously endorse the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as deputy crown prince and de facto prime minister. However, for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.