Riyadh tightens foreign policy

13 March 2014

The kingdom has adopted a more forceful approach to diplomacy in a move to align its domestic and external policies aimed at fighting terrorism and extremism

If further confirmation were needed of Saudi Arabia’s growing assertiveness in its foreign affairs, then developments in early March provided such evidence. In the space of a few days, Riyadh led the recalling of three GCC ambassadors from Qatar for failing to adhere to a non-interference security pact agreed in November, branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terror organisation and ordered all Saudi nationals fighting in overseas conflicts to return home.

[There is a] fear of the Brotherhood as a potential political Islamist force that can dethrone the king

Bilal Saab, Brent Scowcroft Centre

These events were a continuation of the kingdom’s more forceful approach to diplomacy that started in October 2013, when it refused a seat on the UN Security Council in response to what it considered to be a lack of Western action to resolve the Syrian civil war.

Open letter

This was followed by the publication in December of an open letter to the New York Times from the kingdom’s ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al-Saud. In it he stated Riyadh was tired of the procrastination of others and was prepared to take any steps necessary to maintain stability both domestically and within the wider Middle East.

There are now growing concerns about how the kingdom’s increasingly hawkish stance might inflame what is already a volatile situation in the Middle East and escalate tensions with several of its neighbours, especially Qatar.

At the heart of Saudi Arabia’s security clampdown is a deep fear of the risk to domestic security posed by the Islamist militant groups that are now proliferating in the region.

“Riyadh has woken up to the fact that you can’t encourage Syrians to fight a war against Bashar al-Assad without there being serious risks to its own society, and the adjustments it is making to previous policies is a recognition of those risks,” says Sir Richard Dalton, former British diplomat and associate fellow on the Middle East and North Africa for London think-tank Chatham House. 

The spat [between Saudi Arabia and Qatar] is a case of the young guard resisting the wishes of the old guard

Sir Richard Dalton, Chatham House

This realisation is also thought to be behind the replacement in February of intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as the leading figure in the kingdom’s efforts to fund and arm opposition forces in Syria. No official reason was given for Prince Bandar being relieved of his duties, but the move can be seen as a clear strategy to align both domestic and external policies aimed at fighting extremism and terrorism.

The fear for domestic security is genuine; a spate of terrorist attacks shook the kingdom in 2003, perpetrated by jihadis returning from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A de-radicalisation programme was launched in response that sought to rehabilitate young men back into society by helping them find work and even, in some cases, wives. The government does not want a repeat of events and has clearly reassessed its involvement in Syria and other regional flashpoints.

The 7 March royal decree that declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation gave Saudi nationals fighting abroad for extremist organisations 15 days from 9 March to return home or face jail terms of up to 20 years.

The Brotherhood now ranks in Riyadh’s eyes alongside organisations such as Lebanon-based Shia militant group Hezbollah, the Syria-based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front.

Insurgency fears

The Muslim Brotherhood has long been feared by Riyadh as a powerful political opposition group, capable of fomenting an insurgency against the Saudi royal family. It was outlawed by Egypt’s military rulers, but flourished following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

“[There is a] fear of the Brotherhood as a potential political Islamist force that can dethrone the king and take over Riyadh,” says Bilal Saab, senior fellow for the Washington-based Brent Scowcroft Centre on International Security. “The campaign against them is being directed by [Interior Minister] Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and has the full endorsement of King Abdullah.”

The military coup in June 2013 that removed President Mohamed Mursi and the Brotherhood from power in Egypt was immediately rewarded by Riyadh with $12bn of funding.

The Saudi government and its partners in the UAE and Bahrain hope to eliminate the organisation from the Arabian Peninsula in order to protect their dynastic rule. But this clampdown on the organisation has now put the three countries in direct opposition to Qatar, raising concerns about the cohesion of the GCC as a political and economic bloc.

In recent years, Doha has provided a refuge for elements of the Brotherhood, much to the ire of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh; its spiritual leader Youssef al-Qaradawi makes frequent appearances on Qatari state-owned television channel Al-Jazeera.

Unmet demands

It is an open secret that King Abdullah has made several demands to Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the past few months concerning some of Doha’s foreign policies in the wake of the June leadership change. Most of the complaints have centred on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood as well as alleged backing for Islamist groups in Syria and Yemen.

“The spat [between Saudi Arabia and Qatar] is, among other things, a case of the young guard resisting the wishes of the old guard, and this type of confrontation never goes down well with the old guard,” says Dalton. “King Abdullah wanted Sheikh Tamim to change his polices and he has obviously said no. This has led to Riyadh taking a much firmer line than before.”

Rumours have since emerged of Saudi Arabia threatening to blockade its smaller neighbour by sea and air, as well as demanding the closure of Al-Jazeera and the offices of two US think-tanks in the Gulf state.

The recent turn of events will not make matters any easier for US President Barack Obama as he prepares to make a state visit to the kingdom this month to discuss other issues that have contributed to Riyadh’s more assertive foreign policy.  The standoff with Qatar is almost certain to be discussed, although most observers feel Washington will be extremely reluctant to involve itself in the GCC’s internal politics. 

“The recent development with Qatar is a big headache for Washington; it complicates everything,” says Saab. “But US officials will treat it as an internal dispute and try to minimise its negative repercussions.”

Other items on the agenda will include Syria, Egypt and Iran. Obama’s priority will be to reassure Riyadh that a nuclear-free Iran is good for everyone. It is likely he will attempt to convince King Abdullah that Washington is not betraying its historical Arab allies, but is trying to make them safer.

“There is no doubt that Obama will have his work cut out to convince the Saudis that the doubts about the US being a serious ally are unfounded,” says Dalton. “The perception in much of the Arab world, that the US’ recent policies do not serve its Arab partners, is proving extremely resistant to Washington’s counter-argument.”

Iran’s recent return to the international fold has caused consternation in Riyadh, especially as the detente has also been welcomed by other GCC countries, namely Oman, Qatar and the UAE, which are keen to foster better relations with Tehran. 

“King Abdullah has always been correct in his personal approach to Iranian leaders, but that doesn’t mean his policy towards Tehran is flexible or forgiving. In fact the opposite is true,” says Dalton. “Riyadh is unconvinced that Tehran can control the security agencies in Iran, and clashes over Syria and Iraq are not improving the prospects of a more constructive cycle of talks.”  

Adding to the complexity of the situation, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a March interview with TV channel France24, accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in Iraq, Syria and around the world.

Riyadh finds itself engaged in a struggle for power and influence in many theatres across the Middle East and the next few months will see further developments unfold.

Despite withdrawing support for jihadist groups in Syria, the kingdom is determined to see the Al-Assad regime fall and Iran lose its influence in the country. It is now coordinating plans in Jordan that will arm the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), enable it to launch a spring offensive in the south of Syria and ultimately launch a serious assault on Damascus.

Syria strategy

The emphasis on a new front in the south is intended to mitigate the risk of arms falling into the hands of Islamist rebels groups such as ISIS or the Al-Nusra Front in the north and east of Syria.

There are reports a command centre in Amman has been set up from where vehicles, arms and ammunition can be supplied to the FSA, although this has been denied by the Jordanian security services.   

The past three years have proved that deposing Al-Assad is not an easy task, and even if he is removed, there will remain the threat of Syria descending into even more chaos, as has happened in Libya and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Egyptians are set to vote in presidential elections again by the end of April, and Riyadh will be looking to ensure the North African state’s future political landscape does not include the Muslim Brotherhood.

A fresh assault on Damascus looks likely by the summer and if Al-Assad is finally deposed, Iran will lose its strongest Arab ally. This would need to be followed by a swift transition of power to a moderate government, as well as the deployment of a peace-keeping force aimed at lessening the impact of clashes between rebel groups.

If the US can also convince Iran to stick to its pledge to stop enriching uranium then the end of the year could even see a new cycle of talks take place between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic.

However, this is the perfect scenario for Riyadh, and history has told us that in the Middle East nothing is ever that simple. There is every chance that the exact opposite could happen in one or even all of the above situations and the kingdom’s isolationist stance could plunge the region into an even more tumultuous and uncertain period.

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