Why is Saudi Arabia changing its foreign policy?
Interview with Toby Craig Jones
“The United States has shown a great deal of public deferrence to Saudi anxieties and positions, but I also suspect that the United Stated will be willing or able to live with an aggravated or aggrieved Saudi Arabia if it means that a settlement with Iran on the nuclear issue is a potential political outcome. That is to say, if the Saudis don’t think they can live with a nuclear settlement, the Americans will be more likely to go ahead without them. It is not in Saudi Arabia’s interests however to act petulantly [irritable, ed.] in the long term. The Saudis have no real political leverage.”
Toby Craig Jones is professor of modern Middle East history at Rutgers University. He is a former fellow at Princeton University’s ‘Oil, Energy and the Middle East’ project. From 2004 to early 2006 he worked as political analyst of the Persian Gulf for the International Crisis Group. Jones is author of “Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia”, published by Harvard University Press in 2010. He is currently working on a new book project called “America’s Oil Wars” also to be published by Harvard University Press. Jones has published articles in The International Journal of Middle East Studies, Middle East Report, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy’s online magazine, the Arab Reform Bulletin, Strategic Insights, and the CTC Sentinel.
Interview by Poyâ Pâkzâd
A ”source close to Saudi policy” recently told Reuters that the country longer wants to be in a position of dependence upon the United States. The reasons given are U.S. ”inaction over Syria’s civil war” and ”recent U.S. overtures to Iran”. This news follows a Saudi turndown of a seat in the U.N. Security Council shortly after winning it, coupled with a recent refusal to work with the C.I.A. in Syria, and the inking of a multibillion dollar naval deal with France. Echoing the Saudi chief spy, do you think this marks the beginning of a “major shift” in the relations between the U.S. and the Kingdom?
JONES: The Saudis have since 9/11, when they came under considerable official and unofficial pressure from the United States, sought to spread their ties out internationally and globally whether to the East or to Europe. They have sought multiple kinds of relationships that they hoped would expand their independence or at least what they think of as their independence from the United States. So this is not anything new. What is new about this is the kind of public declaration of frustration and anger on the part of the Saudis that the United States isn’t doing precisely the kind of bidding that Riyadh wants it to do in the region and especially in Syria.
My view is that the Saudis are throwing a little bit of a public tantrum but nothing serious or substantive will come from this. So part of the answer is no, this is not new and it doesn’t mark a transition, it is more public, which brings it to our attention, but these kinds of uncertainties have been, if not at the heart of the relationship, then at least around for a little while.
The other reason why I don’t think this marks a major shift is because the United States plays a particular role in the Gulf that can’t be played by anybody else. The massive military commitment is expensive, not only financially but also politically. The United States is deeply integrated and connected to security networks across the region and there is lot of commercial profit for the United States coming from that commitment. There is also the political capital that other U.S. allies like Kuwait, Bahrain and the U.A.E. get from this arrangement. It is unlikely that the Saudis could neatly extract themselves from that. It’s one thing to call this a kind of dependency, and the framework that is often rolled in out in this relationship is that the Saudis get American security assurances in exchange for access to oil, but I don’t think that correctly captures the complexity at play here. This is a way of saying that the Saudis can extract themselves if they want to, but in the end they are not interested in it because there is too much power and profit at stake.
So, both parties are politically and economically invested in the relationship, but where does the oil enter the picture? Is the U.S. dependent upon access to Gulf oil, cheap oil, or is it the military and security arrangements that makes the U.S. cling on to the relationship with Saudi Arabia?
JONES: It gets pretty complicated here. We have to remember that oil is a fungible commodity. It’s globally available at multiple sites of production and extraction. And the American concern is global oil, not just Middle Eastern oil. The U.S. wants to ensure global supply and demand at relatively stable prices. American policy makers do not have a policy agenda of making sure that oil is cheap, they simply want it to remain stable so that the global and American economy remains stable. Most American oil comes from the Western hemisphere, not from the Persian Gulf, but because the Gulf has so much oil it becomes important to stabilize the region or at least to ensure the American presence there as much as possible. Questions around “access to Gulf oil” misstates the American interest, because The United States is not interested in controlling the oil reserves or the production in those places. It is concerned about global oil and how this region figures into a global formula.
There is another thing at play here too. In the second half, or the latter third, of the 20th century, and especially in the 21st century, energy has become deeply connected to global military systems. The U.S. signed a 70bn dollar weapons deal with Saudi Arabia in order to repatriate a return of U.S. global oil expenditure. There are few other places on the planet that are willing or able to reinject that kind of money back into the U.S. economy. In this sense the distinction between energy and military interests becomes unclear. Both are equally important when the United States thinks about the Gulf. The U.S. talks about the flow of oil, but is also thinking about selling weapons.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Saudis have become much more active regionally. Not just in Syria, but also in Yemen and Bahrain. According to Saudi insider and royal adviser Nawaf Obaid, the Saudis are embarking on a doctrinal shift towards a more “activist foreign policy”. Is this because the Saudis are reacting to a vacuum in U.S. leadership in the region?
JONES: It’s an interesting question, whether or not the Saudis are acting in an American vacuum. But I actually think the U.S. has more consistently supported the Saudi position than they’ve opposed it, most visibly in Bahrain and in Yemen. And also in Egypt where the United States now supports the military regime and has not really had any problems with the coup there this past summer which was certainly delightful to the Saudis. To answer your original question, yes, the Saudis have become more active in the region, we saw a Saudi military intervention in Bahrain, they are providing air support and air force cover for Yemeni ground operations against Shiite rebels as well as al Qaeda operatives in its South.
The only place where there has been a clear divergence between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been on Syria, where the U.S. has been unwilling to engage itself military even though the Saudis would desperately like to see the U.S. do so.
Overall, the Saudi concerns and reasons for the recent increase in foreign political activity comes down to three issues:
First, there’s Syria, Bahrain and the fear of Iranian regional hegemony. The increase in Saudi activity here is best seen through the lens of a balance of power consideration: They want to check Iranian ambitions in the region. Now whether those [Iranian] ambitions are real or not can be discussed. For example Iran has had no role in Bahrain, but the Saudi believe that they have or they fear that they will, and to some extent that’s true for Yemen as well.
The second issue has to do with fears about democratic transition and change. The Saudis are simply fearful that there could be more support in the region for democratic politics. They want to support the status quo, the old autocrats and all the perquisites that follow from that.
The third thing is connected to the second issue. If there is a popular change in government and more people have a say in the workings of domestic political economy, decision making could shift to more populist kinds of politics. The consequences of that for the Saudis in particular of course would be, that they would lose their grip over the ability to generate massive wealth for themselves and to live their lives of considerable privilege. Being a Saudi not only means that you have power over the Arabian peninsula, it also means that you have fantastic wealth, you know, gold plated 747’s [Boeing airliners], multiple palaces, the ability to travel and so on. It’s a business as much as it is a country, and the Saudis fear the possible passing of their ability to control that.
In an apparent rift with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition, since May of this year Saudi Arabia has taken an increasingly active role in the Syrian crisis. What exactly are the Saudi stakes and long term interests in Syria?
JONES: The Saudi response to Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood by encouraging and coordinating alternative islamist networks, including al Qaeda affiliates and others that would probably like to do the Saudis harm eventually, is a very late development in the Syrian uprising and civil war. Saudi Arabia’s broad strategic thinking was initially about toppling Assad, a client to Teheran, and to install somebody friendly, at least pro-Saudi or more favorable to the Saudis. As the civil war began to take shape and there was a proliferation of islamist networks, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition, Saudi Arabia became anxious about who the winners might be. Then they began actively supporting non-Muslim Brotherhood aligned networks in Syria. The reason for doing so shares a similar dynamic with the Saudi interests in supporting forces in Egypt, including the military, that would bring down Mohammed Morsi. The Saudi reasons for being anxious about the Muslim Brotherhood are historical and domestic. When [former Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel-Nasser rose to power in Egypt in the 1950s and turned against the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the places that opened its door to the exiled Egyptian Brotherhood was Saudi Arabia. But by the end of the 20th century the Saudis would be burned by that decision, because the Brotherhood would take on influential positions and begin to agitate against the Wahhabis and the al-Saud [House of Saud], and calling for political enfranchisement and power for those islamists that did not adhere to the docile, pro-Saudi, Wahhabi version of Islam. So the Saudis have been anxious and uncertain about the power of the Brotherhood to agitate against them in the region, and that explains their turn against the Syrian Brotherhood from late 2012 through 2013.
Saudi Arabia has long lobbied the U.S. for a tough stance on The Islamic Republic of Iran. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, how would a settlement on the nuclear issue between Iran and the U.S. adversely affect its interests? Do they fear an Iranian bomb, or do they actually think, contrary to perceived wisdom, that there is a prospect of partnership between Iran and the U.S. in the near future?
JONES: I think the Saudis are responding very disproportionately to the actual settlement possibilities that are on the table between the U.S. and Iran. But Saudi Arabia’s hysteria and paranoia about what a possible rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran might actually mean tells us something. Saudi Arabia desperately needs there to be a crisis between the U.S. and Iran almost permanently. I wrote a piece a year ago about the role that manufacturing of crises plays in Persian Gulf politics, especially geopolitically, in which crises is pretty much a structural necessity for the Arab states and the Gulf in order to keep the U.S. locked in to a certain anti-Iranian political position. And as you noted, I don’t think the Americans are talking about normalizing the relationship or opening an embassy in Teheran any time soon. But, American political discourse outside of the Obama administration is very warm to that possibility. Even the materialization of the smallest openings is taken as evidence as what a meaningful Iranian American relationship might look like. The Saudis feel like they can’t take the chance of that actually happening.
Whether or not that means they really fear an Iranian bomb is another question. I think, like Israel, the Saudis gain a lot of political headway by screaming at the top of their lungs that an Iranian bomb is imminent, even when it is not. They push the fear line as much as they can because they believe it can paralyze the American political process with the Iranians. But I do believe that people both in Israel and Saudi Arabia think Iran will eventually get the bomb. We shouldn’t discount the sincerity with which they think about these things, nor the anxieties that an Iranian nuclear bomb might mean for them. But for now it’s pretty much at odds with reality. The Iranians are not in fact close to having a nuclear weapon, and that line of thinking, or such claims, have served different political agendas over time, mostly making it impossible for the Americans to move forward in its relationship with Teheran. Historically the U.S. have deferred to the Israelis and the Saudis on the issue of Iran, but we now have the possibility of the U.S. thinking on its own for the first time in over three decades, and that is causing quite a bit of alarm in Saudi Arabia.
Can Washington persuade Riyadh to take a constructive role in the making of an upcoming Geneva II conference on a political solution in Syria against the prospect of a nuclear settlement with Iran?
JONES: I think the parties involved, including the U.S. and Iran, will ultimately have to make a decision about whether or not Saudi Arabia will be a deal maker or deal breaker in Syria. I think the United States has shown a great deal of public deferrence to Saudi anxieties and positions, but I also suspect that the United Stated will be willing or able to live with an aggravated or aggrieved Saudi Arabia if it means that a settlement with Iran on the nuclear issue is a potential political outcome. That is to say, if the Saudis don’t think they can live with a nuclear settlement, the Americans will be more likely to go ahead without them. It is not in Saudi Arabia’s interests however to act petulantly in the long term. The Saudis have no real political leverage. All they can do is enflame or destabilize some of their neighbours, but it is not really in their interest to do so. I think the U.S. believes, probably, that the current Saudi tantrum will pass.
And on the Geneva II conference on Syria?
JONES: Well, I think Saudi Arabia is going to try to thread the needle with regard to a Syrian settlement, but if they can’t get a political resolution on their terms, I think they will encourage agents acting on their behalf to continue their engagement on the Syrian battlefield by providing weapons, logistics, finances and other things on the ground. The Saudis will pursue dual tracks here to maximize their advantage. We are about a week away from an Arab League emergency meeting on Syria in November, where we will get a better and clearer sense of Saudi Arabia’s current policy line and agenda.
I don’t think the Saudis necessarily want a clear cut political resolution in Syria in which Iran is satisfied. That is to say, the Saudis are more interested in victory than compromise at this point. However this could change very suddenly and quickly in the coming weeks and months depending on what happens between the Americans and Iran, and as far as how the Geneva II conference goes forward.