In Critical Conflict Analysis’s first article written by a contributor, Jesus Delintt argues that a level of global leadership on the scale of America, Russia, and China remains a bridge too far for the Saudi Kingdom, who must first contend with domestic growing pains along with failed endeavors stretching from Yemen to Syria to Qatar. This month, join us as we discuss the ramifications of Saudi politics on the broader Middle East. Read the first part of the series, discussing the disastrous military intervention in Yemen, here.
Prelude: Growing Ambitions
By Jesus Delintt
Much has been said about the waning influence of the U.S. and its European allies as of late, perhaps no better indicated than by the West’s abysmal record in stabilizing the Middle East. The escalation of conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and within the Arab Gulf have showcased the growing political deficiencies of the international establishment. Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group and noted political scientist, refers to the current state of leadership as a “G-zero” (1) political climate, one in which global dominion does not exist, and the international powers that be remain in a state of hegemonic limbo. Though this may well be the case, Saudi Arabia has endeavored to play the role of global superpower, ostensibly to promote peace and stability in the region. The latest round of corruption charges against powerful members of the royal family, (2) together with the Kingdom’s newest declarations expounding support for political transparency and religious moderation, have seemingly cleared the way for Saudi leadership to assume the mantle of a worldwide force. Saudi Arabia has supported negotiating efforts in Syria, provided logistical and military support to its allies in Yemen, and formed a coalition to blockade Qatar – all of this in an attempt to underscore its status as a transnational forerunner. However, bloodshed has continued in Yemen, Syrian peace talks have made little more than symbolic concessions, and political disagreements persist between Qatar and its neighbors. Regardless of its successful internal shakeups, Saudi Arabia remains outside the realm of its American, Russian and Chinese counterparts when it comes to prestige and influence on a global scale, but Saudi strategy is likely one that looks towards the long term in order to achieve this goal.
Yemen: Saudi’s Vietnam
“many see Saudi Arabia’s McCarthy-like obsession with Iran as the sole reason for its support of local forces…”
Now in its second year, the civil war in Yemen illustrates Saudi Arabia’s shortfalls in wielding political sway over its neighbors. Many see Saudi Arabia’s McCarthy-like obsession with Iran as the sole reason for its support of ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, leaving many to doubt its motives of advancing peace and security in the region. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s military and logistical support of pro-Hadi forces has been widely criticized by various NGOs (3) and members of the UN as unjustified and intensifying the already disastrous humanitarian circumstances within the Gulf state. The consistent shelling of Yemen’s cities by the Saudi-led coalition has devastated the infrastructure in the country, leaving little in the way of food and up to 2.2 million children suffering from malnutrition. (4) This, in addition to the outbreak of cholera resulting from the absence of proper water sanitation, (5) has made the international community doubtful of Saudi motives. Furthermore, the Kingdom’s inability to convince the United Nations Security Council to classify the Houthis as a terrorist organization further underscores their lack of political clout. Saudi Arabia sits mired in a civil war that has awarded neither honor nor glory, exposing its Yemeni intervention as a political folly of hopeless nation building.
The Syrian Peace Process
Saudi Arabia has echoed global efforts to arm and provide logistical assistance to local Syrian militias, (6) but much like their Russian, American, and Iranian colleagues, this strategy has not only done little to advance peace efforts in Syria, but it has also laid bare the Saudis’ diplomatic shortcomings. Figures presented by the Syrian delegate to the United Nations, Bashar Jafri, state that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent close to 137 billion dollars to finance foreign fighters in Syria. (7) Despite this ostensibly large sum, it amounts to little more than a pittance when compared to the totality of opposition fighters supported by Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Russia and the United States. If Saudi Arabia were truly the global authority it envisions, its financial influence would not only be far greater, but also its efforts would likely have impacted the military campaigns to a much greater degree, especially given the Kingdom’s proximity to Syria. One merely has to look at the 2.4 trillion dollar price tag of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq to realize that a successful regime change needs trillions, not billions. The Saudis have struggled in forming a cohesive voice amidst the multitude of factions that represent the Syrian opposition. This limitation is partially the result of a decades-long policy of political suppression in Syria, but it also brings into question the weight of Saudi influence relative to current diplomatic superpowers. Despite concerted efforts to discuss the possibility of a united front against the Assad regime, the parties continue to devolve into fractured groups.
The Qatar Crisis
In the six months that have passed since much of the Arab Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, severed relations with Qatar, (8) the government has yet to provide sufficient evidence to spur a widespread rebuke of Qatar’s policies. Though sporadic examples have emerged regarding Qatar’s deviation from GCC policy, (9) specifically its relationship with Iran, the global condemnation has centered on the coalition’s inability to find a diplomatic solution rather than chastising Qatar’s diplomatic strategies. With the Saudis at the helm of this pro-Iranian witch hunt there seems to be an air of feverish obsession when it comes to its relationship with the Iranians. For example, the recent uncovering of an Emirati plan to wreak havoc on Qatar’s financial underpinnings through market manipulation (10) demonstrates clearly that Gulf internal politics have not yet matured. As the lead on this effort to constrain Qatar, the Saudi government has proven yet again that its regional influences have limits, and its hope to wield power at the international level is far from realized.
The whirlwind of political shakeups and declarations of religious acceptance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia underscore the oil state’s desire to distance itself from portrayals of extremism and unabated oil wealth, giving the impression that the Saudis are committed to leading the world by example. The driving force behind this movement is the charismatic crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has voiced his support for stamping out ideological zealotry. (11) Prince Salman further expanded on his ideas of religious moderation when he promised to return the country to a more moderate form of Islam. In addition, many speculate that the arrests of various members of the royal family represent a step towards consolidating power in order to placate the international community that still views Saudi politics as backwards and corrupt. Though both of these events signal a major development within the state, it hardly seems sufficient to successfully alter the perception of Saudi as both a major exporter of strict Salafist ideologies and a disregard for basic human rights. Many state-sponsored clerics regularly incite violence against the Shi’a minority within the country, even going so far as to label them as infidels. (12) In regards to political dissension very little praise can be given for the lack of leniency towards opposition groups, where hundreds are imprisoned every year, while scores of others must succumb to public beatings for criticizing the status quo. Prince Salman’s words may have the air of authority, but his top-down approach to policy change barely scratches the surface when it comes to enacting definitive and lasting alterations. For the international community, the Saudi kingdom may have the figurehead needed to drive the country towards global stardom, but beyond the surface lies a plethora of unresolved issues that will continue to block its path.
Saudi Arabia’s actions, both in the foreign policy realm and within its own borders, mirror that of a country eager to be among the international power brokers. However, its latest forays have revealed the inconsistencies between its goals and the actions of its rulers. The strategy in Syria has not coalesced into a major victory on the international relations front, and the same can be said regarding the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which for onlookers around the globe illustrates the gulf state’s underdeveloped view of world affairs. Likewise, the rearrangement of the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia seems to only pay lip service to the idea of leading by example. If the religious leaders and their complicit technocrats sit idly by as extremism continues to run rampant in the country, Saudi Arabia can hardly hope to lead by example. However, historically speaking, these events do indicate the stirrings of a movement that will significantly alter the trajectory of the country. One merely has to note the differences between the late King Abdullah’s reign to see that proclamations of religious tolerance and moderation differ greatly to the strict Wahhabism that past monarchs have embraced. It is not far-fetched to conceive that Saudi Arabia may one day wield significant power at the international level, but for now, its actions have confined it to that of a mere regional interlocutor.