A New Era of Saudi Diplomacy Has Arrived

A New Era of Saudi Diplomacy Has Arrived

As part of the crown prince’s modernization drive, there has been a push towards forging a more autonomous foreign policy, with national interests taking precedence over longstanding ties established in a different time.

Over the past three years, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has evolved from a confrontational and interventionist posture to one that emphasizes constructive engagement and bridge-building with other regional powers. Riyadh has embarked on an intensive diplomatic change of tack, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and fueled by abundant petrodollars, robust economic growth, and growing self-assurance.

Engagement allows Saudi Arabia to devote its energies to the economic transformation agenda of Vision 2030 while also enhancing its global influence. However, the renewal of conflicts, both within and outside the Middle East, has revealed Saudi diplomacy’s limitations and highlighted the kingdom’s persistently high level of geopolitical risk.

A “Vision” Imperiled

A confluence of factors, including diminished confidence in U.S. security assurances, the pressing necessity to implement economic reforms, and the moral and material costs of its military intervention in Yemen, have led to a pronounced shift in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy away from confrontation and towards conciliation.

The pivotal moment in this shift occurred on September 14, 2019, when a cruise missile and drone attack targeting Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing and Khurais oil field, widely attributed to Iran, disrupted over half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. In response to the attack and the United States’s decision to refrain from retaliating against Iran, Riyadh initiated its own efforts towards indirect talks with Tehran to de-escalate tension.

Having abandoned the “pugnacious but profitless” policies of 2015-2018, Saudi Arabia emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with its diplomacy-first approach to regional issues on full display. The January 2021 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit at Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia culminated in the signing of an agreement that ended a nearly four-year blockade of Qatar. The year ended with Crown Prince Mohammed embarking on a tour of the kingdom’s five fellow GCC members to bridge intra-Gulf differences and forge a unified position on Iran.

With this shift in approach, Saudi diplomats, working with trusted Omani interlocutors, agreed in April 2022 to a U.N.-mediated cease-fire in Yemen with the Iran-aligned Houthis. Saudi policymakers also reoriented their discourse regarding Turkey, moving away from framing it as a threat to considering it a potential partner. The June 2022 meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and President Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara concluded with the pledge “to start a new era of cooperation in bilateral relations.”

Since then, Riyadh has also backed away from its failed attempt to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In remarks made at the February 2023 Munich security forum, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan hinted that Assad’s isolation was nearing an end: “There is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable … There is no pathway towards achieving the maximalist goals that we all have.” Three months later, Saudi Arabia hosted an Arab League summit in which Assad was welcomed back after a twelve-year suspension, and the work of diplomatic missions in both countries resumed.

Meanwhile, negotiations facilitated by Oman and, at different times, by Iraq over a two-year period finally bore fruit when, in March 2023, Saudi Arabia reached a deal with Iran, brokered by China, to restore diplomatic relations. Last August, The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi and U.S. officials had made progress on a landmark agreement to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

MBS at the Helm

While Riyadh may have chosen a more careful foreign policy trajectory, it remains decidedly proactive. Crown Prince Mohammed is laser-focused on propelling Saudi Arabia towards a post-oil future, leveraging the nation’s resources to position it as a major geopolitical player with a diversified economic base. Accordingly, Saudi diplomacy is directed at reshaping the region in accordance with perceived Saudi interests and at playing an independent and influential role on the world stage.

Saudi leadership has internalized the idea that the world is now fluid and multipolar. In the face of changing global geopolitics, Riyadh is asserting itself as a self-assured middle power—one that, according to Karen Young, the Crown Prince believes “has the right to work with a shifting constellation of partners to move markets and shape political outcomes.”

Under MBS’ direction, Saudi Arabia strives to cement Riyadh’s status as the leading power in the Arab world and a prominent player in international diplomacy. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has intensified its diplomatic engagement, focusing its efforts on refurbishing the country’s image and reputation as well as that of the crown prince. The kingdom’s security alliance with the United States is preserved while new ties are strengthened with Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is augmenting its presence in multilateral forums and recasting itself as a peacemaker.

The economic reorientation of Saudi Arabia toward Asia and the deepening of its engagements with China are already well advanced. Yet, despite the growing ties with China, Saudi leadership understands that Beijing is unlikely to supplant Washington as the primary regional security provider in the foreseeable future. Even so, Riyadh has signaled to the United States its reluctance to be pressured into any specific geopolitical alignment. Most notably, it has refused to follow the U.S. and European push to isolate Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion and continues to work with Russia on oil policy within the OPEC+ alliance.

In its efforts to advance the country’s interests, Riyadh has worked towards expanding its involvement in multilateral forums, both internationally and regionally. The kingdom’s financial power enables it to play a significant role within the Group of Twenty (G20) framework, the world’s largest economic bloc. The G20 has proven to be a valuable mechanism for furthering Saudi objectives. During the September 2023 summits, Saudi negotiators skillfully led efforts opposing a proposed “fossil fuels phaseout,” as they had in the previous summit in July, agreeing to language in the “New Delhi Leaders' Declaration” on renewables only after the text included a mention of other technologies to limit emissions. On the sidelines of the September 2023 Summit, the India-Middle East-Corridor (IMEC), with Saudi Arabia’s backing, was announced. If realized, IMEC, a multinational intermodal transportation network, has the potential to position the Gulf region as a focal point of global commerce and could present unprecedented opportunities beyond energy for Saudi businesses.

Riyadh has also waged a vigorous soft diplomacy campaign aimed at countries in the Global South, especially across Africa. Last November, Riyadh hosted the inaugural Saudi-African Summit, a gathering that brought together leaders from fifty countries across the continent. At the summit, Crown Prince Mohammed pledged to support “innovative solutions” to tackle African debt, with the Saudi Finance Ministry announcing plans to disburse some $533 million worth of development financing. The convening of the summit underscored Saudi Arabia’s vision of integrating Africa into its diversified foreign policy and trade priorities and of demonstrating global leadership by nurturing stronger bonds between the Arab region and the Continent. It also formed part of a well-executed, successful campaign to secure the endorsement of African states of the kingdom’s candidacy to host Expo 2030 and the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

Saudi Arabia’s proactive multilateral diplomacy has expanded its horizons eastward as well. In March 2023, the Saudi cabinet approved a decision to join the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner. Four months later, the inaugural summit-level meeting between the GCC and the five Central Asian states was held in Jeddah. This collaboration could pave the way for Saudi Arabia to increase its market access and engagement in clean energy and other Central Asian projects. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s decision on whether to accept the invitation to become a full member of BRICS—a group composed of China, Russia, and a handful of major developing countries, is pending. Should it opt to join BRICS, the kingdom would offer further evidence of its pursuit of a progressively nonaligned course and be better positioned to act on its expressed interest in becoming a champion of the Global South.

Mediating conflicts is not a new role for Saudi Arabia. Despite achieving mixed results (i.e., leading to temporary cease-fires rather than sustainable peace), Saudi Arabia has actively participated in mediating some of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and Lebanon’s civil war. However, the most recent mediation activities undertaken by the kingdom reflect a desire to establish itself as a middle power with influence beyond its immediate neighborhood.

In September 2022, Saudi Arabia and Turkey collaborated to facilitate a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. Three months later, the Saudis helped broker a prisoner swap between Washington and Moscow. In May 2023, Jeddah hosted cease-fire negotiations between Sudan’s army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), part of a joint effort with the United States. Last August, Riyadh hosted a two-day peace summit on Ukraine, attended by representatives from more than forty countries across the Global South.

These diplomatic initiatives signify Riyadh’s transition towards a peace-oriented role, marking a significant shift away from more than a decade of confrontational and interventionist policies. The Ukraine talks in Jeddah not only thrust Saudi Arabia into the global spotlight on a critical issue but also afforded MBS a chance to position himself as a world leader with “convening power” and influence reaching far beyond his region despite ongoing challenges in ending his country’s involvement in the Yemen conflict.