Today, the Saudis believe that there is a need to adopt a comprehensive vision of regional security that is not limited to mere balances of power, the expansion of influence, and increased military capability, but aims to create an enabling environment for development and prosperity and aims to create a decent life for all peoples of the region, writes Saleh Muhammad Al-Khathlan, Professor of Political Science and Senior Advisor at the Gulf Research Center, Saudi Arabia, for the 13th Middle East conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.
An attempt to explain the shifts in Saudi foreign policy
Many factors push a country’s foreign policy to adapt and move beyond the features of its usual diplomatic activity, redefining its approach. The most prominent of these factors are (1) changes in its immediate regional environment regarding the opportunities and challenges it provides, and (2) the shift in decision-makers’ perceptions towards the external environment and towards the position of their country in the international system.
These two factors explain the changes in Saudi foreign policy in the past decade. Since the Arab Spring and its repercussions, the regional environment of the Kingdom has witnessed transformations that have created serious challenges for many countries in the region and pushed them to move beyond former policies and adopt positions and actions to confront these challenges and mitigate their effects.
Perhaps the most prominent of these challenges faced by the Kingdom has been the 2011 regime change attempt in Bahrain, which would have posed — had it happened — a real threat to Saudi national security, given Bahrain’s location and strong ties to the Kingdom. Therefore, Riyadh, in coordination with the rest of the GCC countries, rushed to provide military assistance to the government of Bahrain, which at the time was facing riots and sabotage, supported by external interventions, and this assistance aimed to protect vital facilities in the state of Bahrain.
Years later, Saudi Arabia faced another threat to its national security: the Houthi’s seizure of power in Yemen in September 2011. The two countries share a border that is more than 1,450 km long, and the Kingdom has suffered from infiltration and smuggling operations for long periods. Because the ability of the Houthis to take power in Yemen signalled the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom responded to the request of the legitimate Yemeni government to provide military assistance by forming a coalition in which 11 Arab countries participated.
In the historical context of Saudi foreign policy, we will find that this military action was an exceptional case, as the Kingdom has always adopted turning to diplomacy. The dangers faced by the Kingdom necessitated adapting its foreign policy by adopting a firm approach to protect its security and interests at a time when the region was in turmoil, which threatened political systems with collapse and states were at risk of disintegration.
These changes in the regional environment of the Kingdom coincided with the adoption of the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030, which aims to make the Kingdom “a successful and leading model in the world at all levels”, as stated in King Salman’s presentation of the vision, and to be at the “forefront of the countries of the world”, as expressed by the Crown Prince in his presentation of the vision.
International strategic partnerships are one of the most prominent pillars of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which requires an active Saudi foreign policy and open to all potential partners away from alignment and axes, and this explains the Kingdom’s keenness to upgrade its relationship with China, Russia, India, and several other countries to the level of partnership, while maintaining its traditional relationship with the West without allowing it to be an obstacle to these partnerships.
In addition to these two main factors: (1) changes in the regional environment, (2) a new leadership that harbours different perceptions, other factors have also contributed to activating Saudi foreign policy to play regional and international roles, which raised expectations of it as an important player to address many regional and international issues:
(First) the Ukraine conflict and the unprecedented sanctions imposed by the West on Russia and their impact on the restoration of oil after failed Western efforts to bypass it using the pretext of climate change. Western countries have tried to convince the Kingdom to participate in the sanctions on Russia and abandon its coordination with Moscow through OPEC+, to deprive Russia of its most important sources of income, but they were surprised by the Kingdom’s refusal to get involved in the game of energy politicisation, despite its condemnation of the use of force to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The Kingdom’s refusal to participate in the sanctions reflects two things: (1) the Kingdom’s keenness to partner with Russia and (2) the Kingdom’s interest and the success of Vision 2030 requires coordination with Russia and the rest of the oil-producing countries, and production and price policies cannot be subjected to narrow Western political calculations.
(Second) Repeated statements by successive US administrations that the Middle East has lost its importance, and that it has regressed in US priorities, which have shifted eastward to focus on confronting China as a rising great power. This trend has strengthened the conviction of the Kingdom and the rest of the region of the need to diversify partners, as the interests of the region and its countries require not relying on the historical Western partnership at a time when Western countries are going through transformations in their international orientations and internal conditions that weaken confidence in them as reliable partners.
(Third) The weakness caused by the events of the Arab Spring to many Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria and the retreat of regional powers such as Egypt, has increased the responsibility of countries with capabilities and prestige such as the Kingdom to bear the burden of restoring stability in the region, preventing further deterioration and maintaining Arab cohesion in the face of fierce regional interventions, especially from Iran, and confronting extremist militias and terrorist organizations.
Saudi Vision for Regional Security
Maintaining and strengthening regional stability has been a consistent trend in Saudi foreign policy over the decades, based on a firm belief in the impact of the stability of the region on the internal stability of all its countries. The Kingdom has confronted all extremist trends that may threaten security and peace in the region and has made continuous efforts to contain differences and resolve disputes between the countries of the region and prevent their development into armed conflicts. As a result of the Kingdom’s keenness on the policy of calm and containing crises, it has always been classified as a “Status quo state”.
With the adoption of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s conviction of the importance of restoring regional stability has increased; because achieving this vision requires a stable regional environment that attracts investments and international companies, which is necessary for the success of multiple development projects.
During the last eight years, Saudi foreign policy has adopted a broad concept of security that is not limited to just restoring stability and containing crises but goes beyond it to achieve development and prosperity for all peoples of the region because of the organic relationship between security and development, as the state of turmoil suffered by many countries in the region is due to the failure of development, widespread poverty, the state of despair and hopelessness.
This new Saudi vision for security in the region is reflected in the crown prince’s famous 2018 statement that “the Middle East will be the new Europe” and his conviction that this goal is achievable and that he does not want to “die before he sees the Middle East globally advanced.” This vision is not just a passing talk but has turned into initiatives, the foremost of which is the Middle East Green Initiative, funding its programs, establishing centres, and forming a permanent secretariat to coordinate efforts to achieve this goal.
Today, the Saudis believe that there is a need to adopt a comprehensive vision of regional security that is not limited to mere balances of power, the expansion of influence, and increased military capability, but aims to create an enabling environment for development and prosperity and aims to create a decent life for all peoples of the region.
The first step towards this goal is to move from the narrative of conflict and confrontations to the narrative of construction and development, creating new perceptions and concepts about the real challenges facing the region that will hopefully help decision makers get rid of the inevitability of the zero-sum game and replace it with a belief in collective gain.
Today, armed militias represent one of the dangerous challenges that the region faces that requires collective efforts to dismantle them and restore state control and monopoly over the means of violence. These armed militias deplete capabilities and threaten the cohesion and survival of states, and countries in the region will not be able to invest their resources, grow, maintain civil peace, and move effectively in the international arena without their total elimination. This is the first step towards building stable and prosperous societies and advancing toward a new Middle East.