Saudi Arabia's regional foreign policy options amid US decline

Saudi flag [AIAOU/Corbis/Getty]
7 min read
08 December, 2021
Analysis: Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been largely ambivalent towards diplomatic realignments in the region. But as US influence declines, which options will Riyadh pursue?

On 6 December, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially known as MBS and also Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, started a tour to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with Oman as his first destination.

According to the Royal Diwan's statement, the visit came at the directive of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, "out of his keenness on maintaining communication between the leaders of the GCC states and on bolstering fraternal ties with them".

The tour comes ahead of an upcoming annual six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council meeting this month and is said to prioritise Iran on the GCC's agenda during the discussions with the leaders of Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

MBS’ visits to the GCC countries were preceded by a flurry of diplomatic meetings in the region. Around two weeks ago, Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince and the de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), visited Ankara and met with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The visit signified a return to normalisation in relations between the two erstwhile rivals.

"Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been almost idle vis-à-vis regional realignments"

On 6 December, the UAE's national security advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed visited Tehran and met with Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary. The following day, Erdogan paid a visit to Doha to attend the 7th high-strategic committee meeting. Erdogan’s trip to the Gulf country overlapped with an MBS visit to Doha, which might be followed by a visit from Bahrain's Crown Prince to Qatar.

MBS’ tour to the GCC states is his first visit following the al-Ula agreement, which paved the way for Riyadh to normalise its relations with Doha. Yet, except for this initiative, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been almost idle vis-à-vis regional realignments, which included rather bold moves from Saudi Arabia’s allies - the UAE and Egypt - towards Turkey.

In the case of Abu Dhabi, the Gulf state has been quite vocal in terms of strengthening its relations with Iran and Israel. Some observers relate Abu Dhabi's behaviour to the ongoing preparations to meet the post-US era in the Gulf. In contrast, others see it as a reaction to Riyadh's decision to reconcile with Qatar and end the blockade against Doha. The two reasons might not be in contradiction with each other, though.

The quartet blockade against Qatar in 2017 and the Iran-sponsored attacks against strategic Saudi oil installations in 2019 marked two additional turning points in the regional retrenchment of the US.

Both developments increased the distrust towards US policies as a security guarantor for the Gulf region and GCC states in particular. The American military presence in the Gulf did not prevent other countries from targeting Doha and trying to overthrow its Emir. Likewise, it neither deterred Tehran from assaulting the interests of Riyadh, nor punished it for the attacks believed to be sponsored by Iran.

These two crucial conjunctures have pushed several Gulf countries to look beyond the embattled GCC for regional allies to offer another layer of security as an insurance policy. As for Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has lately been displaying a degree of strategic ambivalence regarding its foreign policy options.

Historically, Riyadh relied on countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt to serve as regional anchors in times of crisis. However, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdad and Damascus fell mainly under Iranian influence.

While Egypt would have been a possible option in the current situation, the 2013 military coup undermined Cairo's regional status and role. The experience of the last seven years or so has illustrated that Cairo can be a financial and political burden to Saudi Arabia rather than a partner who can provide security and military support in times of crisis.

In the aftermath of the al-Ula agreement, Saudi Arabia needs to opt for a strategic vision that takes into account the decline of the US in the region and the necessity of formulating a strategic response to face these challenges.

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The al-Ula agreement paved the way for Riyadh to normalise its relations with Doha. [Getty]

This includes finding a regional partner or partners that could provide Riyadh with another layer of security commitment if needs be. Most recently, the Kingdom has sought the assistance of Greece to provide security support against the Houthis, which is self-inflicted damage for Riyadh in terms of the perception of its military prowess as well as foreign policy prestige.

Theoretically, Saudi Arabia has four options; to normalise with either Israel, Iran, and Turkey or follow the ‘wait and see’ strategy for another three years. Even though Riyadh has been engaging with Iran in talks hosted by Iraq, no major breakthrough is expected given the Iranian position and the lack of serious will to make concessions that would help change the popular perception regarding Iran's expansionist regional agenda.

Furthermore, the uncertainty over the ongoing US negotiations with Iran and the fate of the JCPOA means that Riyadh must make provisions to face different scenarios. While the US and Iran can reach a deal, there is always the possibility that Iran would progress towards a nuclear weapons capability.

In both cases, Riyadh seems to be in a disadvantageous position to respond decisively. Given these scenarios, it is questionable whether Saudi Arabia will choose to normalise its relations with Iran rather than trying to counterbalance it.

During Trump's presidency, MBS took some covert and minor initiatives towards Israel. Riyadh allowed Israeli airplanes to use its airspace while heading to the UAE. Furthermore, several reports confirmed that then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia secretly and met MBS in NEOM. Delegations from Jewish communities in the United States continue to visit Riyadh and provide societal channels for normalisation.

"Theoretically, Saudi Arabia has four options; to normalise with either Israel, Iran, and Turkey or follow the 'wait and see' strategy for another three years"

In some circles in Riyadh, there is a perception that Tel Aviv can strategically help Saudi Arabia in countering Iran's threat. This perception seems highly exaggerated given that Israel also relies on the US to ensure its security. 

Regardless of this issue, normalisation with Israel at this point would carry far more cons than pros for Saudi Arabia. It holds the risk of further undermining Riyadh's image, popular support in the region, and would not make a big difference in the US given the orientation of the current US administration. 

As for normalisation with Turkey, although the rapprochement efforts between Riyadh and Ankara started as early as October 2020, no major breakthrough has been achieved. Unlike Iran and Israel, Ankara has a lot to offer to Riyadh, given its military capabilities, regional popularity, and strategic depth.

Turkey has been working relentlessly to prove itself as a trustworthy and credible ally in the eyes of its regional partners. From Syria to Qatar, and Libya to Azerbaijan, Ankara has proved itself a committed partner. Its defence and military intervention on behalf of its allies has been decisive in the current situation of US decline and regional confusion.

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There are no significant divergences between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, except the fallout from the Khashoggi murder, making the Turkish option sensible in any strategic Saudi outlook. However, personal assessments from foreign policymakers seem to stand behind the stalled rapprochement with Ankara. Choosing not to normalise with Turkey would not hurt Ankara as much as Riyadh. However, reconciliation would certainly benefit both.

In the current circumstances, Turkey seems to enjoy a vast network of relations in the region, while Saudi Arabia is the only major regional state with no active ties with any of the region's critical players such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel.

Given that the security threats against Saudi Arabia have been increasing recently with more drones and missiles attacking the Kingdom from Yemen, regional support for Riyadh is crucial to protecting its strategic interests and national security.

Countering threats, perceived and real, without relying on significant regional partnerships is not sustainable. Even though Saudi Arabia might be opting for a ‘wait and see’ strategy and hoping that elections in Turkey in 2023 and in the US in 2024 bring a favourable change, such assumptions might not materialise. Moreover, waiting for two more years without doing anything carries more risks than benefits.

Ali Bakir is a research assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, a political risk analyst, and consultant. 

Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer

Eyüp Ersoy is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Ahi Evran University in Turkey. He specialises in Turkey-Middle East relations.

Follow him on Twitter: @eyupersoy