The Myth of Saudi Power
Analysts from the Gulf Arab states are generally upbeat about Saudi Arabia’s possible military dominance in the Gulf neighborhood and the Middle East region. A Saudi commentator has recently argued in an online feature published by the National Interest that Riyadh, in collaboration with Sunni Arab and Muslim allies, stands poised to fill the strategic void created by America’s move to disengage from the Middle East. The kingdom, by means of the “Salman doctrine,” would militarily defeat the ISIS terrorists and Shia extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, subverting Shia Iran’s regional ambitions to challenge 1,400 years of Sunni dominance. The commentator seems animated with sectarian firepower, driven more by rhetoric and less by realities on the ground.
The buzz about Saudi Arabia’s ascendant military role started with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s ascension to the throne in January 2015. The new king’s approach to foreign policy was marked by a big shift—a shift from the traditional policy of restraint to a more assertive role in regional affairs, what the press has branded a “muscular foreign policy.” Just two months after being crowned as the new king, he launched an air offensive on Yemen in late March 2015 to punish the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who forced the Saudi-supported government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee Yemen, and deny Iran a foothold in the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. He also doubled down support for the pro-Saudi Islamic Army rebels, a loose alliance of forty-three Islamist groups committed to establishing sharia law in Syria, to topple the Bashar al-Assad government, Iran’s only Arab ally.
But the Saudis were hardly close to achieving their stated objectives either in Yemen or in Syria. And there are indications that Riyadh is losing the bid for regional dominance, putting its credibility as a counterweight to Iran at risk. President Hadi is still heading the Yemeni government-in-exile, mostly operating from Riyadh. Disappointingly, though, the Saudis are now secretly negotiating with the Houthis to bring the abortive invasion to an end. They appear ready to emerge from Yemen as the losers, leaving their Houthi opponents to cheer victories and probably control Yemeni politics in the future.
In Syria, the Assad government was nowhere close to falling, despite consecutive defeats at the hands of diverse rebel groups in the first half of 2015. But recently, Russia’s direct military intervention, starting in September of last year, gave the Assad government a new lease on life, mostly by eliminating or downsizing the rebel groups backed by Saudi, Turkey, Qatar or the United States. President Bashar al-Assad’s survival now looks more guaranteed than at any previous point in the five-year civil war.
The “Muscular Foreign Policy” Approach
At the center of Saudi Arabia’s current bid for regional dominance lies King Salman’s muscular approach to foreign policy. This policy banks more on military might than on the use of diplomatic tools, cash or even religious influence, which Riyadh has traditionally employed to protect and promote Saudi interests. This assertive policy started with the late King Abdullah’s counterrevolutionary actions against the prodemocracy movements in the Arab world better known as the Arab Spring. King Abdullah, defying U.S. concerns and in a show of strength against Iran, sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to trample the Shia-led movements for democratic rights. In September 2013, he also decided to arm and fund the Islamic Army in Syria to simultaneously beat Al Qaeda and ISIS forces and turn the tide of the Syrian civil war to eventually dislodge the Assad government. King Salman has followed King Abdullah’s policy more vigorously, adding to it a high degree of military assertiveness. The bombing of Yemen remains a signpost in his approach.
Challenging Shia Iran, however, remains the central part of King Salman’s policy. There is no denying that the Arab prodemocracy movements have directly or indirectly expanded Iran’s regional sphere of influence, even if only by default. They paved the way for Iran and the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah to become militarily involved in Syria to defend their ally, the Assad government. Across the border in Iraq, Shia Iran and various Iraqi Shia political groups and militias solidified their ties after the United States brought down the Saddam Hussein regime in May 2003. The rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in late June 2014 further cemented those ties, putting them on the same strategic page to confront ISIS, which views the Shia as heretics, as do the Saudi Wahhabi clerics. A scared Saudi Arabia, after Syria and Iraq had largely slipped into Iranian hands, saw the Houthis as simply another Iranian proxy to spread Iran’s influence in the Arabian Peninsula, thus enlarging the so-called “Shia Crescent” from Beirut to Sanaa via Damascus and Baghdad.