The Saudi Dilemma

January 2, 2014 Topic: Rogue StatesSecurity Region: Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Dilemma

Saudi Arabia's foreign policy is failing. So why is Riyadh doubling down?


The recent violence in Lebanon that resulted in the death of Mohammad Chatah, a prominent Sunni politician and a vocal critic of Hezbollah, must not be viewed in a vacuum. Earlier this month, extremist Sunni groups with ties to Al Qaeda bombed the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The recent surge in violence in Lebanon has been seen by many political observers in the region as a message by Saudi Arabia to Iran: stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad or else. Unfortunately, it is not a message that Saudi Arabia can deliver effectively.

It has not been a good few years for the Kingdom. As U.S. and Iranian negotiators were secretly meeting in Oman over the summer, the Kingdom had been arguing unsuccessfully for the Obama administration to intercede militarily in Syria to remove President Bashar Assad from power. It has long argued for the U.S. to take military action against Iran’ nuclear facilities. The fact that the United States has chosen diplomacy instead of military confrontation with Tehran and Damascus has dealt a blow to Saudi Arabia’s regional agenda. Now members of the U.S. Congress are calling for declassifying parts of the 9/11 Commission Report, which would could further embarrass the Kingdom and raise questions as to how reliable an “ally” it really is to the United States.


Oddly, after having secured a highly coveted seat on the UN Security Council, Riyadh at the last minute rejected it, ostensibly to demonstrate its displeasure with the UN (read: U.S.) over its handling of Iran and Syria. Adding insult to injury, at a recent meeting of GCC member states, countries that have always been deferential to Saudi’s role as the senior partner of the Gulf monarchies, rejected the Kingdom’s initiative to form a confederation.

Saudi Arabia’s problems are not all of its own making. Riyadh could potentially be the biggest loser as Iran and the United States slowly inch closer to a framework to not only settle their differences on Iran’s nuclear program but to eventually normalize their relationship.

Riyadh could rest easy while Tehran and Washington weren’t sitting across the table talking to each other. The Kingdom’s interest in maintaining the status quo against Iran is grounded in its belief that, if Iran were ever to be integrated politically and economically in the international community, it would undermine Saudi Arabia’s role as the partner of choice for the United States in the Persian Gulf.

Saudi Arabia has long held its oil production and its deep pockets as leverage over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. While in the past this has proven to be sufficient, at this moment, the Kingdom’s approach has lost its effectiveness. The U.S. is significantly reducing its reliance upon foreign energy sources, and while it will not abandon long-held security commitments to the Gulf Arab monarchies, it will also not view each regional threat the same way as they do.

The Saudi position is untenable. There is no popular or political appetite in the United States to fight any more wars in the Middle East or to get involved in sectarian violence in other countries.

It is also politically inconceivable for the United States to not look for ways to directly talk to Iran and manage its differences bilaterally—the Kingdom’s protestation notwithstanding. Saudi Arabia cannot project power beyond its borders, and instead relies on supporting radical Sunni groups to fight for its interests in Syria and Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

However, the Kingdom must be careful. Once those radical groups stop fighting in other countries, they eventually could turn their zeal against the house of Saud. This is what Al Qaeda did after the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan.

Moreover, when it comes to Saudi security, there is no other game in town than the U.S. itself. No country other than the U.S. is able to safeguard the Arab monarchies.

The Saudis can make headlines about changing horses, but Washington’s protective umbrella will always be more appealing to them than that of Paris or London, not to mention Moscow or Beijing.

Saudi Arabia’s options are limited; it should seek to play the part of constructive ally to the United States and welcome a nuclear deal with Iran that alleviates the region’s nuclear concerns. If not for a final deal that limits Iran’s enrichment capabilities, Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure would only expand and Saudi Arabia would feel more insecure.

Saudi Arabia should also take advantage of the change in tone coming from the new Rouhani administration in Tehran, which is seeking better relations with its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. The UAE and Oman have welcomed Iranian overtures, rather than dismissing them as a mere “charm offensive”.

Saudi Arabia should look for ways to diffuse the sectarian violence that has gripped Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen, not exacerbate them. That can only happen if Riyadh and Tehran reach an understanding with each other about their respective roles in the region.

The tectonic plates are shifting in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a regional power with a unique position in both the Arab and Islamic worlds. It should not continue to “box itself in” with failed policy positions that only undermine its own interests.

Amir Handjani is an energy lawyer and Mideast expert living and working in the U.A.E. and New York. He is a senior advisor to Karv Communications, a strategic communications firm with a focus on corporate communications, crisis management, and public affairs. He may be followed on Twitter @ahandjani.

Image: Flickr/Alan Wilson. CC BY-SA 2.0.