Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energetic young Crown Prince, seems to be in a hurry not only to consolidate his domestic power, as monarch-in-waiting, but also to make his mark on the usually dull foreign policy of the kingdom. Saudi foreign policy has always been a behind-the-scenes affair carried out in barely audible tones, but not, it seems, any more.
The change came about rather quickly once the heir to the oil rich desert kingdom secured his position in June, 2017. Bin Salman is in a hurry for many reasons, not least because he must make his mark on Saudi Arabia so that he becomes a king who is not only different but also a visionary leader capable of embarking on the reconfiguration of a country still run according to an outdated system with little effective management capacity and heavy reliance on oil wealth. Belonging to the younger generation of the Saudi royal family, he appears to be striving to re-position the Kingdom as a trusted strategic partner of the United States and an important, powerful regional player. However, he has had little success so far in terms of foreign policy.
Cementing the historical US-Saudi relationship is a must for all Saudi kings as soon as they are crowned, and Bin Salman will be no exception; he has started the task already. In this regard, little has changed apart from business deals worth over $500 billion in short-term contracts and long-term military treaties signed with President Donald Trump when he visited Riyadh in May last year. Even before he was appointed officially as Crown Prince, Bin Salman tried to project the Kingdom’s foreign policy as a key component of wider US policy in the Middle East, capitalising on the fact that the new US President’s visit to Riyadh was his first official trip outside North America. Having America’s blessing for its efforts to be regional player, Saudi Arabia arranged for the heads of states of dozens of Muslim countries to hear Trump talk about countering terrorism within the loosely defined larger context of a US-Muslim world summit. Bin Salman scored some success in projecting Saudi Arabia as a counter-terror partner after facing harsh criticism from the US that it was not doing enough to moderate and modernise its official Islamic message.
Other than that, every other foreign policy step seems to have backfired or at least failed to bring the success that would justify the huge political and financial investment put into it. Saudi Arabia under its de facto leader Mohammad Bin Salman is still involved in the war in Yemen with little prospect of any real objectives being achieved. The Kingdom, with US help, took its gulf partners to fight in Yemen with one goal, namely to have Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government re-instated in the poor country after it was exiled by the Shia Houthi rebels whom Saudi Arabia accuses of being Iranian agents. Bin Salman has provided little evidence to back up the allegation.
When the Saudi-led coalition started its air strikes three years ago the goal was to break the Houthis quickly and have Hadi resume his presidency in the capital Saana, and thus end Iran’s influence. Three years on and the war is no longer limited to Yemeni territories; Saudi Arabia’s southern towns and cities are increasingly under attack, and Hadi is not returning to Yemen any time soon, let alone the capital. Moreover, the war, with its heavy civilian casualties, has become a huge public relations and humanitarian disaster, while Iran is still asserting itself in the region.
The biggest foreign policy mess for the Kingdom, though, is the conflict in Syria. Saudi Arabia invested heavily, both politically and financially, in supporting the different rebel groups, but after eight years it has found itself supporting terror groups being defeated by the Syrian army and its allies Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. To save face, Saudi Arabia had little choice but to join the long queue of countries that are calling for a political settlement in Syria after failing to succeed in the first objective of toppling President Bashar Al-Assad by force.
In Lebanon, Bin Salman has pinpointed Hezbollah as another Iranian-backed Shia group, using his influence over the weak Prime Minister, Saad Al-Hariri, who has dual Saudi-Lebanese citizenship, in an effort to drive Hezbollah out of the government and declare the group to be a terrorist organisation. However, that backfired when Hezbollah made more political gains in the May elections and now has even more parliamentary seats than before at the expense of Al-Hariri’s Future Party. Hezbollah is now a kingmaker whose support Al-Hariri must seek if he is to form a government in Beirut. This was another defeat for Bin Salman’s stated goal of curbing Iran’s influence in the region.
Another foreign policy blunder by the Saudi Crown Prince remains the boycott of Qatar, once an ally of Riyadh, which has been ongoing since June last year, when Riyadh accused Doha of supporting terrorism in the region. This forced the government of Qatar to get closer to both Ankara and Tehran, both of whom are traditional rivals of Saudi Arabia. Qatar is now an active commercial and military partner of Turkey and Iran; there are Turkish troops stationed in Doha, for example. The ongoing crises between the US and Turkey, and the US and Iran, have pushed the two regional giants to be closer than ever before, and Doha could not find better allies than two of Riyadh’s most ambitious competitors.
It is difficult for the wise observer of Saudi foreign policy to pinpoint any successful initiative that the Kingdom has taken which actually helped its wider regional influence, let alone curbed Iran’s increasing dominance.
Even Bin Salman’s obvious joy about the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal does not seem to have brought any tangible benefits for Riyadh. This might cause Iran some economic hardships but we have to remember that the US withdrawal happened not because of Saudi pressure but as a domestic US policy promise made by the Trump administration long before it moved into the White House. Furthermore, other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, including Russia, France, Germany and Britain, are still abiding by its terms in the belief that they are the best available. In any case, the Iranian economy has been accustomed to harsh economic sanctions for decades and this time around is no exception. In fact, Iranian policymakers have been pretty good at adopting to aggressive US economic and political moves.
Mohammad Bin Salman, therefore, has so far failed in every aspect of his stated foreign policy goals. His obsession with Iran as the main enemy in the region is only bringing him closer to the real regional enemy, Israel. It is this relationship which will prove to be the biggest foreign policy blunder that the young prince could possibly make.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.