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Saudi Arabia: a political impasse or foreign policy breakdown?

Saudi foreign policy currently finds itself in a predicament that could soon lead to collapse. Over the course of the past few months, Saudi Arabia received several weakening blows from the international community and it may be very difficult to overcome their fatal consequences and repercussions. Saudi Arabia's failures began when it failed to properly analyse the Arab situation, which became clearer with the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. Saudi Arabia dealt with this new reality by adopting a position that opposed all change. It worked to oppress forces that were in favour of change and became involved in several plans to reintroduce old regimes disguised by new faces.


Saudi Arabia became synonymous with the term 'counter-revolution' while the rest of the world welcomed these new changes to free the region from the long decades of tyranny, injustice, poor human rights, and collapsing economies. Saudi Arabia pumped funds to rewrite the course of the Arab Spring in a way that would restore old alliances. They did this without taking into consideration the people's initiative and attempts to become the driving forces that would shape their futures. Saudi Arabia strongly opposed, and even clashed, with these new emerging factors and became devoted to stopping these changes through monetary means. The final blow to this policy came when Saudi Arabia failed to put pressure on the international community to intervene in Syria. Even before the attempt to intervene in Syria, Saudi Arabia called on the West to strike Iran, or at least encouraged hostility between Iran and the West. Saudi Arabia found itself alone in this endeavour and as such became motivated to reconcile with Israel.

In addition to Saudi Arabia's failure to assess the reality of the Arab world, it also failed to determine the West's stance on these issues. The American congress and British parliament rejected the possibility of military involvement after their long-term failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. America and Britain had lost their appetites for new military adventures even if it meant not appeasing long-term allies like Saudi Arabia. Instead of rushing into military conflicts in the Middle East, western countries have instead opted for the negotiation route, which is less expensive but may have unknown implications and serious repercussions for Saudi Arabia.

Even many Gulf countries are beginning to welcome the American-Iranian reconciliation. One particular Gulf country, the Sultanate of Oman, played an important role behind the scenes and favoured peaceful dialogue to military intervention. Saudi Arabia regards all dialogue with scepticism and caution because Iran is now considered to be a key regional figure that can no longer be ignored by Western countries. Today, Iran is euphoric due to its victorious return to the international stage. It has been waiting for this opportunity for more than thirty years in light of its strained economy, which has suffered greatly because of sanctions.

After Saudi Arabia refused to take part in finding a solution to regional conflicts, the majority of Western countries have ignored its wishes and continued with their efforts regardless. Saudi Arabia now stands on the side-lines as an observer watching the implementation of a plan it had initially rejected in favour of military intervention. Saudi Arabia believed that the United States would always be influenced by Saudi pressure due to their need for oil and military contracts. However, what actually happened has proven that the opposite is true and that the current American foreign policy differs greatly from that of the 1980s and 1990s. Foreign policies change depending on any given country's interests at the time, however, Saudi Arabia has remained unwavering in its insistence on military intervention and due to this stubbornness and inflexibility to deal with facts on the ground, has failed to realise the true impact that military intervention would have. Perhaps these factors are due to the nature of foreign policy, which is usually influenced by many people. Whilst the rest of the world is constantly changing its policies and the faces and individuals behind them, Saudi Arabia has not changed its policies for decades and consequently has hit a deadlock.

The changing political currents have caused this political impasse in Saudi Arabia, which clashed with new arrangements made by the United States on one hand and Iran on the other. Today, Saudi Arabia is in need of new dynamic strategies that will guide it out of political isolation. This has led to changes in global positions such as Saudi Arabia aligning itself with Israel, a union that will undoubtedly have major repercussions on Saudi Arabia itself.

It is easy to promote slogans and chants calling for political confrontation but it is difficult to partake in the act of military intervention, especially when a country is not militarily capable of carrying out such an attack or assessing the long-term implications of an intervention. Perhaps these setbacks have sparked warning sirens in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy and will lead Saudi leaders to re-evaluate their internal situation. They are in need of true internal political change before they engage in foreign adventures driven by an inflated ego. This ego comes at the expense of truly assessing what is realistically possible and impossible.

Saudi Arabia must first put its own house in order before it makes any attempts to get involved in external affairs. In fact, there are a number of postponed issues that must be given attention including political reforms that have been postponed. The Saudi regime no longer has any excuses given their failure to convince outside powers to attack a country on the other side of the Gulf. If Saudi Arabia does not broach the subject of political reforms, it will not be able to recast itself as a regional power with a respectable, powerful position and economy. It will remain hostage to the old unchanging faces that has led to its current political impasse.

In today's world, the news from Saudi Arabia is nothing more than a joke to international newspapers. People amuse themselves with stories of arrested activists or the driving ban issue. We hear of strange fatwas that come at the expense of true development and progress, progress which did not stand a chance in the face of the natural climate and heavy rains that were experienced two weeks ago. In fact, the news focuses on stories such as these in an attempt to avoid truly important political issues.

Once Saudi Arabia cleans up its act at home, it will be able to face the world with a foreign policy that reflects the will of its people and the desire to occupy a respectable position on the world stage. It will represent an influential and modern country that is capable of representing its people, who until this day do not have the right to make their own decisions or form their own opinions. They remain marginalised, whatever that word means. The first reform that is needed is an internal significant leap, which would entitle the Saudi people to true political representation and subsequent legitimisation of the royal family. True political change does not necessarily mean that the King or a prince must be overthrown and another leader appointed, it means that Saudi Arabia is in need of a government that listens to the concerns and the needs of its people and prioritises them.

Countries today are not victorious solely because of their economic standing or military abilities; they are in need of political systems that will allow them to implement the policies they need in spite of the narrow ruling elite's influence and interests. This requires a lot of thought as to how a country's image both internally and externally, can be refined. Foreign policy is in itself a representation of internal policies that have lead Saudi Arabia to a political impasse as a result of rigid policies that have not changed for over a decade. The rebirth of a country's foreign policy is greatly impacted by internal conditions. It is for this reason that foreign policy is continuously changing. This explains why one cannot separate internal issues from external policies no matter how much leaders might try to differentiate between the two. In order for this political impasse to not turn into a total collapse, Saudi Arabia must take into consideration the implementation of several reforms that will allow it to overcome the current setbacks. These setbacks cannot be diminished without internal reforms to strengthen the domestic front.

The author is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This is a translation of the article published by Al Quds Al Arabi on 1 December, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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