King Salman’s 2015 accession to the throne and the subsequent appointment of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as Crown Prince ushered in a period of unprecedented change in Saudi Arabia. This “tsunami” provoked polarized reactions, confounding many foreign observers while delighting, if not occasionally overwhelming, Saudis themselves.
The myriad challenges associated with restructuring the monarchy while simultaneously tackling extraordinary socioeconomic reforms and urgent foreign policy challenges have been accompanied by inevitable breakdowns in communication and occasional missteps in execution. This has disquieted friends and delighted foes and led many to assume the absence of a coherent plan built on sound strategic thinking. This is an entirely mistaken view.
In the foreign policy arena, a careful reading suggests that the new Saudi doctrine is based on three strategies: strengthening its military, reevaluating its alliances, and aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism.
For decades, Saudi Arabia relied on checkbook diplomacy, quiet mediation, secret agreements, and US guarantees to secure its foreign policy aims. Saudi leaders funneled billions in aid to friends, many of whom used that money to bankroll their own agendas (or line their own pockets), while delivering little in return. Attempts to buy off enemies often failed or backfired. Neighbors cast aside secret agreements signed in good faith. And US guarantees became less reliable and less credible.
Extraordinary geopolitical change accompanied these disappointments. The 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed a wave of Iranian expansionism, and the chaos created by the 2011 Arab Spring accelerated it. The Obama administration decided to withdraw US forces from Iraq, announced its pivot toward Asia, and failed to fulfill its “redline” pledge after Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his own people. Unchallenged by American might, Iran tightened its grip on Lebanon, took control of Iraq and Syria, infiltrated Yemen, backed insurgents in Bahrain, and trained and supplied terror cells in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
In light of this new reality, the King and the Crown Prince concluded that Saudi Arabia could no longer rely on outdated policies if they wished to successfully confront these rapidly growing threats.
Strengthening the Military
With the era of pax Americana in the Middle East seemingly ending, Saudi rulers have moved to rapidly build up a military that does not overly rely on the United States and is capable of meeting both Iranian and jihadist threats.
With some exceptions, today’s Saudi military is, in many ways, a holdover from the parade ground army of the 1960s. In the aftermath of midcentury Egyptian and Iraqi military coup d’états, the Kingdom designed its military to be a predominantly symbolic force, incapable of mounting a takeover of the government. The United States, in turn, guaranteed the defense of the Saudi state in exchange for secure oil supplies and massive arms purchases. The armed forces were also meant to inspire loyalty by providing employment for ordinary citizens and senior positions for society’s grandees. Sadly, this patronage system also provided opportunities for tremendous corruption.
The Kingdom learned hard lessons during its first conflict with the Houthis in 2009–2010, where the Saudi military performed poorly. In response to this, Riyadh has sought to strengthen its armed forces by urgently enhancing its special forces capabilities, upgrading training across the board, localizing military production, reforming the military bureaucracy, and seeking out new sources of arms. Improved relations with Russia, for example, have allowed Saudi Arabia to diversify its arms and equipment purchases and has also augmented the Kingdom’s influence over global oil prices.
Despite these efforts, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a did not provide the Kingdom with adequate time to complete the restructuring of its armed forces. However, real combat experience gained from the Yemeni conflict has provided the Saudi military, as war inevitably does, with invaluable data on its performance. The sustained air campaign, for example, exposed deficiencies in the Kingdom’s precision bombing capabilities, which it is now working to improve. Changes such as this will inevitably take time to fully implement.
The second component of the strategy is to reevaluate existing bilateral and multilateral relationships by ensuring that the Kingdom’s “allies” hold up their end of the agreement.
To do this, the Kingdom began by focusing on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), its core regional security and economic alliance. Within the GCC, the recently improved Saudi-UAE cooperative security effort has acted as a force multiplier, augmenting the bloc’s ability to take collective action, as it did in Yemen. It has also empowered the organization to address internal threats, most notably by imposing a boycott to end two decades of Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, political dissidents, subversive media campaigns against neighboring states, and attempts to co-opt (by buying off) Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini military, government, and religious officials, all of which the Kingdom and its allies saw as undermining their security and stability.
Outside the GCC, the Kingdom has moved to rebalance its relationships with Egypt and Lebanon. For decades, Saudi Arabia’s influence over these states was built on checkbook diplomacy, with an increasingly insignificant return on investment.
Following the 2013 coup against the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood regime, Riyadh poured over $25 billion into Egypt. After Egypt had received this bailout, a 2014 leaked audio exchange caught Egyptian leaders speaking derisively of Saudi aid and Saudis as “having money like rice.” In addition, many of Cairo’s policies seemed designed to demonstrate Egypt’s independence from, rather than deliver political support to, its ally. Cairo’s vote in favor of a 2016 Russian-backed Security Council resolution on Syria that was strongly opposed by the Kingdom is one such example. Because of these actions, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended an agreement to supply Cairo with over seven hundred thousand tons of refined petroleum products per month in late 2016. Rice, it seems, would no longer be plentiful.
The same logic seems to have influenced the Kingdom’s recent approach toward Lebanon. In 2013, the late King Abdullah earmarked $3 billion to support the Lebanese Armed Forces. After many in Riyadh objected to the funding of an army they saw as heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah in a state “captured” by Hezbollah, the new Saudi leadership rescinded this offer in 2016.
More recently, Lebanese leaders’ aggressive lobbying of the US Congress to “soften” sanctions against Hezbollah vindicated those who increasingly believed that when forced to choose between Saudi dollar diplomacy and an Iran that assassinates those who cross them, as it did with Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Beirut would take Saudi money but prioritize appeasing Tehran. The younger Hariri’s shocking resignation in Riyadh suggests that Saudi Arabia is signaling to Lebanon’s political class (and possibly the state) that they risk their political and financial relationships with the Kingdom if their actions (or inaction) continue to provide political cover and international legitimacy for Hezbollah.
Aggressively Confronting Iranian Expansionism
As Iran’s shadow grew and America’s footprint shrank, Saudi leaders concluded that the Kingdom would need to shift from a reactive to a proactive foreign policy posture when it came to dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Following the 2011 Bahraini uprising and the 2014 Houthi seizure of Sana’a, aggressively confronting Iranian expansionism became a strategic imperative in the Kingdom’s “near abroad.” But whereas Iran could rely on exploiting sectarian fault lines in order to create deadly proxies, the Kingdom had no such capabilities (its one attempt to emulate the Iranian model in Syria was an unmitigated failure). Saudi Arabia therefore needed to turn to multilateral military force to complement its soft power capabilities.
While a Saudi military intervention successfully helped deter an insurgency in Bahrain, Yemen’s mountainous terrain and size, and the considerable capabilities of its Iran-allied Houthi militias, posed a far more dangerous threat. Although it has been widely argued that Saudi Arabia’s foray into Yemen was based on the erroneous belief that the Houthis would quickly cave under a lightning “shock and awe” air campaign, this assertion is incorrect. On the contrary, the Saudis recognized that the Houthis had acquitted themselves well during their first war against them without the full support of Hezbollah and Iran. In the years hence, Iran dramatically increased arms shipments to, and Hezbollah accelerated its training of, Houthi forces. In addition, the Kingdom understood that fighting a guerrilla force swimming, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, among the civilian population would be a long, arduous, and messy process.
With the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah working hard to upgrade Houthi capabilities, Riyadh concluded that war now was preferable to war later; even if the cost to Yemen (and Saudi Arabia) was high, it would be far higher if the Kingdom waited. Striking now would also clearly communicate to the Houthis and the world that the Kingdom would not tolerate the emergence of a new Hezbollah on its southern border with thousands of ballistic missiles aimed at Saudi cities.
In contextualizing the Saudi response, it is important to recall that the Kingdom reached this crisis point at a time when the regional credibility of the United States was at its nadir. In addition to the United States’ Asia pivot and failure to follow through on its “redline” pledge in Syria, the Obama administration sent clear signals that, post-JCPOA, the Kingdom would have to “carry its own water” and learn to “share the region” when it came to Iran.
While the Americans did ultimately provide refueling and limited targeting support to the Saudi air campaign, the Kingdom also secured the backing of six other nations, most importantly the UAE, to prevent the Iranians from succeeding in Sana’a.
Outside the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh has been strategic in choosing where and how to confront Iran. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia opted to push back against Iranian influence by engaging nationalist leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and exploring opportunities to engage with the Abadi government by opening the Arar border crossing to pilgrims and commerce. The Kingdom has also ended its support where the cost was no longer justified. For example, in Syria, Riyadh stopped sending weapons and supplies when it became clear that the fractious opposition could not unseat Assad and was becoming increasingly dominated by radical jihadists.
Admittedly, the Kingdom’s execution of all these plans could have been handled better. Riyadh did not clearly broadcast its intentions, provide sufficient context or background for its actions, or effectively communicate its aims. As a result, the Kingdom’s moves appeared sudden and haphazard, unnecessarily rattling friends and allies. Also, the Kingdom could have done a better job anticipating some of the unintended consequences of its new policies. While these missteps did serious damage to Riyadh’s public relations image, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia lacks a well thought out strategy or that its strategy is an unsound one.
While critics have been unable to resist pronouncing any Saudi initiative that does not produce instantaneous success a disastrous failure, Saudi leaders are instead operating on a longer timeline and do not expect immediate results.
In Qatar, the Saudis can afford to wait, as the boycott imposes far less of an economic cost on the Kingdom and its allies than it does on Doha. In Lebanon, Riyadh can put Beirut’s valuable ties to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their allies at risk, gradually increasing the price Lebanon’s political class pays for providing political cover to Hezbollah. And in Yemen, the Kingdom can wait for the opposition to splinter, the recent collapse of the Houthi-Saleh alliance being one such fracture. Riyadh is also learning from its mistakes. It has taken steps to be more proactive in tackling Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and has improved coordination with some international relief agencies.
For the Saudi leadership, the bottom line was that the cumulative effect of Iranian expansion and US inaction demanded that the Kingdom simultaneously tackle multiple foreign policy challenges quickly and decisively. This approach led to some tactical mistakes that disquieted and confused friends and provided fuel to critics. But for the Kingdom’s leadership, these missteps are a small price to pay if one believes, as Saudi leaders clearly do, that inaction would have put the country in the position of the proverbial frog sitting in a pot of tepid water that is slowly being brought to a boil.