The Saudi Imperial Overreach?

30 march 2016

Why Riyadh’s Positions Are Weakening

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.

OVERREACH

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:

  • In order to partly to rehabilitate his image in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, in late 2001, then Regent, and later King, Abdullah unveiled a peace plan that offered conditional Arab-Islamic recognition for Israel in return for the latter’s withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders. By the time it had become an Arab peace initiative at the March 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut, the plan was watered down to accommodate the Syrian demand for an unconditional right-to-return for Palestinians, thereby making the plan a non-starter.
  • Until March 2003, there was no scope for Saudi Arabia to be active in Iraqi domestic politics. In the 1980s, Iraq was a bulwark against possible Iranian hegemony but the Kuwait crisis transformed that situation. In the post-Kuwait and post-Cold War world order, a weak Iraq under strong UN sanctions suited Riyadh. The US-led invasion to remove President Saddam Hussein had unintended consequences as Iraq became an Arab Shia state in the political sense of the word. The Shias who make up about 60 percent of the population felt empowered and began gravitating towards Persia. Even while ruling as the Regent, in 2004, Abdullah accused Iran of “converting” Iraqi Sunnis into Shias and echoed fears of a Shia crescent. Since then, Riyadh has been following a losing strategy vis-à-vis Iraq and has conceded a lot of ground to Tehran in shaping the political developments in the country. Its influence in the elections and post-election coalition formations in 2010 and 2014 were marginal. Moreover, the limited Iraqi success in fighting the menace of the Islamic Caliphate was due to the Iranian support. Hence not only Iraq has become a Shia Arab state, but in some senses even an Iranian proxy in the Arab world.
  • The January 2006 Palestinian elections intensified the internal feud between the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the militant Islamic group Hamas which won the elections. To bring about Palestinian unity, Saudi Arabia mediated the Mecca Accord. In the presence of King Abdullah, on February 8, 2007, PNA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khalid Masha’al signed the four-point agreement in Islam’s holiest city. Within weeks, however, clashes broke out between the warring factions, leading to the military takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Thus, since June 2007, the Palestinian territories have been partitioned into Fatah-PNA-ruled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In the wake of this failure, when Israel launched its 50-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014, it was Qatar, not Saudi Arabia, that sought to mediate.
  • The Saudi-mediated Taif Agreement of 1989 ended the 15-year old civil war in Lebanon. The implementation of its key provision, namely, the disarmament of all militia, especially Hezbollah, did not materialize due to Syria’s opposition. On the contrary, the agreement legitimatized the Syrian control of that country either directly or through its proxies. This worked against Riyadh when Rafik Hariri, who had made his business fortunes in Saudi Arabia, sought to rebuild the country, which eventually culminated in his assassination in February 2004. Even after Syria’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005 and its reluctant diplomatic recognition of Lebanese independence in 2008, Riyadh could play only a marginal role in that country’s internal developments. Indeed, the election of former army chief Michel Suleiman as president in 2008 became possible because of Qatari intervention which came after the Saudi failure to resolve the 2006-08 cabinet crisis.
  • In the early days of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Riyadh admonished Hezbollah for its “adventurism” in kidnapping two Israeli soldiers that led to a full-fledged Israeli military campaign. Unfortunately for the al-Sauds, the Shia militant group was able to withstand Israel’s 33-day offensive—though at a considerable cost to the Lebanese civilian population—and its chief Hasan Nasrallah became the most popular leader among the Sunni Arabs of the Middle East. This forced Saudi Arabia to alter its stand and rally behind “Lebanese resistance.” Since then, one has not seen any active Saudi involvement in the Lebanese politics.
  • The Saudi approach towards the Arab Spring protests has been a string of missteps and misadventures. As the Tunisians were rebelling against the two-decade old authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Riyadh offered asylum to him and his family along with their large ill-gotten wealth. This was in line with the Saudi practice of being a safe haven for Muslim rulers who are threatened or hated in their own countries. For example, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took refuge in Saudi Arabia for a while when General Pervez Musharraf, who staged a coup, threatened to execute him. Similarly, former Ugandan President Idi Amin also spent his last years in the kingdom.
  • As thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square were demanding an end to Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule, King Abdullah rallied behind the beleaguered leaders and urged the Egyptians not to “destabilize the security and stability” of their country. For a long time, Mubarak was seen in Riyadh as a close ally and his downfall, and the possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood unnerved Abdullah. The brief tenure of Mohammed Morsi was tense for bilateral relations, and Riyadh was quick to endorse the soft military coup that deposed Morsi in July 2013. The crisis in Egypt and their different stands vis-à-vis Morsi and the military coup were partly responsible for Riyadh’s tensions with Doha and the temporary breakdown of diplomatic relations in 2014.
  • Amidst the popular protests in many Arab countries, in May 2011, Arab countries agreed to “consider” the applications of Jordan and Morocco for possible membership in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. This move seen as a Saudi initiative defies geographical logic and politico-economic sense. If Morocco is far removed from the Gulf region, Aqaba, Jordan’s only port, rests on the Gulf of Aqaba, an inlet extension of the Red Sea and it cannot legally claim to be a littoral state of the Persian Gulf. Moreover, both these countries are not rentier economies like the GCC countries. Other than transforming the GCC into a monarchical club, the move has little logic and hence showed little progress.
  • The precarious socio-political situation and resource scarcity have made Jordan highly dependent upon Riyadh for political support and economic largesse. The quantum of Saudi economic assistance rarely appears in the media. However, the periodic visits to Saudi Arabia by King Abdullah II and his son Hussein indicate the fragility of the situation. Riyadh’s asking Amman to take the non-permanent seat it has won in the UN Security Council underscores their close proximity. This was also Jordan’s first membership of the UNSC since it joined the United Nations in 1956. According to some observers, Saudi political and economic leverages have resulted in Amman slowing down its reforms and adopting an uncompromising posture vis-à-vis the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Left to himself, King Abdullah II would have been more accommodative of the popular demands, especially regarding electoral laws and in ensuring free elections.
  • Saudi interference in Syria complicated the situation and has been a key factor in the continued violence. The problem is not the correctness of the Saudi policy but its effectiveness. President Bashar al-Assad cannot be absolved of own responsibility in the Syrian civil war and has played a role in the fragmentation of his country. At the same time, Saudi support to various anti-Assad Salafi forces is prolonging the crisis. The Islamist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and others are neither politically coherent nor military effective. Even though Iranian involvement, primarily through Hezbollah but also directly, has also been contributing to the crisis, Tehran has the means to bring about a political settlement. This was highlighted by the willingness of the U.S. to include Iran in the Geneva peace talks.
  • The Yemen policy, which also involved direct military interventions, exhibits Saudi Arabia’s determination to keep that country as its proxy. In April 2015, it launched a military campaign against the Houthi rebels supported by Iran but without much success. Its most opportune moment was when Ali Abdullah Saleh was still in power and was dependent upon Riyadh. Indeed, following the palace attack in June 2011, he was being treated inside the kingdom for 12 weeks and that was the best opportunity for Saudi Arabia to bring about a political settlement to the problem. Riyadh did not use its influence towards implementing the Yemen Transition Agreement concluded in November 2011.
  • The Saudi interest and involvement in Bahrain has been more blatant than in other countries. Any unrest in the neighboring kingdom is a Saudi red line, especially when it involves the Shia population. Ever since popular protests began in the Pearl Roundabout—sometime referred to as Bahrain’s Tahrir Square—on February 15, 2011, the unrest in the island kingdom is depicted as a sectarian problem, not the result of social and political demands of marginalized Bahrainis. With the demography being heavily tilted in favor of the Shias, who according to the CIA estimates make up 60-70 percent of the population, unrest in Bahrain is bad news for the al-Sauds. Most of the Saudi Shias inhabit the oil-rich Eastern Province, and since the Islamic revolution in Iran, the al-Sauds have been confronted with the rising expectations of the Shia minorities. The prolonged Wahhabi theological disparagement took a political turn in the wake of the Mecca siege which happened within a year after Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran. Among others, Saudi Arabia banned Ashura whereby Shias mourn and commemorate the deaths of Ali and Hussein. Any of Bahrain’s concessions to its Shia population, therefore, would have cascading effects upon the Saudi Shias in the Eastern Province who are separated only by the 25-km King Fahd Causeway.
  • There are suggestions that Riyadh puts its weight behind aging conservative Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa  (who is also the king’s uncle) over more liberal and accommodative Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, also the son of the ruler. Observers in the region suggest that in return for bankrolling the Bahraini economy, the al-Sauds are strengthening the conservatives.  The Independent Commission of Inquiry appointed by the king, for example, held the Bahraini police and security forces responsible for 46 deaths during protests in 2011 and suggested measures to assuage popular discontent, but they were not implemented. Likewise, Bahrain adopted  an uncompromising position vis-à-vis its Shia population even when King Abdullah was pursuing an accommodative posture vis-à-vis Saudi Shias. In April 2003, he met a Shia delegation; in 2005 appointed the first Shia to the nominated Majlis al-Shura; and in 2009 allowed the public commemoration of Ashura. After Salman became king in January 2015, popular protests in the region, especially in neighboring Bahrain appeared to have rolled back some of these initiatives; the Saudi hanging of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr is a case in point.

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.

U.S. PATRONAGE

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.

PROGNOSIS

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.

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