With the U.S.-Iranian pursuit of a rapprochement continuing and Riyadh rife with concern about the regional implications of such a deal, Saudi Arabia is seeking to adopt a more assertive foreign policy stance independent of the United States. This tricky but essential process starts with preparing the country domestically and securing the home front.
Toward this end, Riyadh made two notable announcements on Monday: First, Riyadh unveiled a budget of $228 billion, its largest ever, including marked increases in social spending intended to ensure social stability at home and support the foreign policy push. Second, King Abdullah's eldest son, Prince Mitaab, the minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, stated that the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council would raise 100,000 troops as part of the bloc's initial efforts to establish a joint military force. These announcements followed recent leadership changes, with the king appointing his youngest son, Prince Mishaal, governor of the critical Mecca province and naming the former governor, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, education minister.
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Riyadh's opposition to U.S.-Iranian diplomacy stems from a lack of confidence in Washington's ability to contain Tehran's regional ambitions. While Washington hopes a detente with Iran would create a sectarian balance of power in the region, the Saudis see the rapprochement process as naive and one that will backfire. In the end, the Saudis fear, Iran will outmaneuver the United States in the game of geopolitical chess and further Tehran's goals of regional hegemony. Thus, the Saudis need to be able to fend for themselves.
Despite relying on U.S. leadership in regional affairs for decades, the Saudis feel that they are capable of far more than they have demonstrated. From the Saudi perspective, as the world's largest producer of crude oil and custodian of the two holiest mosques of Islam, the kingdom has the wherewithal and global clout to become a leader in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Many within Riyadh's ruling circles have long felt that foreign policy independence is overdue, and there is consensus now that pursuing such a course has become an absolute necessity given regional uncertainties — especially those stemming from the U.S. desire to normalize relations with Iran, the Saudis' arch-nemesis.
Following the American lead unwaveringly would jeopardize the security interests of the kingdom as well as the broader Sunni-dominated Arab world, Riyadh's leadership of which has been demonstrated by its support for Syrian rebels, including those with Salafist-jihadist leanings. In a Dec. 17 op-ed in The New York Times, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, made the Saudi intent clear: "Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region, as the cradle of Islam and one of the Arab world's most significant political powers. We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners."
Despite the sense of urgency among the Saudi leadership, Riyadh recognizes that its pursuit of foreign policy independence will face enormous constraints. It will not be easy for the Saudis to shift gears after decades of reliance on the United States for Saudi national security needs, particularly since Riyadh does not wish to damage its relations with Washington. The Saudis take comfort from the fact that it would take some time for Iran to benefit fully from restored ties with the West. The Iranian economy has reached perhaps its lowest point since the founding of the Islamic republic, and Tehran will not be able to flex its muscles immediately. Riyadh believes it has a window of opportunity in which to prepare itself for an Iran unchained from the shackles of international sanctions.
Still, Saudi Arabia is facing its own major challenges. It needs to maintain stability at a time when domestic and regional circumstances are in flux due to succession-related issues at home and the regional implications of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia also needs to demonstrate in concrete terms that it has the capability to project power in the region. Moreover, the Saudis need to offload the historical baggage of their lead role in producing an extremist Islamist ideology that much of the world sees as a threat to international security. Riyadh will need to demonstrate that its plans to counter Iran will not lead to a strengthening of al Qaeda.