Saudi Arabia’s new strategic narrative

Friday 17/04/2015
Photo: Essam Al-Ghalib

Washington - I t has become customary for prominent Saudis who write articles in the Western media or who give talks at think-tanks and academic institutions to stress one specific theme when speaking about Saudi Arabia’s cur­rent foreign policy posture: The Saudis have adopted a new “doc­trine”.
The Saudis present this change in foreign policy as their answer to confronting the multiple secu­rity threats they are facing, as well as their attempt to adjust to what they see as another disconcerting new reality: The United States has elected to extricate itself from the turmoil of the region.
However, close observation of both traditional and new Saudi media, the kingdom’s publicly ac­knowledged participation in the US-war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and its launch of an unprec­edented military operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen, suggests a much broader and deeper shift is taking place in Saudi thinking than a mere more “assertive” foreign policy.
The Saudis have modified their general ethos by propagating a national strategic narrative. This discernible change has manifested itself dramatically in how the Saudi public has responded to the war ef­fort in Yemen and in how the gov­ernment reacted to the Swedish foreign minister’s public criticism of its human rights record.
Saudi Arabia was taken aback by the “Arab spring”. Not only did the Saudis lose one of their most dependable allies – Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – but the collapse of sev­eral regimes made apparent a new reality: The world’s sole remaining superpower, the United States, was no longer willing or able to assume what some in the region consider to be its moral responsibility to try to stabilise it. The difficult transition that the “Arab spring” countries underwent also proved to be fertile ground for the most brutal Islamist terrorist organisation the world has ever known: the so-called Islamic State.
ISIS flourished in the carnage that Syrian President Bashar As­sad inflicted on his own people and it has since not only taken over a large area spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border, it has vowed to expand its “state” to include Saudi Arabia. The post “Arab spring” turmoil has also provided Iran with an opportunity to widen its influence in the region.
In light of these new security challenges and new realities, the Saudis have changed the way they view themselves and reached new conclusions about how best to deal with their ascendant adversaries – ISIS and Iran – and their reluctant ally, the United States.
The new Saudi ethos stresses its independent decision-making and its confidence in the capability of its military forces. Saudi Arabia no longer feels beholden to the United States. The military action in Yem­en – designated Operation Decisive Storm — is the culmination of years of Saudi innuendo, followed by warnings that it will not “stand by idly” as the region is convulsed by unprecedented violence.
The urge to go it alone has been aggravated by the United States’ negotiations with Iran over its nu­clear energy programme. At a time when Saudi Arabia viewed Tehran as a source of instability in the re­gion, the United States tried to re­habilitate Iran from its internation­al pariah status.
The Saudis have long spoken about being a blessed nation, en­dowed with the world’s largest proven reserves of crude oil but, more importantly in their eyes, cus­todianship of the two holiest sites in Islam.
While Saudi Arabia has tradition­ally preferred to use its eminent status in the Muslim world and wealth to quietly mediate between regional rivals, the turmoil that has gripped the region since 2011, and United States’ unwillingness to stem it, has compelled the Sau­dis to adopt more assertive foreign policies to confront head-on the sources threatening their security. This outward posture has been bol­stered by a concerted effort that has included not only political leaders and opinion-makers in the media but even Saudi clerics, who have played a role in advancing this new strategic national narrative. Many mosque imams used the Friday sermons on April 3rd to rally sup­port for the Yemen operation and to warn about the “machinations” of Iran in the region.
The strong Saudi response to public criticism levelled by Swe­den’s foreign minister against the kingdom over its human rights re­cord, which included stopping issu­ing business visas for Swedes, was yet another indication that the Sau­dis had reached a point where they felt it was necessary to draw their own “red lines”. The Saudis made it clear that they were implement­ing Sharia and that they would not allow others to interfere in their domestic affairs, nor would they be pressured to change their political, social or religious institutions.
This religious fervour is begin­ning to show itself in the Yemen campaign as well, as King Salman was recently quoted as saying that Saudi troops are protecting “our re­ligion”. The overwhelming support the Saudi public has shown for the Yemen campaign suggests that the notion that the Saudis are morally justified to put a stop to the trans­gressions of a violent aggressor has resonated widely.
The Saudis have repeatedly said that the Houthis’ intransigence left them no choice but to resort to mili­tary force. They have also made it clear that this is a defining moment for them that is meant to send a message to both their allies and ad­versaries.