Almost immediately after the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia on January 22 and the ascension of his half-brother, Salman, to the throne, Saudis and Saudi-watchers in the West began speculating about the contours of Saudi domestic and foreign policy under the new king. While the first speech delivered by Salman within hours of becoming monarch stressed continuity, some seemed convinced that Saudi foreign policy in particular might experience an important shift under his watch. A mere two months after assuming the crown, it is becoming clear that King Salman has a different vision than did his predecessor Abdullah, and perhaps all those who came before him. Between restructuring some of the country’s most important political and economic institutions and launching an unprecedented, large-scale military operation in a neighboring country on the verge of a civil war, we could be witnessing the beginning of a completely new Saudi way of thinking. We could be on the verge of a Saudi perestroika.
The notion that Salman intends to forge his own unique legacy, gained credence a week into his reign, when he not only orchestrated one of the more significant cabinet reshuffles in recent history but also engineered a major overhaul of some of the kingdom’s advisory bodies. Royal decrees he issued eliminated twelve different political and economic advisory bodies. In their stead, he created two new bodies, one overseeing the Economy and Development, the other Political and Security Affairs. While some described the move as Salman’s attempt to consolidate power, others saw it as needed “streamlining” of an inflated bureaucracy.
While the cabinet reshuffle and bureaucratic restructuring was the talk of Saudi Arabia for days, the international community was more interested in gleaning clues about the direction Saudi foreign policy might take under Salman, especially at a time of widening violence in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Much of the speculation about a shift in Saudi foreign policy centered on whether the new King would adopt a more flexible position regarding the Muslim Brotherhood than King Abdullah. Not only did Saudi Arabia list the organization—and presumably all its affiliates—as a terrorist organization in late 2014, Saudi religious leaders and media began referring to the Muslim Brotherhood and the so called Islamic State—the terrorist group that now controls a wide swath of land across the Syrian-Iraqi border—interchangeably. However, the first sign that the kingdom could be moderating its stance on the Brotherhood came during a recent interview with the Saudi Foreign Minister, where he was quoted as saying: “We do not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood; our problem is with a small group affiliated to this organization.”
Despite long-standing rumors that King Salman was in “poor” health, he has managed to meet with close to twenty world leaders since becoming king, electing to receive most of them at elaborate ceremonies at Riyadh’s airport. While the king has met with a fair number of foreign leaders, including President Obama, it has been the near daily meetings with leaders of Muslim-majority countries that attracted the attention of many.
They included Turkey’s Erdogan, Egypt’s al-Sisi, Pakistan’s Sharif, and most of the leaders of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The meetings led some Saudis and observers in the West to maintain that the Saudis were reevaluating all their key bilateral relationships with regional countries. Others went further and contended that the Saudis were in the process of forging new alliances in the hope of forming a united front to confront what they consider to be the two major threats to the own national security and to the stability of the region: Iran and ISIS.
For six decades, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was predicated on a mutually beneficial arrangement: the United States would become the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security—as was the case in the 1991 Gulf War—in exchange for latter maintaining an adequate supply of oil that keeps global energy markets stable and oil prices moderate.
However, the Arab Spring, which saw the fall of several long-time Saudi allies, forced the Saudis and Americans to reevaluate many of their assumptions about the region and about the parameters of their own relationship.
While Saudi Arabia and the United States continue to cooperate very closely on several fronts—including airstrikes against ISIS strongholds in Syria—a philosophical divergence, rather than tactical differences has emerged between Saudi Arabia and the United States over the past two years. That divergence led Saudi officials to warn about a “major shift” in how Saudi Arabia sees its relations with the United States. Saudis have begun to write about the need to develop their own military capability to deter any threat to their security, without having to rely on the United States whose priorities and commitments seemed to have changed significantly under President Obama.