The pitfalls of emerging Saudi foreign policy

Saudi Arabia hopes to retain its regional status.

August 26, 2017 22:27
The pitfalls of emerging Saudi foreign policy

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (L), UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan (C-L), Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (C-R), and Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa meet to discuss the diplomatic situation with Qatar, in Cairo, Egypt, July 5, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Reports are surfacing which suggest Saudi Arabia is attempting to scale back its policy of resurgent hostility toward Iran. Indeed, some media outlets are raising the prospect of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. Particularly noteworthy are the leaked emails between US national security experts and the UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba. The changing tenor seems to suggest a change in tactics from Saudi Arabia with respect to Iran.

The leaked emails point to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman’s willingness to extricate the kingdom from its ongoing conflict with Yemen. The Saudi leader allegedly holds this opinion despite the fact that it was his insistence that initiated the war with Yemen following the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and the removal of the Western and Gulf Cooperation Council-backed government. This war was the young leader’s first opportunity to push back against Iranian-backed Shi’ite expansion in the Gulf. Interestingly, Otaiba notes that bin-Salman is willing to let the US continue engaging with Iran, as long as it is coordinated with Saudi Arabia.

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Separately, Saudi Arabia has apparently succeeded in peeling influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr away from Iran, with the latter’s call for the demobilization of Shi’ite militias long seen as one of the sources of civil war following the demise of Saddam Hussein.

Sadr has gone on to make numerous appearances throughout the Gulf Arab countries to signal his willingness to disband these militias, a step largely in line with Saudi policy for rolling back support among regional groups for Iran. Overall Saudi lambasting of Iran has retreated in the past several weeks, with overtures inviting Iranian pilgrims to sacred Shi’ite locations in the kingdom.

The actions appear to carry the hallmarks of a coordinated foreign policy change. The policy appears to consist of de-escalation in military adventurism combined with carrots for sympathetic Shi’ite groups in strategic locations in the Middle East, obviously beginning with Iraq. But why the change of tactics, especially from a newly minted crown prince who came to power by deposing the previously designated heir and who has demonstrated a strong willingness to pursue a more adventurist and aggressive foreign policy? First, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has failed. Starting the war when he was defense minister may have helped bolster bin-Salman’s profile, but now that he is the heir, with an active domestic and international portfolio, the crown prince wants nothing to do with his failed actions. Second, with Russia clearly besting the US in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s policy of working to destabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad – again, tied to countering Iran’s outpost in the Arab world – has failed. The Saudi/UAE -led blockade of Qatar, another product of bin-Salman’s adventurism, has yielded no significant returns. On the contrary, the anti-Qatar bloc seems to be lifting their policies of isolation. The US decided to stay out of the fray, and with US military interests tied up in Qatar, the Saudi blockade policy was unlikely to generate the anticipated results.

Muhammad bin-Salman is coming to terms with the fact that Saudi Arabia does not have the ability to deal with Iran militarily, nor will it acquire those abilities in the short to medium term.

Acquiring military technology is one thing, acquiring the expertise to fight a war against a country which has spent decades on a war footing, particularly with respect to paramilitary operations and capacity building, is quite another. Furthermore, US military leaders are increasingly wary of opening new fronts. Quite the opposite, they are trying to end the wars that the US has been fighting for over 15 years. Bin-Salman understands that his aggressive policies are useless without full US commitment.

The new crown prince is coming to the realization that so many adventurist Arab leaders have confronted in the past: the Arab world lacks both unity and military capabilities. In particular, the Mashriq region – typically classified as all the Arab countries from Egypt to the Zagros boundary with Iran – is unable to pursue policies of any consequence with respect to military action.

Egypt is held together by a new dictator who would be toppled by another Arab Spring if it were to bubble to the surface; Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah, a longtime Saudi adversary; Syria is in tatters, although the Iranian- backed regime will survive; Jordan’s focus is exclusively on internal regime stability; Iraq muddles through the expected chaos of terrorism and political instability. Meanwhile, in the Gulf, Kuwait and Oman traditionally want nothing to do with radical policy shifts, Bahrain has no resources to muster for Saudi Arabia, while Yemen is controlled by an Iranian-back proxy.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE , hardly the foundation for an aggressive coalition.

The problem with this new approach is that co-opting one leader such as Muqtada al-Sadr, even if backed by the traditionally independent Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini al-Sistani, will likely not succeed in pulling Iraq out of Iran’s orbit. Iran has successfully integrated the southern Iraqi Shi’ites, who suffered heavily at the hands of Saddam Hussein, into Iran’s Shi’ite culture. Iran has invested in shrines, facilitated the flow of Arab and Iranian pilgrims back and forth across the border, and funded the militias in order to protect the Shi’ites in the civil war that ensued following the US invasion.

These are not the same conditions history witnessed in the Iran-Iraq war when Arab Shi’ites fought against Iranian Shi’ites. The two communities across the border are more united now, and therefore more willing to cooperate against radical Sunni monarchs.

Despite this, bin-Salman thinks Saudi Arabia can turn back the clock by investing in civilian infrastructure in Iraqi locations such as Najaf.

If Saudi Arabia cannot pursue a militaristic policy, and its soft diplomacy approach is too little, too late with respect to Iranian accomplishments in the region, what options are left? As North Korea is demonstrating, US tolerance for new military actions has waned. Environments in which military and civilian casualties would be high, and where interests are constrained by rising geopolitical powers, essentially remove US military options.

The only exception is if the enemy launches the first strike. Unfortunately, with respect to the Iran, short of the regime collapsing the US national security establishment will have to become more familiar with military operations.

This approach will have to include options involving both action targeting Iranian territory as well as “rolling back” Iranian paramilitary capabilities in the region. A viable starting point would be eliminating Iranian supply lines to Hezbollah and other militias in the region as well as taking facilitators off the shadow battlefield. The White House is focused on the immediate issue of its Afghanistan strategy. Similar effort should be made with respect to Iran, particularly after the showdown against North Korea. With the new political configuration in place in the Middle East, regional stability begins and ends with Iran.

The author has 15 years of experience studying and working in the Middle East and South Asia.

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