Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy and its Security Challenges

At the end of the month of March 2014, President Obama made a quick trip to Saudi Arabia after having met America’s allies in Europe in discussing the Ukrainian Crisis and the annexation of Crimea by Moscow. The hyperbolic rhetoric on European and American sides in comparing and linking Putin’s foreign policy to Nazi expansionism in the 1930s brought echoes of a new cold war and conflict in Europe. It was during this period that the perennial problems of the Middle East and the security challenges posed by terrorism and regional wars in the Middle East had been forgotten briefly. The visit by president Obama was to reassure its main Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, that the US had not forgotten the area.

Saudi Arabia’s quest for security in the last three decades have seen a primary confrontation with the rising power of Iran and its regional allies in Lebanon and Syria and the attempt to contain Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Persian Gulf. The second and equally important Saudi concern has been a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while a more immediate concern in the last three years was the Syrian civil war as one of the conclusive chapters of the so-called Arab Spring that had seen the rise of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the defenestration of President Mubarak’s regime. He had been a steady reassurance for Saudi security, however when the Arab Spring began, the Saudi perception of Washington’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the humiliation of President Mubarak in Egypt rankled Saudi leadership.

The Election of a new president in Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and American and European diplomatic opening toward Tehran regarding the Ayatollahs quest for nuclear weapons had alarmed the Saudis to the extent that their top leadership had even approached the Israelis to encourage a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear installations. The opening with Iran was taking place as the Syrian civil war saw an emboldened Iran protecting Assad’s regime against an opposition that had been aided and abetted by the Sunni world principally Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. By March of 2014 however, it seemed as if Iranian military advisors and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon had been able to stop the Sunni and Islamist radical attempt to seize Damascus. The Saudi support for the Sunni opposition to Assad’s rule derived from the close alliance of Damascus with Tehran which had basically become an example of Iran creating client states and rulers in the Levant as its power expanded even in Iraq as Tehran came to increasingly influence Iraqi politics due to its Shiite connection to the new government in Baghdad.

The civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and Iranian contribution to instability in Bahrain created critical and strategic concerns in Riyadh to the extent that American reassurance was sorely needed and in fact Obama promised not to agree to a nuclear deal with Tehran if the deal did not put a stop to Iranian nuclear ambitions. It has often been forgotten that regardless of Iranian claims for a peaceful pursuit of nuclear power, the Ayatollahs were busy building long range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads and certainly were not to be equipped for just conventional warheads. In the months following the opening between Washington and Tehran, Iran began a charm offensive in the Gulf in trying to reassure members of the Gulf Cooperation Council of its peaceful intentions, this is while vitriolic denunciations of the Zionist entity and calls for the destruction of the state of Israel were routine pronouncements by the Ayatollahs in seeking support from Radical Shiite fundamentalists within Iran itself.

Saudi’s foreign policies should be understood in terms of not only immediate regional threats, but of domestic developments that range from demands for increasing political participation by the Saudi population, increasing social freedoms for women, and economic policies to favor the replacement of foreign workers by Saudi nationals, a policy that had yet to bear any fruits. Riyad was also confronted by the presence of a Shiite minority in the eastern regions where Saudi oil extraction was concentrated and where Saudi fundamentalist Wahabi doctrine perceived Shiites as pagan and heretics.

There was a second front that challenged the Saudi leadership but has not received and does not receive much academic focus, and that is political violence and instability in Yemen where Shiite groups in the north and al-Qaeda radical sympathizers in the South challenge the government in Sa’ana. In fact, Yemen had seen also an Arab spring chapter where the long lasting president, Ali Abdullah Saleh had been forced to resign in November of 2011. Yemen’s exploding population and unemployment were certainly not conducive to political stability in southern Arabia as the Ayatollahs in Tehran were fishing for challenges to Saudi power by supporting Iranian leaning minorities in Yemen, principally the Houthis an offshoot of Shiism. Thus, Saudi Arabia saw itself surrounded by Persian sympathizers whose religious beliefs were considered anathema by the Wahabi establishment that considered itself and Saudi Arabia the purest example of what Islam is supposed to be.

Meanwhile, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, as he was trying to deal with Moscow and the European Union, was trying to negotiate again the restart of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two state solution, one that could have diffused one of the historic problems of the Middle East and had been a catalyst for rationalizing the failures of the political systems of the area.

Saudi ruler’s legitimacy derives principally by their claim on protecting Mecca and Medina as the sacred sites of Islam. In this quest, any challenge to Wahabi legitimacy by Shiite powers is a mortal danger to the monarchical establishment in Riyadh. Thus, Iran is the main security dilemma in the international relations of Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the profound antipathy and objection to the reality of an Israeli state and Zionism have been part and parcel of the Saudi political, popular, and populist worldview in buttressing a political, national, and religious identity held together by enormous oil revenues, American security guarantees, and religious inspired social and political repression in domestic politics.

President Obama reassured Saudi rulers after his short visit that America’s commitment to security in the area was not going to decrease. In fact, by the end of 2013, the United States had agreed to provide Saudi Arabia and the Emirates with over 10 billion dollars worth of new weapons to counter Iranian security threats that were being compounded by Saudi quarrels with Qatar that was being denounced for its support of radical Islamists and Turkey that were perceived by Riyadh as being a threat to Saudi ambitions.

The Saudi rulers were thus confronted by the hegemonic aspirations of Erdogan’s regime, Persian-Shiite imperialist ambitions, and radical Sunni Islamist groups that were and are challenging every regime in the Arab world. Washington had thus come to reassure Riyadh that the United States was there. The Syrian crisis was seen more and more as a victory for Iran, thus confronting Saudi Arabia and some of her allies with ever-greater anxiety of Iran’s attempt to gain hegemony in the Gulf and the Fertile Crescent. One of the main pillars of the Saudi foreign and defense policy is the Gulf Cooperation Council, however by the time of Obama’s visit, Qatar and Kuwait were not in tune with the perspectives of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and of course Saudi Arabia. Obama’s visit was part of the configuration of American diplomacy as Washington attempted to move from the Middle East to the Far East in confronting trade and security in the most dynamic area of the international system with a rising China challenging Japan and other Asian countries.