Why Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is failing

Mohammed bin Salman has transformed Saudi Arabia’s traditionally tactical diplomacy to a reckless mess.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh on November 19, 2018 [Reuters]

The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and the spectacular mismanagement of the crisis that ensued show how reckless and ill-advised the kingdom’s foreign policy has become under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

This is the latest in a series of foreign policy blunders Saudi Arabia has suffered under the watch of the 33-year-old crown prince. Other prominent examples include the failed blockade of Qatar, the house arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the diplomatic row with Canada over human rights issues and the disastrous war in Yemen.

One could argue that Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, has had to pursue a more assertive foreign policy because of the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which threatens the security and stability of Saudi Arabia. Yet, there is a clear distinction to be made between “assertive” and “reckless”. With his grave foreign policy miscalculations, MBS has not only moved away from the House of Saud’s traditional tactical diplomacy, but has also effectively pushed his country towards the precipice of political instability.

‘Backseat’ diplomacy

In the first decades of the Cold War, a revolutionary wave swept through the Middle East. In 1952, King Farouk of Egypt, the last monarch of Mohammad Ali’s dynasty which had ruled Egypt since 1805, was overthrown. In 1958, the Hashemite family was brought down by leftist and nationalist forces in Iraq. In 1962, army officers removed Zaydi Imam Mohammad al-Badr, plunging Yemen into a seven-year civil war which ended with the establishment of the republic. And in 1979, the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was toppled and replaced by an Islamic republic led by Shia clerics.

Amid this upheaval, the Saudi monarchy managed to survive, mainly because of its calculative approach to foreign affairs, employing a quiet but remarkably effective diplomacy in dealing with external threats and challenges.


At the beginning of the Cold War, Riyadh took a backseat in most regional conflicts, leaving the rowdy revolutionaries of the Arab world (Egypt, Iraq and Syria) to take the lead. On Palestine, for example, the Saudis decided to keep a low profile. Although Riyadh backed the war efforts of the so-called “ring states” – the Arab countries surrounding Israel – it always refrained from getting involved in a direct military confrontation with the Zionist state. When it decided to get involved – for example by leading the 1973 oil embargo – it always did so through soft or economic power.

Even when it was forced to fight against regional rivals, Saudi Arabia avoided direct conflict and opted for proxy wars. In the 1960s, it drew the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an archenemy for the Saudi ruling family, into a proxy conflict in Yemen. Abdel Nasser sent a large chunk of his army to support the revolutionary effort against Imam Mohammad al-Badr, who was backed by Saudi Arabia. But in doing so, the Egyptian president weakened his army which contributed to its defeat in the 1967 war against Israel and his subsequent political demise. The Egyptian leader died along with his pan-Arab dream three years later.

Using more or less the same tactics, the House of Saud achieved exactly the same results with another revolutionary leader that threatened its rule: Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Riyadh avoided direct confrontation with Tehran, which was seeking to export the revolution and depose the conservative Arab Gulf regimes, and instead, encouraged and supported Iraq in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). This effectively contained the Iranian revolution and the idea of exporting it to the rest of the Middle East withered away with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Throughout the Cold War, Saudi Arabia also played a quiet albeit important role in the international arena, contributing to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, it joined Pakistan and the United States in their efforts to support armed groups resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, funding most of the CIA programmes to arm and train the Mujahideen. The House of Saud also helped plunge oil prices in the second half of the 1980s, bringing the oil-dependent Soviet economy to its knees.

And when the threat came to its borders in August 1990 with Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait, then also Riyadh opted for a circumvent solution. It requested the help of the US which promptly dispatched a coalition force to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait and prevent an invasion of Saudi Arabia.

Resurgent Iran

Thus throughout the second half of the 20th century, Saudi Arabia won most of its battles without having to fire a shot. But the situation over the past few years changed dramatically in the Middle East. The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 eliminated two of Iran’s key regional foes, resuscitating its ambitions for regional hegemony.

The breakout of the Arab Spring in 2011 brought down and undermined a number of dictatorial regimes which Saudi Arabia viewed as the pillars of “stability” in the region. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February of that year, which sent shockwaves across the Middle East. To try to avoid the same fate, Bashar al-Assad unleashed a violent wave of repression onto the Syrian population, eventually plunging the country into a bloody civil war.

For the first time in its recent history, Saudi Arabia found itself completely exposed, with no one to fall back on but itself. To add insult to injury, the Obama administration showed little sensitivity towards Saudi concerns as it sought rapprochement with Iran, leaving Riyadh deeply worried about its security. As the feeling of insecurity in the House of Saud grew, “backseat” diplomacy gave way to a more assertive foreign policy; the tactics, however, remained more or less the same: confrontation by proxy.

Anxious to prevent Iran from taking advantage of this fluid situation, Saudi Arabia – along with the United Arab Emirates – decided to fill in the power vacuum left by a retreating US and the collapse of the Arab heavyweights.

In March 2011, Saudi troops were sent to Bahrain to quash the protest movement. In June 2013, Riyadh supported the military coup in Egypt that overthrew the government of the Muslim Brotherhood. It funnelled billions of dollars in support of Egypt’s military junta as it mercilessly cracked down on the Islamist movement.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia put a lot of effort into undermining the regime of Bashar al-Assad, both militarily and diplomatically. Riyadh financed the purchase of infantry weapons and funnelled millions of dollars to anti-regime fighters in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that had allowed Assad to cling to power.

Yet, it was the Houthis’ takeover of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in September 2014, that shook Saudi Arabia to the core. The death of King Abdullah and the ascendance to the throne of King Salman paved the way for the young and ambitious MBS to lead his country into its first direct military conflict with another country.

Initially, the decision to go to war in Yemen was hailed as a brave and timely intervention to prevent the Houthis from taking complete control of Yemen and hence contributing to Iran’s rising regional influence. However, as the war dragged on with thousands of civilians getting killed, and hospitals and schools getting bombed, it became another foreign policy fiasco for Saudi Arabia. 

A reckless leader

MBS did not stop with the invasion of Yemen. His arrogance and belief that money can buy everything, and his utter ignorance of regional and international realities got Saudi Arabia into deep trouble with each of his aggressive foreign policy decisions.


Instead of trying to build a unified front against the Saudi archenemy, Iran, and direct Saudi resources to that end, MBS found himself fighting on almost every possible front. Right now, he is in conflict with Turkey and its Sunni allies, including Qatar; and with Iran, and its Shia allies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Not only has MBS created more enemies than he can handle, but he has also chosen the wrong allies. He has embarked on a dangerous path of normalisation with Israel, believing that it would pay back in the long run. But with this decision, he risks losing the hearts and minds of the Arab people to Turkey and Iran, both of which have positioned themselves as champions of the Palestinian cause.

More importantly, he risks losing support in his own country and contributing to the rise of more radical forces, as some Saudis come to see their country fighting the wrong “enemies” and allying with the wrong “friends”.

If Mohammed bin Salman continues down this path, he is likely to bring about not only his own political demise, but that of the House of Saud as well.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.