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.
What was equally scary to the Saudis was the United States’ gradual policy shift towards Iran, seemingly at the expense of Washington’s Arab allies. To their dismay, the Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015, whereby Iran agreed to scale back, not destroy, its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The Saudis perceived the deal as a destabilizing development, as did the Israelis, with the potential to upset the regional political and military balance. Viewed realistically, the deal strengthens Tehran’s regional economic and military positions, offering it opportunities to reengage in global trade and commerce and reintegrate itself into the global economy. That’s an outcome Israel and the Gulf Arab states unsuccessfully tried to stop.
The Saudis were already complaining that the United States did not come to the defense of the now fallen Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak or intervene in Syria to unseat the Assad government, expectations that did not match America’s interests in the region. President Obama recently dubbed the Gulf Arab allies “free riders” who want “to drag the United States into grinding sectarian conflicts that sometimes had little to do with American interests.” For the United States, facing a rising China in East Asia and cultivating good relations with other important world regions were more important than getting involved in sectarian feuds in the Middle East, driven by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Strategies to Achieve Dominance
The Saudi response to these unfavorable developments took two dimensions: reducing dependence on the United States, and forming alliances to face Iran and its proxies resolutely. Both dimensions ultimately proved ineffective or defective.
First, Riyadh approached China, Russia and India to enhance its economic and diplomatic clout. But the first two states were already more aligned with Iran, and the third enjoys no significant leverage in Middle Eastern affairs. It was hard to find an alternative ally. Instead, close trade, military and diplomatic relations prompted the Saudis to avoid completely jumping out of the U.S. orbit.
Second, Riyadh decided to flex its military muscles and contain Iranian influence by forming new Arab and Muslim military alliances—the Arab coalition to eliminate the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the thirty-four-nation Islamic military alliance to defeat terrorism and extremism.
Both appear to be more “paper alliances” than realistic military blocs, however. The anti-Houthi coalition suffered a massive blow after the Pakistani parliament voted in April 2015 to stay out of the conflict in Yemen. GCC member Oman refused to be a party to the conflict, while Egypt, mindful of its military debacle in the Yemeni civil war of the 1960s, was dragging its feet on the issue of sending troops to aid the Saudi ground offensive in Yemen. Sudan agreed to contribute troops after securing a much needed financial lifeline of $2.2 billion from Qatar and Saudi Arabia; Egypt won oil concessions and $8 billion investment commitment from Riyadh for its participation. The Saudis won Arab support for the war on the Houthis, but at a big cost.
Equally unimpressive is the alliance of thirty-four Sunni Muslim countries Saudi Arabia announced in December 2015. This alliance not only shuts out the Shia-majority states but also excludes the Muslim Central Asian republics and Afghanistan. Oman is not a member of the alliance; neither is Algeria, the largest North African Muslim country with a modern army. There are also real, perhaps insurmountable, difficulties in making this alliance an effective military bloc, such as the limited military capabilities of many of its members; problems of commitment; wide geographic distances (from Morocco in North Africa to Malaysia in Southeast Asia); domestic, political and religious fissures; and so on. There is no common strategic thread other than the Sunni brand of Islam that ties them together.
Limitations to Saudi Dominance
Saudi Arabia has its own fundamental weaknesses, mostly in its economic and military systems, to overcome before it can assert its regional dominance. The Saudi economy is awfully dependent on oil exports—approximately 80 percent of national revenues and 90 percent of export earnings come from the oil sector. The economy remains less diversified with a narrow industrial base, despite a massive modernization program initiated by the late King Faisal in the early 1960s. High dependence on oil has often made it vulnerable to wide fluctuations in global oil markets, such as the drop from $116 per barrel of oil in June 2014 to today’s price below $40.
Recent downticks in oil prices forced the Saudis to declare a deficit budget in 2015, estimated at 20 percent of GDP, a condition likely to persist a few more years. On top of that, the war on Yemen and support for the rebels in Syria have taken a toll on the Saudi economy. Riyadh is incurring a cost of $6 billion every month, or $200 million daily, for war operations in Yemen, a price that the ailing Saudi economy can hardly afford for long. A parallel example is the United States’ high military spending in Iraq, with a total cost of $2 trillion and military expenditures claiming 4.75 percent of GDP in 2011. The United States eventually opted for withdrawal, giving the Iraq dossier to Iran. One might wonder whether a similar fate awaits the Saudis in Yemen.
Another area of serious concern is Riyadh’s recent military expansion, which looks fraught with defects, if not impending dangers. The kingdom keeps importing foreign military hardware, from sophisticated multirole fighter jets to guided missiles. It became the world’s largest arms importer in 2014, with a total of $6.4 billion spending on defense. Between 2011 and 2015 arms imports by Riyadh rose by 275 percent compared to the previous five years. This is part of a general trend in arms purchases by Middle Eastern states, whose imports increased by 61 percent over the same period as a whole. The question is whether a state like Saudi Arabia can assert its military dominance on the regional scale based on imported arms, while its nemesis Iran has achieved remarkable self-sufficiency in armaments. Great and rising powers are also major arms exporters, though they import arms on a limited scale. Saudi Arabia produces no major arms or weapon systems, having instead built up an arms dependency relationship with the West, China and Russia. This makes it susceptible to pressures from exporters, particularly during times of regional military crises. One example is the European Parliament’s recent decision to call for an arms embargo against Riyadh in response to humanitarian disasters in Yemen created by Saudi bombings.
Overall, it looks like that Saudi Arabia is engaging in brinkmanship that it lacks the power to back up. Its bid to emerge as the region’s preeminent military power and control regional affairs may come up short.
Mohammed Nuruzzaman is associate professor of international relations at Gulf University for Science and Technology in West Mishref, Kuwait.