The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presided over an unprecedented decade of geopolitical activism and direct interventions across the Middle East, with very mixed results, creating new vulnerabilities. And that has bequeathed his successor, King Salman, a complex set of domestic and regional challenges in a world where all the previous pillars and constants of Saudi foreign policy have been turned on their head. That makes the kingdom’s regional posture difficult to predict.
Never before in its modern history did Saudi Arabia assert its regional agenda as openly and aggressively as it did after Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005. That assertiveness has been a response to setbacks in the three constant aims of Saudi policy in the Middle East: stability domestically and under its tutelage across the Gulf region, docility among citizens throughout the Arab world and restraint of Iranian influence, most importantly through an alliance with the United States that’s almost as old as the kingdom itself.
At home, Saudi Arabia has confronted a nagging strain of Salafist militancy since the takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca 35 years ago, which morphed into pockets of Al-Qaeda militants who attacked state targets and ultimately dispersed into allied organizations rooted in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The majority of ordinary Saudis have rejected this extremism and violence, but many have also rejected the total docility demanded by a system that denies citizens the right to speak out about public policy and citizens’ rights. Social media activism by Saudis is growing domestically and abroad, prompting draconian prohibitions and in some cases jailing and lashing of citizens who use the Internet to question or merely publicly debate official policy.
Elsewhere in the Gulf region, public protests in Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman and Web-based human rights activism elsewhere have shaken Saudi assumptions that the region is immune from citizen pressure for greater freedom of expression, public participation, human rights and government accountability. When protests broke out in Bahrain amid the Arab Spring in 2011, the Saudi leadership was so rattled that it took the unusual step of sending troops into Bahrain to support a crackdown.
That intervention marked a new season of Saudi regional assertiveness, as Abdullah sought to maintain the compliant, autocratic regional order that has defined the Arab world since the 1950s. The kingdom supported the Syrian opposition with arms, funds and training mainly to weaken the Syria-Iran axis and provided more than $10 billion to help shore up Egypt’s military-based regime ahead of the election of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. It regional goal has been to prevent Muslim Brotherhood rule or citizen-driven overthrows of autocratic Arab powers.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are not strategic threats to each other but political rivals that vie for clout elsewhere in the region. They have engaged vigorously in proxy battles, and in most of those contests — in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — Tehran’s allies have won. Riyadh has been fearful that a U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement would lift sanctions and boost Tehran’s economic and political potential, possibly challenging Saudi Arabia’s traditional dominant role among Middle Eastern states.
Perhaps the most intriguing facet of recent Saudi foreign policy assertiveness has been its independence from U.S. influence, to the point of public and private expressions of exasperation with Washington’s policies on Syria, Egypt and Iran. The Saudis at one point declared that they would no longer rely on their partnership with the U.S. — a pillar of Riyadh’s security for the past half-century — and would instead act unilaterally to defend their regional interests. Such tough talk doesn’t, however, disguise the fact many Saudi attempts to project power in the region in recent years have floundered or failed, often to the benefit of Iran.
The regional situation remains perilous: To its north, Saudi Arabia faces a strong but still contained threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and, to its south, the specter of a more robust Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula challenge in Yemen, where the state is rapidly collapsing. Salman will find himself needing to address the question of Saudi participation in the effort to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad by training Syrian rebels. The new king’s broad strategic choice will revolve around whether to maintain the assertive projection of power and influence initiated by Abdullah just a few years ago or revert to the country’s traditional signature of cautious, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Reverting to the old approach may not be as easy as some in Riyadh would like, given the multiple threats, commitments and opportunities that now shape Saudi foreign policy horizons.
One of the key strategic questions facing Salman will be whether to press on with confronting Iran throughout the region or move toward discreetly negotiating a new modus vivendi — and if so, how.
Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia matured as a regional power and assumed new commitment, making it harder to revert to an era of backroom diplomacy, the export of piety and the soft power of petrodollars. What’s not yet clear is whether Salman will continue on that road or make subtle but significant changes.