The simmering split between Saudi Arabia and its Western allies over key foreign policy questions, mainly Syria and the Iranian nuclear negotiations, was publicly consecrated in a recent op-ed penned by Saudi Ambassador to Britain, Prince Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.
In it, he claimed that Saudi Arabia “will go it alone” in their policies towards Iran and Syria as their “Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them”. Prince Nawaf’s attempt to capture the moral high ground on the Syrian and Iranian issues conceals the Kingdom’s growing isolation from the regional geopolitical scene. This isolation has manifest in increasingly tense relations with Western allies that have prompted calls for rethinking Saudi-Western relations and a growing distance between Saudi and its Arab Gulf neighbours on the Syrian and Iranian issues.
Such developments have left Saudi Arabia with very few regional allies and increasingly fewer policy options to shape its desired geopolitical outcomes. However, the Kingdom’s regional isolation does not mean that it will be distant from the events on the ground. This is especially true as the Geneva II negotiations approach and the Saudi leadership further commits to supporting armed rebel groups in Syria. An isolated Kingdom could prove more, not less, detrimental to moving towards a political solution in Syria.
Nowhere have Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical woes been more pronounced then in the Syrian case, where Saudi policy towards the Syrian regime has been straightforward: regime change at any cost.
Saudi Arabia’s regional isolation was brought about by a series of strategic miscalculations that placed the Kingdom on the wrong side of developments within the region. Within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), for example, there have been intense disagreements between Saudi Arabia and the other member states about how to approach developments in countries such as Egypt.
Similar disagreements exist regarding Iran, where Saudi Arabia was alone in its hostility to the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Iran’s diplomatic manoeuvring and its use of the nuclear issue as the means to re-orbit into the international community has placed Saudi Arabia in a very tight corner by effectively undermining the Kingdom’s attempts to isolate and contain Iranian influence in the region. The agreement has also paved the way for a warming of diplomatic relations between Iran and the regional and international community, and was a clear blow to Saudi’s policy of framing Iran as the main threat to regional security.
Nowhere have Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical woes been more pronounced then in the Syrian case, where Saudi policy towards the Syrian regime has been straightforward: regime change at any cost. Fervent commitment to regime change forced the Saudi leadership into hedging its bets on military intervention. When this failed to materialise, Saudi Arabia only accelerated its commitment to supporting militarised groups within Syria and stubbornly refused the possibility of pursuing a political solution in Syria.
More recently, the Saudi sponsorship of the creation of the Islamic Front in Syria, an amalgamation of Salafi jihadist groups, gave it a powerful pawn in the Syrian arena. While strengthening its role in the military landscape of the Syrian conflict, it also actively sought to undermine the US-Russia led agreement on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons programme in an attempt to maintain some pretext for intervention.
Geopolitical developments in the region seem to be passing Saudi Arabia by.
Consequences of isolation
Saudi Arabia may not be part of a solution to the regional problems but it will not be satisfied with playing the role of diplomatic spectator either. Regardless of its isolation on key regional issues, the Kingdom still has the ability to profoundly impact them. This is especially true of Saudi Arabia’s role in Syria, where we have already seen how the shift in patronage from Qatar to Saudi Arabia has had a material effect on the ground.
In the diplomatic lead-up to Geneva II it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will relinquish control of the Islamic Front or be convinced of buying into a political process to end the Syrian crisis. Herein lays the problem and paradox of Saudi foreign policy towards Syria. On the one hand, the Kingdom has the material resources and political will to make sure that the fighting in Syria continues. The financial dependence of the opposition’s newly formed government on the Kingdom and the growing reliance by rebel groups on Saudi support mean that they will remain a key player in Syria. On the other hand, they are pursuing policies more or less independently of any regional or international consensus. In fact, increasingly, they are pursuing policies that run counter to consensus among its allies.
All this means that Saudi Arabia has the ability to sabotage any developments on the Syrian scene that move the conflict towards a solution detrimental to its geopolitical interests. Saudi furore over the Iranian nuclear agreement was, in part, driven by the marginalisation of the Kingdom from the process. Such is certainly not the case in Syria, where Saudi Arabia is deeply entrenched and committed to continuing the conflict in the name of regime change. None of this bodes well for the prospects of Geneva II succeeding in creating any meaningful framework for a solution in Syria. The Saudis may not be involved in the negotiations but they certainly have the ability to make sure that they go nowhere.
What the last few months have taught us is that the Saudi response to isolation is simply to pursue the same policies with more determination. Hence, the concerted efforts to exercise more control over the Syrian opposition and armed rebel groups. On some level, such policies are not about effecting a particular change but about preventing one. The Saudi leadership is aware of its geopolitical isolation and its inability to independently bring about the political outcomes – such as regime change in Syria – it desires. As such, Saudi is slowly slipping into the role of spoiler, the only practical role it can play under such conditions.
As Western appetite for supporting Syria’s opposition wanes, Saudi Arabia’s ability to exert more influence in the conflict will only increase. Saudi Arabia certainly has the material resources and capacity to compensate for any Western withdrawal of aid to the opposition. And with fewer competitors, the Kingdom will be better positioned to mould the opposition and rebel groups in its own vision.
While some may welcome the isolation of Saudi Arabia, it seems that such isolation is not forcing a retreat, but rather an entrenchment of the Kingdom in the Syrian conflict. At this point, the strategic thinking seems to be to allow the stalemate in Syria to continue until there is more consensus and support for the Kingdom’s positions. With the international community increasingly supporting a political solution to the Syrian conflict, it is unlikely that a Saudi-led consensus on Syria is going to emerge anytime soon.
Samer N Abboud is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University, Pennsylvania. His current focus is on Syrian capital flight.