Riyadh’s resurgent diplomacy

28 September 2010

Saudi Arabia’s increasingly active role in Middle East politics is motivated by a desire to restore its status in the region

Key Saudi Arabia fact

Media reports say the kingdom is planning to spend $60bn on overhauling its military

Source: MEED

Throughout centuries of diplomacy, many of the world’s political leaders have followed the model made famous by former US president Theodore Roosevelt, that of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

There are few countries where this is a more appropriate analogy than Saudi Arabia in 2010. Recent reports that the kingdom plans to spend $60bn to overhaul its military capabilities show that it is keen to ensure its security is defended by more than just fine words. But while the proposed arms deal has captured headlines around the world, Riyadh’s soft words have proved no less newsworthy.

Middle East diplomacy

During the course of 2010, Saudi Arabia has played an increasingly engaged role in Middle East diplomacy. On 30 July, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz gave every appearance that the kingdom has put aside its differences with Syria by travelling to Beirut with President Bashar al-Assad for an impromptu summit with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon.

The Saudi regime can see Egypt’s status being reduced … it shows that their status can be reduced too

Simon Henderson, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

The talks were designed to calm rising political tensions between rival factions of the unity government in Lebanon, an outcome in the interests of all three countries. Although the political situation in Lebanon remains delicate, this demonstration of regional solidarity played a critical part in preventing a rhetorical stand-off between Saad Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Shia militant group Hezbollah, developing into something more serious.

The Saudi monarch was also a prominent actor in preparing the ground for the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on 2 September after a 20-month hiatus. Along with concerted pressure from the US, the king’s support for the talks was an important element in urging a reluctant Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table, and in securing the backing of the Arab League for the process. King Abdullah and George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East and the chief US mediator in the peace talks, had met as early as 24 January to discuss how to overcome obstacles to the resumption of talks.

Qatar has stolen quite a lead [on regional diplomacy] in recent years, and Oman has been involved too

Christopher Davidson, Durham University

The rationale behind Riyadh’s high-profile role in regional diplomacy in recent months is twofold. On the one hand, it is pursuing a range of pragmatic geopolitical aims. These include an improved relationship with Damascus, the maintenance of political stability in Lebanon, and, above all, the rolling back of Iran’s influence in the region. Equally important as these objectives, however, is Riyadh’s ambition to re-establish its diplomatic influence for its own sake.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Saudi Arabia grew accustomed to being one of four major political forces in the Middle East, along with Egypt, Iran and Iraq. But in the past 10 years, the picture has changed dramatically. After three major wars in as many decades, Iraq’s authority is a vacuum that has still to be filled, while Egypt’s influence is steadily declining. Riyadh’s oil wealth has ensured it continues to play a major role in the region, but it is increasingly discomfited by the belligerent posturing of Iran. Its pre-eminence among the GCC members, meanwhile, has been challenged by the rapid economic development of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE, and by Qatar’s efforts to carve a diplomacy role of its own.

Saudi Arabia Defence Forces
Air defence forces16,000
Industrial security force9,000+
National guard100,000
   – Border guard10,500
   – Coast guard4,500
   – Special security force500
Source: IISS The Military Balance 2010

“The Saudi regime can see Egypt’s status being reduced and that concerns them because it shows that their status can be reduced too,” says Simon Henderson, a specialist in Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their prestige is based on their wealth and their status as custodians of the two holy mosques. But they see this as being under threat from those who don’t respect this, such as Syria and Iran.”

As the experience of Qatar has shown, diplomatic intervention is a highly effective way of establishing political kudos. Since 2007, the small emirate has mediated disputes involving Israel and Palestine; Sudan; Iran; and Lebanon. Doha even tried to intervene in Yemen, where, unusually, Saudi Arabia’s own forces were deployed against armed Shia groups on the border between the two countries.

Qatari rivalry

“Saudi Arabia is trying to position itself as a regional hegemon again,” says Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK. “Reviving the Saudi plan for Arab-Israeli peace or trying to resolve the domestic political situation in Lebanon is a legitimacy resource that all of the Gulf monarchs are after. There’s a lot of political capital to be gained from it. If you can solve one of these disputes it looks good on the international stage.”

Opinion is divided as to what extent Qatar’s rise to prominence in the diplomatic sphere has been an affront to the Saudi monarchy. Certainly, there was bad blood between the two countries after 1995, when Riyadh allegedly attempted to re-engineer the restoration of Khalifa al-Thani to the Qatari leadership shortly after he had been deposed by his son, the current emir Hamad al-Thani.

Doha’s policy towards Tehran has also often contradicted that of Riyadh. Qatar took the unprecedented step of inviting Iran to the GCC summit it hosted in 2007, and in early 2009, when Cairo and Riyadh opposed its calls for an extraordinary Arab League meeting to discuss Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip, it held its own summit, to which Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was again invited.

Riyadh and Doha’s competing aims

Some analysts argue such differences have been smoothed over, and that Riyadh is now grateful Doha can provide a channel of communication with Tehran that it could never itself envisage. “Since King Abdullah came to power [in 2005], Qatar has shifted its policy closer to Saudi Arabia,” says Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “Qatar is now playing the game of mediation with the full approval of Saudi Arabia. Whenever Doha is involved in a major initiative, it will go to Riyadh before and after to inform them what they are doing and to consult with them.”

Yet however close the two countries are, Riyadh cannot help but notice the political capital that its neighbour has accumulated from its diplomatic efforts. It is widely acknowledged the resolution in May 2008 of an 18-month stand-off between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah was in large part due to the backing of Saudi Arabia and Syria for an agreement on the formation of a national unity government. But Qatar, which formally mediated the deal, reaped most of the credit: the settlement was signed in Doha and named after the Qatari capital.

“Qatar has stolen quite a lead [on regional diplomacy] in recent years, and Oman has been involved recently too,” says Davidson. “Saudi Arabia is keen not to allow that role to slip away from it. In 1981, the kingdom was first off the block with its Arab-Israeli peace plan, and my guess is that what they won’t tolerate is a small state such as Qatar taking a large role in the process. Riyadh wants to take ownership of the process from the Gulf side.”

How successful Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy objectives will be remains to be seen. In both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, it has sponsored arrangements that may well endure only briefly.

“Saudi Arabia and Syria seem to have told their friends in Lebanon to cool it, but one wonders whether it can hold, as the tensions seem to be rising as the date approaches for the announcement of the findings of the special tribunal [into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005],” says Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

“Saudi Arabia supports the reopening of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” says Henderson. “But I don’t think they have much faith that they will lead anywhere.”

Saudi Arabia’s role as a centre of the Islamic faith and a leader of the Arab world mean that it will always have an intrinsic attachment to the Palestinian cause. But from a geopolitical point of view, whether the peace talks lead anywhere is not of paramount importance for Riyadh.

In foreign policy terms, the issue is dwarfed by its desire to ensure that Iran is contained. Riyadh wants to make sure Shia movements are not empowered in Iraq or Lebanon, that the insurgency in Yemen does not spread again into Saudi territory, and that religious tensions, such as those recently encountered in Bahrain, do not boil over. In diplomatic terms, what is most important for Riyadh is that it takes centre-stage in the talks.

Riyadh’s political capital

“Riyadh clearly won’t give up on the peace process, because the political capital that it can gain is judged to be enormous,” says Davidson.

“But unfortunately the legitimacy resource gained from getting involved in disputes does not require that they are solved. If anything, the longer they fester, the more legitimacy they can derive in the long term. The kingdom’s support of Palestine has been a source of legitimacy in the Arab world, while its willingness to listen to Israel has become a way of gaining US support.”

But to judge Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy by its willingness to exercise its authority on behalf of others, would be an unfair; the search for altruism in the foreign policy of any nation is always likely to be a fruitless task. The actions of any sovereign state, be it with big sticks or soft words, are ultimately an expression of the interests of its rulers, and Saudi Arabia is no different.

“The first objective has always been the survival of the House of Saud,” says Thomas Lippman, a specialist in Saudi Arabia at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “All its possible moves are evaluated on whether or not they enhance this prospect.”

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