Polur Raman Kumaraswamy is a Professor at Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Honorary Director of the Middle East Institute, New Delhi.
Resume: The three pillars of Saudi power projection, namely Islam, oil, and the U.S. patronage, have grown considerably weaker in recent years. The era of checkbook diplomacy is truly over and Riyadh will have to invest more in diplomacy.
Regional tension following the Saudi hanging of dissident Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on charges of sedition and incitement comes at a time when Riyadh’s regional influence is waning. Through a series of ambitious but ill-advised policy choices and external interventions, the ruling al-Saud family has over-stretched its capabilities and resources and in the process squandered its regional position and influence. While the Saudi concerns vis-à-vis Iran and its hegemonic ambitions both before and after the nuclear deal are understandable, the manner in which Riyadh sought to mitigate these challenges indicates a lack of foresight and strategic thinking.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia has committed the same mistake many other empires made, and a host of its foreign policy choices since the end of the Cold War have over-stretched its capabilities and are contributing to its declining influence. Indeed, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire to the modern-day Soviet Union, the decline of the great powers began when their expanding involvement could not be met by internal resources. The imperial overreach is often the primary reason for the decline and, in many cases, disappearance of empires. When roaring ambitions clash with available resources, decline becomes inevitable. Lacking a clear strategic vision, powers involve in issues which do not concern or contribute to their immediate national interests or alternatively their engagement is not backed by skills and expertise. The problems multiply when there is a lack of domestic accountability. One could notice all these elements—lack of strategic vision, imperial overreach, lack of technical expertise and accountability—in the Saudi foreign policy behavior.
It is possible to identify a number of instances where Saudi involvement not only was unsuccessful but also failed to bring any tangible gains to the kingdom. These include:
The low success ratio of these efforts comes at a time when the three pillars of Saudi power, namely Islam, oil wealth and American commitments, are under threat.
PILLARS OF SAUDI POWER: ISLAMISM
The source of Saudi power projection rests on three basic premises, namely, its Islamic credentials, oil power and perceived proximity with the US. For one reason or another, all these factors are on the decline (или in decline), thereby denting the effectiveness of Saudi power projection capabilities.
Islam has been an important driver for the country’s leadership aspirations. Since the founding of the third Saudi state in 1932, the al-Sauds have been interested in expanding their influence, especially the more conservative Wahhabi Islam. The British presence in the Persian Gulf region prevented any direct Saudi intervention in the then protectorates. However, this did not impede Saudi Arabia’s influence in the form of religious conservatism, especially in neighboring Kuwait and Qatar. During the prolonged Yemeni civil war (1962-70), the Saudis backed the royalists when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser backed the republicans.
The formation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC, renamed Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011) in 1969 marked Saudi Arabia’s rise to replace Egypt as a new leader of the Arab world. Coupled with the accumulation of immense wealth in the wake of the oil crisis of 1973, for a while, Saudi Arabia was the uncrowned leader of the Muslim world. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran shocked the Saudi domination. The contest was not only between two regional powers, but also between their differing worldviews. The Wahhabi-based Islamic conservatism of the Sunni majority was challenged by Iran’s Islamic Revolution rooted in the Shia concept of justice and resistance. More than Shia-Sunni political battle, it was a contest between the conservative status quo led by Saudi Arabia and the revolutionary zeal unleashed by Ayatollah Khomeini. After some initial rhetoric calling for similar popular revolutions against Sunni monarchies in the region, the Iranian ayatollahs depicted theirs as a wider Islamic revolution rather than a narrow Shia one.
For a while, the protagonists were preoccupied elsewhere. Riyadh sought to promote its brand of Islam in Afghanistan against the Soviets as Tehran was bogged down in the war with Iraq. The ayatollahs not only survived the destructive war, but also kept the regime intact despite internal and external threats. The Saudi success in ensuring the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was accompanied by the Mujahedeen pheromone and the Afghan Arabs who “returned” to their home countries and wanted to bring about similar Islam-lenient societies. So long as extremism in the name of Islam was pursued elsewhere, Riyadh remained complacent and continued its ideological and political support. In the 1990s, it backed the Taliban in post-Soviet Afghanistan and was one of three countries (others being Pakistan and UAE) to recognize the regime. The Saudi support for the Afghan jihad against the godless infidel communists eventually paved the way for a host of radical and amorphous militant groups.
The Saudi indifference and complacence towards Islamic extremism and violence proved costly and dangerous. Its citizen Osama bin-Laden, who was part of the Afghan Arabs, began to question the Islamic credentials of the al-Sauds for violating or not adhering to core Wahhabi doctrines. King Fahd relying on the infidel American combat women soldiers to defend the Islamic holy land during the Kuwait crisis was the last straw. The process of delegitimizing of the al-Sauds spurred various Islamic groups and theologians to challenge the ruling family whose source of legitimacy rests on the historic agreement between the al-Sauds and Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab.
The net result of this was the catastrophic September 11 terror attacks in the U.S. in 2001. The involvement of 15 of its citizens brought home the repercussions of the conservative education imparted in the Saudi schools and the Saudi patronage to various Salafi-jihadi groups and organizations across the world. The Mecca-based Muslim World League was at the forefront of backing many extremist Islamic groups so long as they did not harm Saudi interests. Export of Wahhabi Islam eventually boomeranged and 9/11 attacks not only soiled Saudi reputations in the West, but also raised doubts about the peaceful nature of Islam and its adherents. The then Regent and later King, Abdullah, sought to address the problem through cosmetic changes and window dressing. With Islam being the source of legitimacy for the family rule, his space for maneuver was limited, especially on issues such as women’s rights and gender segregation. Saudi policies and practices fed into Islamophobia in the West which viewed the kingdom as the epitome of everything that is wrong with Islam and Muslims.
The traditional Sunni theological preference for unjust Muslim rulers over chaos did not inhibit even Muslims from questioning their leadership credentials. The Saudi promotion of conservative Wahhabi Islam came to be seen as the harbinger of religious extremism in different parts of the world. Its demonization of other religious faiths, including Judaism and Christianity, and its portrayal of Shias as heretics, did not bode well for the post-9/11 world order.
Meanwhile, both the Middle East and other parts of the world began witnessing alternative Islamic models of governance. The office of the Supreme Leader and clergy domination in Iran are accompanied by periodic elections and the seating and unseating of presidents. Change of leaders through ballots has become a norm in many non-Middle Eastern Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Since 2003, Islamist democracy as articulated by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) appeared more appealing to the West and attractive to the Muslim masses. Unfortunately, the al-Sauds did not go beyond the debating body in the form of the nominated Majlis al-Shura and municipal elections. Thus, while other Islamic countries are experimenting with new forms of governance, Saudi Arabia is stuck with one-family rule by the aging, ill and octogenarian sons of the founding king who passed away in 1953.
Thus, Wahhabi Islam as patronized by the Saudi state is neither moderate nor a model. Those looking for moderation have options in the form of Islamist democrats in Turkey, Iran or Tunisia, and for those who are looking for a more puritan, fundamentalist and Salafi brand of Islam, al-Qaida and the Islamic Caliphate are more attractive. Thus, Saudi Islam now has fewer followers than it did in the past.
WEALTH AND CLOUT
The second source of Saudi power projection was the wealth and clout it acquired in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. The regime which survived on the annual financial assistance of £20,000 from Great Britain in the early years of its founding was suddenly transformed into a wealthy nation capable of attracting foreign technology, human resources, infrastructure, and expertise, and could accumulate a substantial sovereign wealth fund. Less radical than the Ba’athist regimes in Iraq and Syria, Riyadh bandwagoned on the Arab-Israeli conflict and since the 1970s has played a significant role in the international recognition of the political rights of the Palestinians. Despite the ideological convergence with the militant group Hamas, the al-Sauds mostly sided with the largely secular Palestinian Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat. When Iraqi and Syrian leaders were propping up dissenting Palestinian groups and even threatened his physical safety, Arafat could rely on the Saudis for political and financial support. For a brief period, the oil wealth allowed Saudi Arabia to assume the leadership in the Islamic world, also strengthened by the presence of two Islamic holy sites in the kingdom, namely Mecca and Medina.
Saudi Arabia not only has the largest known oil reserves in the world, but also the largest production capacity. Tactfully exploiting both these advantages since the early 1970s, it has emerged as an oil giant. With the help of its excessive capacity, it ensured oil availability during shortages or regional crises and periodically stabilized the market and moderated the pricing mechanism. The prolonged bilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran (since 1979) and Iraq (since 1990) meant that Saudi Arabia remained an unquestioned leader at the energy scene. It played a pivotal role in ensuring supplies during the Iran-Iraq War, the Kuwait crisis or the post-U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
However, the conditions of the energy market are changing. Since the early 2000s, Russia has emerged as a major player in the oil and gas market. Alternatives like shale gas are attractive. Saudi Arabia’s excessive production capacity is stagnant. High oil prices in the middle of 2014 when they reached $110 per barrel were speculative and not linked to any production cuts or supply disruptions. The prolonged Western boycott of Iranian and Iraqi oil did not bring about production discipline in OPEC. As Iraq and now Iran are re-entering the oil market, OPEC is already producing at least one million barrels per day (mb/d) more than its agreed quota. These factors have pushed down the oil prices since May 2015. If these are insufficient, the removal and relaxation of oil-related sanctions in the wake of the nuclear deal opens the gates for Iranian oil. This will flood the market; in late 2015 for example, Iran was producing 3 mb/d of oil as against its OPEC quota of 3.6 mb/d. Some analysts are blaming Saudi Arabia for the price fall and see it as a strategy to limit Iran’s gains from the removal of sanctions. With oil price falling below $30 per barrel in early January, at least in the short run, Iran will not benefit immensely from the removal of energy-targeted sanctions.
At the same time, falling oil prices are also bad news for Saudi Arabia. Its current account deficit has widened and the government has had to dig into its sovereign wealth fund and other reserves to maintain its welfare state mechanism. Already there are suggestions that the Saudis should be asked to consider the possibilities of taxes. This would be easier said than done. The rentier-based social welfare contract ensured that the al-Sauds could run the country as they deem fit without any public scrutiny or accountability. This arrangement will not be possible if the Saudis were to pay taxes, even if they are symbolic.
Falling oil prices also impede the Saudi propensity for checkbook diplomacy as a means of resolving and mitigating regional tensions and problems. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, for example, was co-opted into Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein by Saudi Arabia’s waiving the $2.5 billion debt. As part of the GCC package, Saudi Arabia pledged financial assistance to Jordan and Morocco when these countries faced domestic unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring. According to observers, a substantial portion of the Bahraini budget is managed with Saudi assistance. The campaign in Yemen is estimated to cost the kingdom $5 million per day while it has propelled millions of dollars in the Syrian theatre. In March 2015, it pledged US$4 billion to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to stabilize the Egyptian economy. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in a host of other tensions in the region such as Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, and Palestine came with substantial financial contributions to various state and non-state actors. Thus, falling oil prices will be a burden on the Saudi propensity to use checks as a means of diplomacy.
The third source of Saudi power has been the unwavering commitment of the United States. The February 1945 meeting between President Theodore Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy shortly after the Malta Conference forged a strong bond between the two. Despite their ideological incompatibility, political realism and strategic convergence brought about an enduring partnership. Without the strong American commitments, the kingdom would not have been able to capitalize on its Islamic credential and oil power to become a regional player. Regional turbulence and strategic concerns have resulted in both Democrats and Republicans being extremely accommodative of Saudi sensitivities, especially over issues such as gender rights, human rights, democracy, corruption, etc. The American desire for energy supplies and price stability led to Riyadh being accorded a special status, especially after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. The dependence and influence were mutual and at times the kingdom was able to override the concerns and arguments of pro-Israeli circles in Washington.
Once again, a host of developments have strained this arrangement, the most prominent being the waning of American appetite for external involvement, especially in the ever turbulent Middle East. The two costly and ill-conceived military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks came amidst the housing crisis in the U.S. and the lack of strategic clarity in Washington. Not only did the U.S. lack a clearly defined strategic goal in the region, but it also had no political will to pursue its interests. The role of energy in its Middle Eastern calculus is also changing as the U.S. is less interested in, and hence less committed to, ensuring the energy security of its allies. The American indecisiveness was further exposed when masses protested against their despotic rulers in different Arab countries; long-term American allies like Hosni Mubarak felt let down by the Obama administration while the protesting masses were disappointed by the feeble support from the Democrats. The U.S. administration’s cozying up to Mohammed Morsi did not amuse Riyadh.
However, the most significant sign of declining U.S.-Saudi relations has to be located in the U.S.-led push towards the Iran nuclear deal concluded on July 14, 2015. For quite some time, Riyadh has been expressing its displeasure over the perceived American “abandonment” of its concerns vis-à-vis Iran, especially over the nuclear controversy. Such concerns expressed through diplomatic channels became public knowledge through the treasure troves of WikiLeaks. The Saudi refusal to take the non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in October 2013 was partly interpreted as a sign of displeasure with the U.S. over a host of issues, including Iran. Despite Washington’s denials to the contrary, the nuclear deal is a tectonic shift in the Middle East, and the U.S. seems to be abandoning its erstwhile Wahhabi friend in favor of the Iranian ayatollahs. Even if the U.S.-Iran ties do not return to the pre-1979 bonhomie, by not adequately recognizing Saudi concerns, President Barack Obama has shifted gears and placed the Islamic State at the forefront of American politico-diplomatic engagements in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s perception and projection as a close ally of the U.S. in the region, especially after the fall of the shah, was key to its ascendance and diplomatic fortunes. Thus, the declining influence of the U.S. in the region and its diminishing accommodation of Saudi concerns would only erode the Saudi standing.
In the wake of the backlash against the kingdom and Islam following the 9/11 attacks, there were voices that the Saudi focus would move eastwards and look for friends in China and Russia. But the growth in trade and economic ties has not been accompanied by political shifts. Nor has the kingdom been able to enlist the support of new friends who could partly compensate for the waning American interest in the kingdom. Its long political support and economic patronage, for example, did not secure Pakistan’s support for its Yemen campaign.
Saudi Arabia viewing the Islamic Republic of Iran as its primary threat is understandable and even legitimate but the manner in which Riyadh has been seeking to pursue that objective is faulty and counterproductive. The three pillars of Saudi power projection, namely Islam, oil, and the U.S. patronage, have grown considerably weaker in recent years and demand a change of priority as well as policy strategy. The era of checkbook diplomacy is truly over and Riyadh would have to invest more in diplomacy, especially when its checks are getting smaller and less effective. The failure of its various diplomatic initiatives are compounded by its ineffective policy response vis-à-vis Tehran. These have only furthered the Iranian interests and are paving the way for an unchallengeable Persian hegemony over the Gulf. In short, the al-Sauds are proving to be an unintended handmaid of the Iranian ascendance in the Middle East.