Kingdom of Change: Saudi Arabia’s Evolving Foreign Policy
What lies behind Riyadh’s recent spate of diplomatic initiatives – and how likely are they to succeed?
Over the past few months, Saudi Arabia has attracted international attention with one diplomatic initiative after another – from its beginning of normalisation with Iran, to peace talks with the Yemeni Houthis, to the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League, to efforts to broker a ceasefire in Sudan, to hosting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the Arab League Summit in Jeddah in mid-May.
Media coverage under headlines like ‘Saudi Arabia’s journey from troublemaker to diplomat’ seems to suggest that this is the result of some sort of recent about-face in Saudi foreign policy. In reality, however, it reflects a coming to the fore of what has long been the Kingdom’s preferred approach to foreign affairs. It highlights an evolution in how Saudi Arabia is positioning itself and operating on the regional and international stage, but without indicating a change in the country’s strategic direction.
One of the primary objectives of Saudi foreign policy has always been to counter and contain instability in the Middle East in order to keep threats at bay, limit risks to the free flow of oil exports from the Gulf and facilitate the Kingdom’s domestic economic development.
Since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the mid-2010s, this has become even more explicit. Riyadh’s number-one priority is the implementation of Vision 2030, the hugely ambitious socio-economic reform programme that is supposed to transform Saudi Arabia into a modern, globally integrated knowledge economy which is less and less reliant on its hydrocarbon riches. The primary task for Saudi foreign policy is to support and enable this process, not least by reducing the threats posed to the Vision by instability or conflict in Saudi Arabia’s neighbourhood.
The various actions during the early years of the Mohammed bin Salman era that earned Saudi Arabia a lot of international criticism and a reputation for imperious foreign policy adventurism were driven by this same objective.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia saw the Houthis as posing an unacceptable threat to its national security that it hoped to remove with a short and decisive military intervention. But Saudi Arabia both underestimated the Houthis and overestimated its own military capabilities, and since its start in 2015, the conflict has essentially become the Kingdom’s own ‘forever war’, one which it is increasingly eager to extricate itself from.
The diplomatic and economic boycott that Saudi Arabia and others in the region imposed on Qatar in 2017 was supposed to rein in Doha’s regional activism, which Riyadh regarded as undermining regional stability. But Qatar proved to be more resilient than anticipated, and most countries around the world – including Saudi Arabia’s partners in the West – regarded the rift between the Gulf monarchies as an entirely unnecessary irritant.
The November 2017 attempt to pressure then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign in protest against Hezbollah and Iranian interference was part of a wider Saudi effort to push back against what Riyadh saw as Tehran’s malign and destabilising behaviour across the region. But the move only sparked international controversy and outrage, while Iranian influence grew.
Saudi Arabia is not looking to substitute Beijing for Washington – it has no illusions that China would want or be able to become the main guarantor of maritime security in the Gulf
Just as international observers could assess that these and other Saudi actions did not lead to the desired outcomes, decision-makers in Riyadh – including Mohammed bin Salman – will likely also have concluded that their approach was not working. This was also helped by the fact that Mohammed bin Salman had increasingly identified capable and trusted individuals for key positions, including his brother Khalid bin Salman at the Ministry of Defence (as Deputy Minister since 2019 and Minister since 2022) and Prince Faisal bin Farhan as Minister of Foreign Affairs (since 2019).
This sense that something needed to change was further reinforced by an increasing disillusionment with US policy towards the region. Ups and downs in the bilateral relationship between Riyadh and Washington are nothing new, but over the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has grown ever more doubtful of the US’s commitment to upholding the Middle East’s basic regional order. The George W Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, and the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran over the heads of Saudi Arabia and other regional countries, were key moments in this regard.
But the most important moment came in September 2019. A drone and missile attack on some of the Kingdom’s most important oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais, which was widely attributed to Iran, painfully demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability in any potential military confrontation with the Islamic Republic. More importantly, the lack of a decisive US response to the attack was taken as a sign that Washington could not be relied upon to stand up for the Kingdom’s security, or even for the security of the oil industry.
In the years since, Saudi Arabia has recalibrated its foreign policy, continuing to focus on the same overall objective of supporting Vision 2030, but looking to leverage Saudi instruments of power in a more patient and pragmatic manner. This includes trying out new approaches to existing challenges while being prepared for the fact that they might not work out, and working with alternative partners where suitable, even in the face of criticism from Washington or other Western capitals. Riyadh remains open to collaborating with the US – as is evident from the current joint Saudi-US mediation efforts in Sudan – but in areas where it feels that the US has adopted an unhelpful position or is not sufficiently engaged, it is prepared to go it alone or to solicit help from China or others.
Much ink has been spilled over the past year about the state of the US-Saudi relationship, with many interpreting Riyadh’s dealings with Beijing or Moscow as specifically directed against Washington or signifying an attempt to move away from the West’s orbit and towards the East. From Riyadh’s perspective, however, this is not what it is trying to do.
Saudi Arabia is not looking to substitute Beijing for Washington – it certainly has no illusions that China or any other country would want or be able to take on the mantle of being the main guarantor of maritime security in the Gulf, which has been worn by the US Fifth Fleet for decades. It still sees the US and – to a lesser extent – the UK and France as its most important defence partners, and still sees Western economies as key sources of inspiration, technology and investment for making Vision 2030 a reality. The West also remains the favoured destination for investments by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
However, without wanting to put any of this in jeopardy, Riyadh is also looking to expand ties with China, which it increasingly regards as a strategic partner capable of much more than buying up large quantities of Saudi oil – particularly with regard to technology transfer; and with Russia, which Saudi Arabia sees as an indispensable partner in trying to manage and influence international oil markets within the context of OPEC+.
Overall, Saudi Arabia is trying put itself in a position in which it can have constructive relations with everyone – including global powers that are at odds with one another – and in which disputes on specific issues do not have to lead to ruptures in relations, but can be tolerated by agreeing to disagree. This is also the posture Saudi Arabia has adopted with regard to regional affairs.
Buoyed by impressive economic growth and a sense that its international image has mostly recovered from the crisis of the late 2010s, Saudi Arabia feels that things are going its way
The 2017–2021 dispute with Qatar was not so much resolved as simply declared to be a thing of the past. Riyadh and Doha still do not see eye to eye on everything, but there seems to be a mutual acceptance of the need to look for ways to work together while managing disagreements quietly.
Saudi Arabia has entered the process of normalising relations with Iran without any illusions that the regime in Tehran and its destabilising regional agenda have changed or will fundamentally change anytime soon. Instead, it hopes that China will exert sufficient influence over Iran to reduce risks to security in the Gulf and secure Iranian buy-in for de-escalation of the war in Yemen. At the same time, Riyadh is looking to improve its ability to defend itself against future Iranian attacks, while making a long-term bet that the success of its domestic socio-economic reforms will eventually inspire change in Arab countries dominated by Iran and, ultimately, in Iran itself.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has – however begrudgingly – accepted that the Houthis cannot be militarily defeated for now. Working with trusted interlocutors like Oman, and hoping for Chinese influence to restrain Iran, it is therefore trying to arrive at a new modus operandi with the group, which remains in control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and much of the northern part of the country. It wants to secure a permanent end to cross-border attacks – especially the missile and drone strikes that threaten Saudi cities and tarnish the Kingdom’s image as an attractive place to invest and do business – and adopt a position as the main mediator between all Yemeni factions, including the Houthis and those aligned within the fragile Presidential Council arrangement. Here, it would also like the UN to be involved again.
With regard to Syria, Saudi Arabia has essentially embraced and supercharged an initiative put forward by Jordan to re-engage Damascus in order to address pressing challenges. Based on a sense that the West has lost all interest in Syria now that the threat from Islamic State has been contained and overall levels of violence have decreased, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others have come to the conclusion that they have no other option but to engage with the Assad regime in order to deal with Syrian refugee populations (a major concern for Jordan) and – most immediately – the flow of drugs from Syria, for which un- and underemployed young people across the Arab world, and especially in the Gulf, are a significant customer base.
The question is, of course, what kind of concessions Saudi Arabia and its partners can actually elicit from the Syrian regime, for which the drug trade appears to be a primary source of income. The normalisation process is supposed to follow a step-for-step approach, but thus far Damascus appears to have offered next to nothing.
In fact, the outcomes of all of these diplomatic initiatives by Saudi Arabia are highly uncertain. Much of it is simply outside the Kingdom’s control – from China’s actual willingness and ability to exert influence over Tehran, to the machinations of the various components of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, to the readiness of the Houthis to abandon years of intransigence. On the global stage, too, Saudi Arabia may want to be able to freely develop and expand its relations with all major powers at the same time, but it would find it very difficult indeed to navigate a world in which the US and China were to tie their own willingness to deal with the Kingdom to Riyadh shunning the other power.
For the moment, Saudi Arabia’s answers to such questions reflect its self-confidence. Buoyed by impressive economic growth on the back of windfall oil revenues and a sense that its international image – and that of its Crown Prince – has mostly recovered from the crisis of the late 2010s, Saudi Arabia feels that things are going its way. It insists that it is in a strong enough position – as the world’s leading oil exporter, a G20 member with the ambition to soon be among the world’s top 15 economies, and the Arab and Islamic world’s centre of gravity – to chart its own course and to resist any pressure to choose sides. And in the region, it feels that even if its own initiatives might not be perfect, they are at least better than what anyone else has come up with in recent years.
That said, should things fall apart, Saudi Arabia and its foreign policy will continue to adjust. What will remain the same, however, is Riyadh’s central mantra: doing whatever it takes to secure the ongoing development and modernisation effort at home.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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