What does Saudi Arabia want?

Betrayed by the West’s deal with Tehran, Saudi Arabia is weighing its options.

The US is the Saudis' best guarantee for security [Reuters]

Even before Western powers and Iran agreed on a historic nuclear deal in Geneva over the weekend, Saudi Arabia saw a troubled region. Since 2011, the Middle East has witnessed its most turbulent phase in 25 years. The level of political instability and conflict rivals the period between the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Gulf War of 1991. It may even surpass it. Today, satellite television and social media connect countries as never before; the 2003 US-led invasion knocked Iraq out of the region’s balance of power, resulting in the long-term growth of Iranian power; and amid this turmoil, regional powers fear, more than ever, that the United States is set on a course of abandoning them for greener pastures in the Pacific.

This is the backdrop to Riyadh’s foreign policy woes. In the foreground are US-Iran talks of a scale unseen for 35 years. Saudi officials fear that, at best, the US is not interested in curbing Iranian influence and, at worst, actively seeking a return to the days of the Shah, with Iran serving as policeman of the Gulf at the expense of the so-called Sunni Arab monarchies. 

This weekend’s nuclear deal, the greatest breakthrough in the nuclear dispute in a decade, is therefore feared to be merely the first step on the road to a more uncertain and precarious era for the Saudi Kingdom. Saudis, according to the Telegraph newspaper report, felt betrayed and “lied” to by their Western allies. A senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has accused its Western allies of deceiving the oil rich kingdom in striking the nuclear accord with Iran and said Riyadh would follow an independent foreign policy. In an earlier statement the Saudi government gave a cautious welcome to the Geneva nuclear deal.

Under these circumstances, the question going forward is; what are Saudi Arabia’s options? Small countries with limited power must accept the world as is. Global powers can re-shape it to their advantage. Riyadh clearly considers itself to be in the latter category. Senior royals, including intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, have promised a historic shift in Saudi foreign policy to include a break with the US, a search for new allies, a willingness to act independently, and a new assertiveness. One might call this the Kingdom’s Gaullist turn, akin to France’s 1966 decision to pull out of NATO’s military command. But is this a sound strategy?

If Saudi Arabia is worried about the rise of Iran and the resurgence of Iranian allies like Iraq, its choice is between reliance on the US or reliance on itself.

Security guarantees

Saudi Arabia’s biggest constraint is that no one, other than the US, can guarantee the ultimate security of the Kingdom. The US retains not just 20,000 troops in the Middle East, and air and naval superiority over all regional adversaries put together, but also a network of alliances and bases that enable it to vastly ramp up its presence during a crisis.

For too long, particularly in the Arab world, there has been uncritical acceptance of the myth that the US is leaving the region. This might be true in light of the recent withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the broader context it is grossly misleading. The US presence is in fact far greater today than it was for most of the 50 years following World War II. The Obama administration’s moderate shift in emphasis from the Atlantic to the Pacific – the so-called “pivot” to Asia – does not change that.

Traditional major powers, like Russia, cannot compete with this ability to deploy power, as the US did when the Kingdom felt threatened by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Rising powers, like China and India, are probably decades away from even considering such deployments. In this respect, the balance of power in the Middle East has barely changed.

If Saudi Arabia is worried about the rise of Iran and the resurgence of Iranian allies like Iraq, its choice is between reliance on the US or reliance on itself. Consider, then, that the most advanced technology used by the Saudi military is US-supplied, and so are the spare parts for it. Only in October – at the height of Riyadh’s public pique at the US – were details of a $6.8bn arms deal revealed, covering advanced missiles of exactly the sort that Saudi Arabia might need in case of a major regional war. Saudi Arabia’s public anger does not, it would seem, extend to cancelling these purchases. With an Iran deal signed, defence cooperation is in fact likely to grow.

We should not forget that the US and Saudi Arabia are on the same page on a number of issues. For instance, the US and Saudi Arabia worked closely together to place a double agent inside the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and so foiling last year’s bomb plot. In 2010, the US even built a large drone base on Saudi territory to facilitate strikes in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has no other counterterrorism partners with the same level of capabilities.    

Limited options

It does have other military suppliers, however. In the 1980s, when the US Congress blocked the sale of F15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom simply bought British Tornado fighter jets instead. Between 2005 and 2009, 42 percent of the Kingdom’s arms came from Britain, against 40 percent from the US. It makes sense for Saudi Arabia to diversify its purchases, if only to secure the best price.

When we put all this together, it becomes clear that Saudi Arabia’s position is no different to that of any other nation allied with a larger power: It fears abandonment, and tries to show its leverage by threatening to leave the alliance, but it cannot.

But this doesn’t buy it extra security or secure the policies it wants. If anything, the UK has taken an even more cautious approach to Syria, a core Saudi foreign policy interest, than the US, especially after the British parliament voted in August against military action. The UK has also moved quickly to upgrade diplomatic ties with the new government in Tehran.

France, another traditional arms dealer to the Gulf monarchies, has been slightly more attentive to Saudi sensitivities. During the first round of nuclear talks with Iran in early November, it imposed tougher terms than any of the other five negotiating countries (some of which were reflected in the final agreement). France is well placed to exploit Saudi discontent with the US, but there are limits to how much a shrinking French military can really do for the Kingdom.

Last month, Prince Bandar bin-Sultan threatened to work with France, instead of the US, in support of Syrian rebels. But when the US called off missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the summer, to Saudi Arabia’s chagrin, it was France who, despite its earlier support, did not even consider acting alone. And if sanctions on Iran are eventually lifted in a final deal that might follow this six-month interim one, France will push its companies into the Iranian market quicker than anyone.

Even more limited are the incipient Arab-Israeli contacts. Israel and Saudi Arabia certainly have a converging view of Iranian influence and US unreliability, but this relationship cannot go much beyond some cooperation on intelligence. Recent reports that Saudi Arabia has promised to support an Israeli strike on Iran with its own aircraft are unrealistic. 

Some Saudi commentators, like royal adviser Nawaf Obaid, have written that Saudi Arabia will look to its Arab allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But this is problematic too. Early in the Arab Spring, Riyadh tried and failed to bring the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco into the GCC. Saudi-led efforts towards political union have also failed. The smaller Gulf nations do not wish to give up their policy autonomy to Saudi Arabia, and some, like Qatar and Oman, want to keep good relations with Tehran.

The GCC is making important progress in areas like missile defence, but its constituent militaries still lack what is known as inter-operability, or the capacity to work together on the battlefield like NATO nations. The GCC has a proven ability to mount simple interventions, like its 2011 suppression of pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, but would struggle in a real war.

When we put all this together, it becomes clear that Saudi Arabia’s position is no different to that of any other nation allied with a larger power: It fears abandonment, and tries to show its leverage by threatening to leave the alliance, but it cannot. Of course, the Kingdom will continue to look for new friends, and – as it did in Bahrain – deal with its own problems independently when it can. But there are limits to what this can achieve, when only the US can guard against the big threats. Saudi Arabia can flirt with other allies, but it will remain wedded to the US for the foreseeable future.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He holds Masters degrees from Cambridge and Harvard Universities. He has published widely in international newspapers and journals, and most recently authored the monograph Permanent Crisis: Iran’s Nuclear Trajectory.

Follow him on Twitter: @shashj