Quo Vadis Saudi Arabia

Quo Vadis Saudi Arabia

The replacement of long-serving ministries and restructuring of several influential governmental institutions in Saudi Arabia, with a series of royal decrees announced on May 7, has led to an international debate on a possible shift in the country’s domestic and foreign policies.

With the latest decrees, the 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman replaced the long-serving powerful oil minister Ali al-Naimi, who had been determining the oil policy of the world’s largest oil exporter since 1995. What’s more, the head of the Central Bank and some other institutions – including the water, commerce, health and transport ministries - were changed, while the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources was renamed as the Ministry of Energy, Industry and Natural Resources. All these have been considered as signs of a generational change and a shift to a long-term plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil production.

In fact, the change in Saudi Arabia started with the ascendance of King Salman to the throne on Jan. 23, 2015, following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. In his first 10 days, the new King made serious changes in the cabinet by bringing in three young ministers, and signaled a more assertive and proactive stance in regional affairs.

Saudi Arabia has been struggling to preserve its influential position in the Gulf and in the Middle East in general. The balances of the region were first shaken by the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, which stimulated sectarian fissures not only in Iraq but also in the region, and allowed Iran to gain the upper hand when the Shiites seized power after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

The outbreak of Syrian civil war in early 2011 and the ensuing power vacuum in the country, also increased the Saudi-Iranian confrontation through their proxies in Syria. Since the beginning of the conflict, Saudi Arabia has been providing political, financial, and military support to Sunni groups fighting against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

King Salman’s decision to intervene in the conflict in Yemen in March 2015, just three months after his coronation, heralded his more aggressive stance to counter Iranian influence in the wider region. Despite its financial cost and heavy international criticism, Saudi Arabia has continued to conduct military operations against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Apart from these proxy encounters in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries struck in July 2015 added another layer to the ongoing competition between the two countries. Saudi Arabia has become increasingly worried that a more assertive Iran, with its reintegration into international politics and markets, might present a much more formidable challenge for the political and religious leadership in the region.

Last but not least, Washington’s withdrawn posture regarding regional developments has raised speculation about whether the U.S. is losing its grip on the region. Its nuclear deal with Iran, as well as the fine-tuning of its Syrian policy moving it closer to Russian and Iranian positions, pressed Saudi Arabia to take bolder actions. Even though the U.S. tried to reassure its allies about its regional priorities and policies during meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the nuclear agreement with Iran and the recent discussions on the (partly suppressed) Congressional report on alleged Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks have frustrated Saudi Arabia and widened its cracks with the U.S.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran will no doubt continue, as it is an existential issue for both countries’ domestic and regional policies. Saudi Arabia’s desire for leadership in the region, meanwhile, will continue to suffer through its internal rifts and external incapacities.