The exhausting war in Yemen, suppression of opposing voices both domestically and abroad and the failure to contain Iranian influence in the region, are some thematic factors which have brought Saudi Arabia to the fragile and delicate threshold in the Middle East.
The condition could prove to be the watershed event in the geopolitical situation of the region as the fading clout of KSA in the Middle East might lead towards instability due to a power vacuum. The similarity can be drawn from that of Iraq in 2003 which, in the region, had remained devoid of any powerful and loyal ally and thus, its political instability after US invasion triggered the power tussle among numerous contestants.
The failure of KSA in reaching out to other states in the region can be traced owing to two striking factors. One is its unsuccessful attempts in devising the meaningful strategy concerning regional conflicts while other is the rise of rival states that challenge its role in the region. The fundamental deficiency in KSA’s strategic policy for the region lies in its approach which is though pre-emptive yet provocative at the same time. The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017 under mysterious circumstances leave many experts speculative of possible KSA role in his decision. Likewise, the decision of waging war upon Yemen indiscriminately and the support to opposing groups inside Iraq and Syria in addition to enforcing the decision of severing diplomatic ties to the former ally, Qatar, are all those indicative steps which allege KSA of inculcating instability in the region.
Unnatural Alliances of KSA with NSAs
KSA’s inability to utilize its proxy networks and aligned groups efficiently due to either incoherent ideology or unacceptability among a large number of indigenous population resulted in the failure of its policy objectives in the region. Such efforts of KSA often received the backlash due to other contending parties like Iran with more sophisticated connections with its aligned actors. The trend is manifested in Iraq where KSA support to Haider Al-Abadi, and his alliance with Muqtada Al-Sadr, in the elections of 2018 remained futile as the latter was unable to form the government. Similarly, in Syria, Saudi’s alleged sponsorship of Al-Nusra Front also drew criticism due to its affiliation with Al-Qaeda. Due to the global outcry against terrorism, KSA strategy couldn’t prove successful in Syria either, as rival nexus, comprising of Iran-Russia and Syrian Army, quickly launched the counter-terrorism operation against those Islamists.
KSA Policy Failure at the Regional Level
The sequential backdrops of KSA at the regional level in amalgamation with the exertive role it tends to play over its allies caused disarray for other states regarding their position in the region. Strategic failures and the rise of the challenger states are not the exclusive features for KSA only rather this trend is inevitably entrenched in the geopolitical befalling of every other region in the world. But what has made KSA vulnerable, in fact, the weakening state in the region is the inconsistency in the policies of its allies and itself which has left KSA largely aloof from its other allied states. The strategic isolation of KSA further worsened the contextual framework for it in forging its interests in the region effectively. Qatar’s diversion from KSA block, restoration of diplomatic ties by the other Arab States with Syria, hence strengthening the position of Assad, and UAE’s military withdrawal from Yemen have the consequential effect for KSA; eventually rewarding it the status of a declining state.
The Failure to Appease the West
Even at the transregional platform, within the international community of nation-states, the prestige of KSA received the major daunt due to two factors. One is the killing of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Embassy in Turkey. Second is the brutal crackdown upon opposition including the members of royalty who opposed the policies of Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, otherwise known as MBS. The moderation wave which swept across the entire country of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of MBS, including granting liberties to women, opening up of cinemas and strict anti-corruption policies, is seen as highly suspicious by experts as merely the effort to please the West rather than sincerely reforming the structural conservativeness.
Strategic Backdrops at the Societal Level
On the contrary, at the sub-regional level, the normalization of ties with Israel and the silent policy over Palestine issue has damaged the KSA’s reputation at the societal level. Hence, the course of action which KSA has adopted for the international politics turned out to be the losing battle for it at all fronts. Especially, after the instigation of the Arab Spring, the crises which emancipate within the kingdom and kingdom’s response to them have made the ground circumstances highly vulnerable for any abrupt unrest. Though the kingdom remained largely unaffected from the Arab Spring owing to the financial incentives offered by the state yet the brutal crackdown of Shi’ites in the Eastern Province created hurdles in smoothening the turbulence. Saudi fears of Iranian expansionism through the Saudi Shi’ites should have been dealt with pragmatism by offering economic packages and listening to the concerns of the beleaguered Shi’ite community. However, adhering to the force in governing the Shi’ite masses synonymizes with shooting your own foot as it would further disillusion the community from the state.
Importance of KSA for the US
Despite successive setbacks, KSA has managed to survive which makes the experts pondering over the importance of KSA. Being a crucial torchbearer of Western interests in the region, the significance of KSA can’t be neglected for multiple reasons. Firstly, it provides the West, mainly the US, the energy resources for its industries in the shape of oil. Secondly, due to its Islamic prestige among the Muslim World, it helped the US in gaining the support of other Muslim nations. Thirdly, it is the crucial ally for the US in the region in containing Iran owing to its influence over the other Gulf States. Fourthly, the KSA-Israel Nexus has managed to halt the Iranian influence in the region to an extent through the presence of strong lobby in West and contributing its share in the reimposition of sanctions upon Iran.
Lastly, due to its economic outreach, it provides investment opportunities and bargaining tools for other Arab states to align their interests with it. Furthermore, KSA’s leadership role in the Muslim Military Alliance i.e. “Muslim NATO” and its influence in OIC and Arabs League have largely employed convenience for US in forging its interests through KSA.
Thus, it is noticeable that KSA leaves no alternative option for the policymakers in the US to align with due to various vested interests. Besides, also worth mentioning is the persistence of KSA’s anti-Iran policy despite bearing the setbacks. KSA has so far been able to resist the Iranian influence from entrenching into the Arab’s society with the exception of few cases like Iraq and Lebanon. However, how far will it succeed is questionable. As a state, KSA has always found a crucial spot among the international actors due to its oil assets. But, since oil is draining out and the world is looking optimistically towards green energy or gaseous resources, KSA’s image is likely to be downgraded.
The alternative mechanism of Vision 2030 by KSA is also facing troubles after the journalist killing in October last year. Under the harsh circumstances, the policy which KSA needs to adopt should be based upon mutual interests and consistency with its allies. KSA also need to develop the infrastructure of defence by itself rather than depending upon the US for its security. Otherwise, once KSA power went below the brink, not only it would engulf the kingdom with political turmoil but due to a power vacuum, it would also extend its domino effect in the entire region.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.