New Saudi King to Pursue Security-Based Policies

Saturday, February 14, 2015

No Outlook for Major Change on the Horizon

Reza Ekhtiari Amiri
Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Mazandaran &
Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

In an overview, the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia has gone through tumultuous seas under the rule of the country’s former King Abdullah. The effort that Saudi Arabia put into establishing its desirable order in the region and Riyadh’s endeavors to maintain the balance of regional powers all served to increase tensions in Saudi Arabia’s relations with certain regional states, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, and major rifts appeared in bilateral relations between the two countries. Also, Riyadh’s insistence on taking hostile positions on certain issues, especially Iran's nuclear issue, even overshadowed relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States and prompted Saudi leader to use a sharper tone against its most important strategic partner. Such a tone from Saudi officials has almost had no precedent in the past years.

However, it seems that the new Saudi king is trying to take somehow different approaches toward certain foreign policy issues. Among predictable and also important changes that should be anticipated in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is a change toward improvement in relations between this Arab country and the United States in the near future. This issue mostly has its roots in Western-minded tendencies of King Salman as well as his firm belief in the superior position of the United Nations in global equations. In addition, the new leader of Saudi Arabia is well aware of his country’s political, military and security needs and requirements and, as a result, he knows how much his country needs Washington on its side. Therefore, the revival of traditional relations with Saudi Arabia’s age-old and longstanding partner in addition to promoting positive interactions with Washington are now considered to be directly in line with the national interests of Saudi Arabia by the country’s new king.

The warm welcome accorded to President Barack Obama upon his arrival at Riyadh airport, as well as a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by the US Senator John McCain at the head of a seven-member group of American Republican senators, can be also construed along the same lines. The sure point is that Saudi Arabia will continue its policies in the face of popular and democratic uprisings in its peripheral environment such as Bahrain and Yemen and will take dynamic and unwavering positions on such developments. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a totalitarian and conservative government. As a result, new political developments in the region are considered as a serious security threat against the pillars of the Al Saud government and Riyadh will spare no effort to fight them.

On the other hand, given the drastic fall in global oil prices during the past months and the monoculture state of Saudi economy, this variable can play a determining part in setting the general direction of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Of course, it is possible for Riyadh to lose part of its appetite for adventurism in the region due to continued oil price slump. If this happened, one could expect Saudi Arabia to reduce its material support for the militants fighting against the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria. The resistance shown by Assad’s government during the past four years and remarkable victories gained by the Syrian troops in their fight against Takfiri opposition groups have proved beyond any doubt that continuation of armed struggle against the Syrian government will bring nothing to Saudi Arabia but increased costs.

This comes in spite of the fact that King Salman has been putting special emphasis on the welfare and happiness of his country’s citizens and has been apparently trying to boost his government’s domestic legitimacy by providing people with more welfare. In doing so, he has been also trying to stifle all possible forms of domestic opposition and reformist tendencies. This is why the new king has ordered payment of two months equivalent of salaries to civil servants, university students, pensioners, and all people covered by social insurance as well as those with physical disabilities. He has also allocated 20 billion Saudi rials in aid to support the country’s water and electricity sectors and release prisoners. In other words, the government of Saudi Arabia has been in fact able to work with other oil producing countries to increase global oil prices. However, under the present circumstances when the global oil market is stagnant, further spending of petrodollars on developments in some regional countries, including Syria, will have no other benefit for Saudi Arabia and, therefore, will not be logical. This is true because such a move can face the Saudi government with more problems in its annual budget and draw down the country’s foreign exchange reserves. In addition, the recent terrorist attacks in France have caused the Western countries, in toto, to put more pressure on Saudi Arabia in order to join the fight against Takfiri terrorist groups.

However, the future approach to be taken by new rulers in Riyadh toward the ongoing developments in Egypt and Syria will be quite different. Pursuant to the dominant trend in recent years and in view of the special and influential position that Egypt holds in the Arab world, new policymakers in Saudi Arabia will continue to support the government that has arisen from a military coup in Egypt. In doing so, they will also spare no effort to fight the Muslim Brotherhood and the political Islam. In fact, from the viewpoint of Saudi Arabia, the revival of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt would amount to the loss of an old strategic neighbor in the region. It would also mean a major rift in solidarity and unity of the regional Sunni front. Both these changes would be unpleasant for Saudi Arabia. In addition, the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power in Egypt can encourage similar movements elsewhere in the region.

The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia is also expected to follow the past behavioral models with regard to Persian Gulf region. Since Saudi Arabia considers itself as the unofficial leader of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC], the country will certainly try to regulate general policies of the Council and maintain its control over this security institution despite internal oppositions from some member states.

In the meantime, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two natural regional rivals, will remain influenced by two important factors. The first factor is traditional, especially Wahhabi, tendencies of King Salman, which form the fundaments of his thought and ideology. In this regard, his continued insistence on maintaining all the radical principles and components of Wahhabism can pave the way for the intensification of the existing ideological conflicts between the two countries. The second factor is structural requirements of the Middle East region which arise from new geopolitical conditions in the region. Developments that have taken place in this region during the past few years and different approaches taken by Iran and Saudi Arabia to those developments have caused the two countries’ interests to come to loggerheads. As a result of such serious differences and with the establishment of a general atmosphere of mutual threats, diplomatic relations between the two countries have practically hit a brick wall. Despite all these developments, the possibility should be taken into account that as regional equations change, so will the understanding of political elites in two countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, and the two countries will see a new period of détente in their relations.

On the whole, it could be said that given the powerful role of security and all issues related to it in determining the decision-making process in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, the general framework of the country’s past policies will be mostly maintained in the short term. In other words, although slight changes are possible over certain issues, King Salman will continue the past policies. If seen realistically, one can presume that under the existing circumstances, regional variables play a more important role compared to bilateral issues in determining the foreign policy approaches of Saudi Arabia. As a result, the behavior of the country’s new leaders will remain influenced by extraterritorial variables.

Key Words: New Saudi King, Security-Based Policies, Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, United States, Global Equations, President Barack Obama, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy, Takfiri Opposition, King Salman, Political Islam, Muslim Brotherhood, Ekhtiari Amiri

Source: The Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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*Photo Credit: The Guardian

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