In the more assertive Saudi Arabia that’s emerging after the Arab Spring, war is no longer taboo as an instrument of policy and Washington’s approval isn’t required.
Once known for cautious diplomacy, the oil-rich kingdom is turning more frequently to hard power. The shift has been under way since unrest swept across the Arab world in 2011. It accelerated after the succession of King Salman in January, and the promotion as defense chief of his son, who’s part of the Saudi delegation meeting President Barack Obama at Camp David on Thursday.
Since the overhaul, the Saudis have started an air war in Yemen against Shiite Muslim rebels they accuse of being tools of Iran.
“We are witnessing the first real attempt to see whether Saudi Arabia can become the new military and political superpower of the Arab world,” said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. “A younger generation of impatient Saudi hawks is coming to power that is fed up with the failure of the kingdom to project its military and political influence.”
The changes may not be entirely welcome to the U.S., the kingdom’s historic defender, just as recent American policies -- especially the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival -- haven’t gone down well in the Gulf. The summit of Arab leaders at Camp David can’t disguise the fact that the longtime allies are drifting apart. King Salman didn’t attend, and his nephew and son -- the prime movers of the new policy -- are heading the Saudi delegation.
The Saudi readiness to use force predates the change of kings. It was on display in Bahrain in the early months of the 2011 Arab revolts. As protests spread among Bahrain’s Shiite majority, Saudi Arabia sent troops in to crush the uprising, at the head of a coalition of Sunni Gulf monarchies. As in Yemen today, the Saudis alleged an Iranian role in the unrest.
“Military intervention in Bahrain marked the beginning of the country’s muscular foreign policy, one that is independent of the U.S. security umbrella,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Mideast politics at the London School of Economics.
The Saudis have also played a role in Syria’s civil war, backing opposition groups and criticizing the U.S. for being too soft on President Bashar al-Assad.
Pressure for a change of approach has been percolating through the opaque Saudi political system for some time. There’s a school of policy thinkers voicing support for the kingdom’s assertiveness. Two of its leaders are Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., and Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
The ambassador wrote in a December 2013 editorial in the New York Times that Saudi Arabia will act to fulfill its perceived responsibilities in the region “with or without support of our Western partners.”
Obaid had a similar message when the Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen. The intervention “should serve notice to the world that a major generational shift underway in the kingdom is sure to have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
The stance of both men “is defiant of American guidance,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, in a phone interview Monday. “It’s not just indifferent. It actually takes some pleasure in asserting independence.”
There’s still a bedrock of commercial ties. Saudi Arabia ranked as America’s 10th-largest trade partner last year. The kingdom sells oil, while weapons are among its main purchases. Saudi military outlays jumped 17 percent to exceed $80 billion last year, the biggest increase among major powers.
In charge of the army is Salman’s son Mohammed bin Salman, promoted this year from a low-profile job to become the kingdom’s third most-powerful man. He’s steering the Yemen war and is attending the Camp David summit along with Muhammad bin Nayef, the king’s nephew and crown prince.
For all their sophisticated military hardware, it’s not clear how much progress the Saudis are making in Yemen, where their declared goal is restoring the government ousted by the Shiite Houthi rebels. After more than six weeks of airstrikes against the Houthis, the rebels are still making gains and striking targets inside the kingdom.
“For the first time, the kingdom is using its high-tech military capabilities to score points,” Freeman said. Whether they’re being “used in an effective way to advance policy and achieve political objectives is another question.”
A cease-fire started on Tuesday, though there have been reports of persistent clashes since then.
Inside the kingdom, there’s widespread support for the war. Analysts argue that the kingdom had to act to stop the Houthis from seizing all of Yemen. The official line that the Houthis are clients of Iran and the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah -- viewed with skepticism by many Western diplomats -- is accepted by most Saudis.
“The threat is on our border,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political sociologist. “Saudi Arabia can’t allow another Hezbollah on its border.”
Beyond Yemen, the Saudis are concerned about a wider change to the balance of power in the Middle East
The kingdom has the financial clout that comes from being the world’s biggest oil exporter, and a special status among Islamic countries as the home of the religion’s holy cities. Without matching military prowess, though, it risks being “outclassed” by other regional powers, said James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He cited Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Israel.
“The Saudis are exploiting a window of opportunity” to close the gap, Dorsey said. It’s a high-risk policy and, in countries like Yemen, “short-sighted because it doesn’t solve problems and may well be aggravating them,” he said.
That may be the Saudi purpose, according to Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador
After the invasion of 2003, the U.S. left “a pile of rubble in Iraq and had no plan to organize it in any way,” Freeman said. “Israel has done the same with Gaza. The main point there seems to be just raw intimidation, which may be the point with the Saudis in Yemen.”