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From Confrontational to Subtle Diplomacy: The Reorientation of Saudi Foreign Policy

In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, a trilateral regional order formed with Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia emerging as the primary Arab powers. The 2011 Arab Spring broke apart that system and created new threats to Saudi Arabia. For example, its most staunch ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was ousted by protesters. Demonstrations spread to Syria, Bahrain, and other Arab countries, calling for widespread political reforms that challenged the ruling elite across the Arab world.

At this critical time, the Saudis began to assert themselves as a veritable regional power, embracing more forceful foreign policies. Riyadh deployed troops to Bahrain to assist its neighbor with defusing domestic upheaval The Saudis supported the Syrian opposition’s calls to remove Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. In Egypt, the Saudis received the military coup with jubilation and public endorsement. When the Iranian-backed rebels, the Houthis, took over the capital of Yemen and forced Yemen’s president Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, to resign in March 2015, the Saudis created the Arab coalition to restore the legitimate government.

The new direction of Saudi foreign policy after the Arab Spring depicted Riyadh as pursuing aggressive and sometimes reckless regional policies. However, the course of this policy changed since 2020. When Iranian drones struck the Abqaiq Aramco oil refinery in 2019, the Trump administration refused to strike back or punish Iran for its belligerence. Washington’s reluctance severely affected the leadership in Riyadh, causing it to change its foreign policy outlook over the past three years.

The Abandonment of the Carter Doctrine

For over half a century, the relationship between the Kingdom and the United States has rested on the tacit understanding that the U.S. would continue providing security guarantees and the Gulf monarchy kept oil flowing to Western markets. President Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend American interests in the Gulf region through military force, if necessary. The Carter doctrine manifested most clearly in Operation Desert Storm, which saw the U.S. and its coalition partners liberate Kuwait and rebuff Iraq’s push for regional dominance.

Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia faced reluctance from several allies and partners to take solid steps to help Riyadh defend its national interests. In 2019 President Trump refused to respond to Iranian attacks on Abqaiq; the Saudis perceived the moment as the beginning of the end of the Carter Doctrine. Before that, in 2015, traditional military allies of the kingdom, namely Egypt and Pakistan, declined to participate in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition against Yemen’s Houthis. This propelled Saudi leaders to restructure their regional and international engagements comprehensively.

New National Sensibility

Recent de-escalation efforts between Riyadh and several countries in the region showed Saudi recognition that their confrontational policy became constraining, costly, and ineffective. For example, for all of its supposed centrality within the Arab and Muslim world, Riyadh could not convince Egypt and Pakistan to join its coalition in Yemen. In 2021 and 2022, Riyadh mended ties with Doha and Ankara and entered a truce with the Houthis.

The Saudi leadership has also realized that Riyadh must recalibrate its foreign policy to shed its self-imposed restraints and adopt a hedging position among the superpowers to protect its interests and security. Calls for hedging grew in the wake of American reluctance to defend Saudi oil facilities became deafening after the Biden administration limited arms sales to Saudi Arabia to defensive weapons only.

A global event in 2022 gave Saudis another reason to believe in their ability to claim a bigger role in the international arena independent of Washington’s wishes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s weaponization of energy supplies have reminded the world of the Kingdom’s centrality to the global energy market. “Saudi First” has become the prism through which the Kingdom’s policymakers have assessed their decisions.

Leveraging “Saudi First” to Achieve Vision 2030

The new Saudi foreign policy neatly dovetails with the country’s economic development initiatives. In 2016, the Kingdom unveiled its grand project to diversify and transform the economy: Vision 2030. The ambitious initiative aims to move away from a crude oil-dependent economy and remake the Kingdom into a tourist destination, a financial and commercial hub, and a leading exporter of clean energy. Saudi planners required massive spending and high oil prices to achieve their aims. To achieve that, as the de facto leader of OPEC, Saudi Arabia partnered with Russia in 2015 so both countries could control oil prices. The new oil cartel, OPEC+, survived several energy and international crises, including the Ukraine war that exacerbated the rivalry between Russia and the West. Saudi priority to keep oil prices high was evident last October when OPEC+ announced an oil production cut of two million barrels daily. This move caused an outrage in the Biden administration.

For over a decade, to grow its international economic partnerships and find new sources of revenue, Saudi Arabia has been strengthening relations with Asian economies, particularly China. In 2021, the top five importers of Saudi oil products were Asian economies (China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates). Currently, China is the Kingdom’s largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier. Whereas U.S.-Saudi relations are based upon security ties, Beijing’s connection to Riyadh is based on commerce and economics. The state-controlled Saudi Aramco chief executive has recently expressed the Saudi commitment to meet China’s energy needs for 50 years and perhaps beyond. Because the Saudis seek to be the world’s top producer of hydrogen, and China plans to have 80% of its total energy mix from non-fossil fuel sources by 2060, there would appear ample room for further partnership in the coming decades.

The importance Saudi Arabia places on its relationships with Asian states may be seen in Riyadh’s interest in joining Chinese-led multilateral organizations. In March 2023, Saudi Arabia joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It has been reported that the Kingdom may also endeavor to join the BRICS economic partnership. The Saudis have expressed their interest in joining the BRICS bloc because they think it is paramount for achieving their 2030 vision. China, India, and Brazil are among the biggest consumers of oil in the world, and closer commercial ties with these states will generate significant short-term gains. Becoming a member of these fastest-growing economies in the world will create opportunities to invest and trade in non-energy exports and grant Riyadh access to new technologies and expertise to transform its domestic economy.

Building the Local Defense Industry

U.S. reaction to Iranian drone and missile raids on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 bred an indelible mistrust of U.S. security commitments within Saudi Arabia. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, followed by the immediate removal of the United States’ most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from the Kingdom, exacerbated Riyadh’s doubts about U.S. intentions to defend its partner from Iranian attacks. The missile redeployment occurred while the Houthis were striking the Kingdom, vindicating the Saudi suspicion that the U.S. would not be as present in the region as it had been in the past.

Furthermore, the United States declined Saudi requests to purchase ballistic missiles due to Washington’s desire to prevent an arms race in the region. In December 2021, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that China helped the Saudis to produce locally-manufactured ballistic missiles, and signed an agreement to manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). By localizing their defense supplies, the Saudis aim to increase their air defense capabilities to primarily intercept attacks from Iran and its proxies, who possess some of the most advanced ballistic missiles in the region. Also, fostering an indigenous mass production industry would make the Kingdom an exporter of weapons and reduce its defense budget spending. In March 2022, the Biden administration responded to Saudis ventures by redeploying the Saudi-based Patriot missile batteries.

Zero-Enemy Policy

The Saudis have engaged in reconciliation efforts with states throughout the region to reduce its threat environment further. This policy initiative began with the Al Ula Agreement in 2021, which ended the four year blockade against Qatar. The Saudis sought to contain Iran through engagement, and Iraq and Oman attempted to mediate between the two countries. The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran may de-escalate regional tensions, which have simmered in recent years. China’s belated intervention was necessary to reach the agreement because Beijing did not have negative political baggage in the region and was a friend to both parties. China is the largest trading partner not only for the Saudis but isolated Iran as well. This economic leverage might be utilized to convince or coerce Iran to adhere to the reconciliation.  In Yemen, a truce was established in April 2022. Though the ceasefire lapsed in October, the Saudis still hope to reach a political settlement with the Houthis, an objective that probably played a role in their agreement with Iran. In Syria, the Saudis once considered Assad a pariah. However, Riyadh has recognized no viable path to overthrow Assad. Therefore, Saudi Arabia must accept the current regime as the ruler in Syria.

On the global stage, the Kingdom’s new approach includes attempts to preserve old partnerships while building on the new relations with Moscow and Beijing. The war in Ukraine has offered Riyadh an incredible opportunity to diversify its international connections to both sides of the conflict. The Saudis voted against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN General Assembly but did not condemn Russia unilaterally. Instead, Riyadh has called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The Saudi foreign minister visited Ukraine for the first time in history, almost a week after Biden’s visit to Kyiv in February 2023. The minister pledged to provide $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding invested more than $500 million in three major Russian energy companies in the first two months after the invasion. Moreover, the Saudi Crown Prince succeeded in mediating prisoners of war exchange between Ukraine and Russia. Riyadh hopes that a balanced policy can reconcile the end of the war, representing a considerable diplomatic victory for a country once regarded as a regional antagonizer.

Since the Iranian attack on Abqaiq, Riyadh began to reshape its foreign policies to de-escalate tension in the region, diversify partnerships with superpowers, and employ its foreign policy to lower security risks to advance its economic plans. To transform its economy, Saudi Arabia realized the need to engage strategically in changing world order to diversify and localize the domestic economy and work toward lowering hostility across the Middle East. By embracing a more pragmatic foreign policy, Saudi Arabia aims to adapt to changing world order, reduce security risks, and achieve its ambitious Vision 2030 goals. This transformation marks a crucial turning point for the Kingdom as it works to ensure its long-term stability and prosperity in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Ibrahim Atta is a Research Assistant at Gulf International Forum. He holds Master of International Relations from Monash University in Australia. His research interests are focusing on the U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf region and African continent.

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