Saudi Arabia’s Quiet Policy Shift

Saudi Arabia feels kept in the dark and then demoted by the nuclear deal with Iran, and their major ally, the United States, was responsible.

saudi-arabia-policy-shiftThe result will be that a resurgent Iran, now better placed to exert influence in the region, is met with a more assertive Saudi foreign policy.

The official voice of the King tells us that he is happy with the Iran nuclear deal and Syrian compliance with the destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, and therefore the broader status quo of the international consensus.

But official lines are one thing, while manifestations of internal dynamics are another. The pro-American camp within the Saudi corridors of power has been silent and losing ground to the anti-American camp.

The recent visit of Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Russia to meet with President Putin is an indication that Saudi is no longer confident that the US is on its side. “Wake up,” was the message of former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal to President Barack Obama.

A quiet shift is underway. Prior to the US-Iran deal, the issue of Syria in particular has leveraged Saudi out of their comfort zone and into a hole for over two years.

In matters of foreign policy, Saudi Arabia’s conservative nature would always seek the public outcome of least resistance, one that would preserve the status quo. It took some doing to get Lebanon to remain intact following its destructive civil war – but it was Saudi Arabia that brokered an end to that civil war. And though there are still sectarian rivalries that leave the area a powder keg, the Saudi brokered peace deal was a foreign policy success, conducted conservatively and without fanfare.

Regarding the Syrian conflict, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal announced support for the Syrian opposition, and then subsequently called for the removal of President Assad. This is the first j’accuse aimed at a country other than Israel. The age-old tacit understanding among Arab strongmen – do not meddle in the affairs of others, lest they meddle in yours – ceased to be understood.

With the passing of many of the strongmen in the Middle East, it seemed as though the brave new tactic was to anchor yourself firmly to what you thought would be the winning side, but in doing so, exposing your heart and revealing your hand despite your gut-felt inclinations to do otherwise.

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Financially, politically and publicly, Saudi has placed itself in the middle of the so-called Arab Spring, and is now experiencing the consequences. But why did Saudi hedge their bets in this way, hitching themselves to the anti-Assad wagon? Was not Assad as the incumbent the likeliest bet, given he was the current leader with a large supportive army and powerful friends in the region?

Saudi started to show its hand for a number of reasons

Firstly, the climate in the region was one where countries, especially the powerful or those with pretensions, had no choice but to act in response to the prickly new politics of revolution and aspiration. Qatar was doing so, with tentacles stretching intensively across the Levant, North Africa, and right into the Sahel. And now, with surprisingly little comment given the unusualness of the situation, leadership has changed quietly and bloodlessly.

Secondly, in part at least, it is personal. The leaders and their supporters of both countries were not friends by any stretch.

Thirdly, in the search for sure footing in this new Middle East, Saudi has decided to rely on old friends for guidance – The United States. Of late, it has sharply come to regret this.

For Saudi Arabia, the release from their age-old protective shell of conservatism has meant what used to pass under the table is now firmly on the table top, scrutinised by all. And this is a deep and scouring culture change thrust upon them by realpolitik not strategic design, leaving them well out of their comfort zone.

All the while, my region’s discomfort zone expands yet further; this Yellow Brick Road does not lead to a happy ending. The shifting of alliances in the region is disturbing; after years of inaction, the four of the GCC States have announced the establishment of a long-awaited common currency, flocking together perhaps in the expectation that there is trouble ahead.

We are entering the next stage of revolutions. Who is next? The countries of the Arabian Peninsula, and Saudi in particular, are tense. Does all this mean Saudi is on the brink of a new direction, and a new process of unveiling?

Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdel Aziz is a London-based writer, journalist, humanitarian and businesswoman. Follow her on Twitter @princessbasmah

  • Maria Monteiro

    Informative, balanced and well nuanced article. Feels like the the first of a commentary series, and I wish it were/is. Keep them coming!