One of the powerful players in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia – has ran across some problems on Syria issue and consequently saw its leverage on Damascus drop dramatically. Riyadh has even given up the assistance rendered to the terrorist groups fighting in Syria. Moreover Saudi authorities are penalizing combatants leaving the country to fight abroad. According to the experts, Saudi Arabia is fearful of terrorism on its soil and this has provoked a new strategy.
Failures in regional policy: who is to blame?
Riyadh recently broke the silence. Experts now speculate about the possible shifts in Saudi Arabia’s regional policy but no particular changes are highlighted yet. For now, it is mere estimates and forecasts. Even some Syrian opposition figures are accusing the Saudis of “playing a double game” (see: Conference pour la paix en Syrie: le double jeu de l”arabie Saoudite / “Atlantico”, 31 January 2014).
In any case, experts agree that Saudi Arabia is gearing up for a new position, as the situation in Syria changes. One of the initial signals is the weakening of position of country’s intelligence and security chief Bandar Bin Sultan (see: Асгар Юсефи. Саудовская Аравия: смена стратегии или кадровая перестановка? “IRNA”, 19 February 2014).
The points is that B. Bin Sultan was not just dealing with the security and intelligence matters but also engaged the foreign policy problems. Negotiations held around the world and secured arrangements directly impacted Riyadh’s diplomatic agenda. This has changed. Apparently, B.Bin Sultan is held accountable for certain failures, with implications for the entire nation. Experts believe this aspect entailed significant curtailing of his authority (see: Виктор Михин. Саудовская Аравия: изменение внешней политики? / “Новое Восточное Обозрение”, 28 February 2014).
According to the Russian analyst, Sultan tried to “mock” Putin during his visit to Russia in 2013, but failed (see: previous source). Another argument is the failure of Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy. Iranian expert Yusefi believes that “sacking of Bandar Bin Sultan stemmed from his regional policy failure and fear of isolation, the country might have found itself in” (see: Асгар Юсефи. previous article).
Syria’s “Al-Watan” newspaper argues that removal of Prince Bandar from the political scene is connected with conflict of the former’s position with America’s strategic objectives in the region and more importantly, with his harsh criticism of Barack Obama. Furthermore, Moscow accused Riyadh of perpetrating terrorist acts in Syria and Russia, and Sultan was unable to mend the fences during the talks in Kremlin (see: previous source). Facts demonstrate that Bandar Bin Sultan’s dismissal from the position is associated with the matters of great geopolitical value for Riyadh. Presumably, Saudi Arabia is indeed preparing for some cardinal changes in its foreign policy. What “surprises” may this bring?
In general the analysts regard the Saudis “as notable actors in the region” (see: Dilek Yigit. Suudi Arabistani ve Katar Arasindaki Rekabetin Ortadogu’ya Yansimalari / “Stratejik Dusunce Enstitusu”, 12 February 2014), although Riyadh’s assuming of this status happened not without Washington’s great input. Therefore, Saudi Arabia finds itself in a predicament.
On one hand, the country regards views itself as a crucial player in the region. On the other hand, it has always felt the U.S. “breathing down its neck”. Riyadh has to coordinate its efforts with Washington on all the principal geopolitical issues. It is not incidental that B. Bin Sultan was sacked after the visit of Saudi Interior Minister Mohammad Bin Nayef to Washington. Rumors are that Nayef is now overseeing the country’s Syria policy. This implies that America is again seriously taking over the Saudi Arabia’s Middle East policy.
Features of new geopolitical course
As noted above, two factors may enable better understanding of new undertones of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Evidently, Riyadh is ready to revisit its foreign policy not just on the regional but also on the global scale. Thus, changes may come in its relations not just with the likes of Egypt, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, but also with the U.S., China, Russia, and the EU. Presumably, Saudi Arabia may reinvigorate efforts of restoring geopolitical clout on the region. Riyadh may attach particular significance to several aspects.
First, the Saudi Arabia may try to ameliorate relations with the U.S. Given the past record, the Saudis are not that powerful without Washington’s backing. Automatically, the ties with Israel must be overhauled because Riyadh became at odds with Israel over Syria and Palestine issues. Conversely, rapprochement with China took place, military cooperation has particularly thrived (see: Eyup Ersoy. Cin Dis Politikasinda Ortadogu: Temkin Diplomasisi Uzerinde Bir Inceleme / “Uluslararasi Hukuk ve Politika”, 2012, Vol. 8, Edit. 31, p. 37-55).
Second, Riyadh’s development of relations with Russia may be conditioned with many aspects in the wake of events in Ukraine. Syria factor will presumably play its significant role as well, because West-Russia tensions over Kiev cannot but affect the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine Saudi Arabia acting against the will of the U.S. and the EU. On top of that, the Kremlin blamed the Saudis for perpetrating terrorist attacks on Russian soil. This issue may gain urgency with the pullout of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Strengthening of Moscow on Ukraine and Syria issues may compel Saudi Arabia to rethink its position. It’s therefore, unlikely that Riyadh’s position in Russia direction will be articulate anytime soon.
Developments on China front may differ. Analyst Naser al-Tamimi characterizes China-Saudi Arabia relations not as “political-strategic” but rather “energy-economic” (see: Naser Al-Tamimi. China-Saudi Arabia Relations: Economic Partnership or Strategic Alliance? / HH Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah Publication Series, 2012, Edit.2, p.19). It is no secret that the official Beijing aims to gain geopolitical dividends from this economic cooperation. However, Washington is undoubtedly jealous and this jealousy may blur the outlines of China’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
Third, Saudi Arabia may engage in tougher competition with the regional players over the geopolitical clout. Differences with Qatar are already being speculated upon (see: Dilek Yigit. abovementioned article). This is more obvious on Syria, Iran and Egypt issues. For instance, Qatar’s presence is more pronounced in terms of supporting opposition fighter groups, while Saudis wield clout in the political segment. For this reason experts argue that both nations are nurturing “opposition of their own”.
On Iran, Riyadh’s position is more radical and irreconcilable. Even war is seen as one of the options. It is not incidental that the Saudis saw the rapprochement between the America and Iran as catastrophic. From now on, Saudi Arabia and Iran are forecasted to be locked in a fierce rivalry over the regional prominence. Although on the issue of Turkey the Saudis are yet to demonstrate any activity, Riyadh and Ankara are nevertheless expected to compete over the regional dominance.
The aforementioned signifies Saudi Arabia’s entering into a new phase in all the directions of its foreign policy. Still, constraints are caused by its ambitions to retain geopolitical relevance in the region. Riyadh stands at the beginning of the road and in the short-run the regional processes will serve as a litmus test of its success.