Amidst the turmoil in the Arabian Peninsula caused in part by Saudi behavior toward Yemen and Qatar, it is easy to forget that, until quite recently, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy was cautious and conservative. It is understandable that the rashness of Mohammed bin Salman, the young man who was elevated to the post of crown prince in June, is making some American officials nostalgic for the old days when Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy was in the hands of experienced officials with better judgment.
Despite occasional high-profile initiatives such as then-crown prince Abdullah’s Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Saudis traditionally preferred to operate in the shadows, using checkbook diplomacy and quiet persuasion to win influence, buy off friends and enemies, and advance their interests in Yemen, the Levant, and beyond. Such caution was borne also of necessity, given the disparity between the country’s resource wealth and military weakness, requiring a heavy dependence upon an American security umbrella to counter regional rivals such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, more recently, Iran.
Successive U.S. administrations, concerned with infantilizing their most important Arab partner, pushed Riyadh to take greater responsibility for its own defense and for the region’s security problems. None did it harder than the Obama administration, which employed positive efforts, including roughly $100 billion in arms sales and logistical and political support for the Saudis’ poorly-conceived and brutal military operation in Yemen. But it was the negative aspects of this effort that drew Saudi ire—seeking rapprochement with Iran and Obama’s highly personalized complaints of Saudi Arabia as a security “free rider.”
Confrontational and Inflammatory
If Washington encouraged a more assertive Saudi regional posture, it got more than it bargained for. Saudi policy today is ambitious, antagonistic, chauvinistic—and not making the region more secure or stable. In the Gulf region particularly, the kingdom has adopted confrontational policies and inflammatory rhetoric, relying on military and diplomatic coercion wholly out of sync with realistic objectives. (A notable exception is Iraq, where the Saudis continue to maintain their largely hands-off approach toward the Shi‘a-led government in Bagdad.)
Saudi bellicosity is already having destabilizing effects throughout the region. Largely in response to exaggerated fears of Iranian encirclement, the disastrous Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen is tearing that impoverished country apart, with horrific humanitarian consequences, while turning into a military quagmire for the kingdom. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited the chaos engendered by the Saudi military intervention to increase its own strength. And ironically, given Saudi objectives, Iranian influence in Yemen has increased while Houthi attacks against Saudi territory have continued.
Against this stark backdrop, the Saudi- and Emirati-led move against Qatar last month—breaking off relations and imposing an economic blockade in the middle of the night with no advanced warning and no immediate precipitating cause—is worse than an unwanted distraction from the kingdom’s other foreign and domestic policy priorities. It has had the perverse effects of strengthening Iran’s influence in Qatar and fomenting disunity within the Sunni Arab coalition the Trump administration had hoped to put together to confront Iran’s aggressive regional policies and to help defeat the Islamic State.
So how to explain the seemingly misguided diplomatic moves? A possible explanation may lie in the enigma of Mohammed bin Salman, whose meteoric rise has coincided precisely with his country’s newfound assertiveness. Along the way, Prince Mohammed has, with constant support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), consistently overestimated Saudi power and underestimated his adversaries’ capacity to resist military and diplomatic pressure.
Yemen as a Vehicle for Succession
This line of analysis, however, overlooks an important dimension of the Mohammed bin Salman phenomenon: While the war in Yemen and the conflict with Qatar have done little to advance Saudi security interests, as succession vehicles they have been rousing successes. Vision 2030, Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to transform the Saudi economy, allowed the new crown prince to take the reins of his country’s economic policy instruments, while the Yemeni conflict allowed him to sideline his main rival, his half-cousin and former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, from security policy. The blow-up with Qatar, with whom Mohammed bin Nayef enjoyed warm relations, gave Mohammed bin Salman an opening to ruthlessly remove his rival from the succession picture altogether.
The old Saudi foreign policy machinery was a sometimes unwieldy balancing act among several competing branches of the royal family, under a succession of elderly kings and senior officials. This gerontocracy was slow to make decisions—and those decisions often reflected the lowest common denominator of its members’ personal interests. It is easy to understand why U.S. officials were frustrated with Saudi foreign policy decisionmaking.
But in a clear case of “be careful of what you wish for,” that generation of Saudi princes is now gone—and with them their networks of connections in Qatar and Iran which might have explored formulas for defusing tensions. Instead, power is concentrated in the person of an unproven 31-year old with broad regional ambitions. Saudi brinkmanship with Qatar may result in success for Mohammed bin Salman’s hardline policy. There are some indications that the Saudis and Emiratis are beginning to soften their demands, and the Saudis have leverage to force an outcome in which Qatar eats crow but avoids humiliation. That would be good for Saudi and U.S. interests, but it would require a degree of self-awareness that Riyadh’s early moves against Doha were an overreach.
On the other hand, Mohammed bin Salman’s personal animosities toward Qatar and Iran will not be easily tamed. If his behavior in recent months becomes a permanent fixture of Saudi policy while he controls the reins of power, the region will be less secure. And if Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to hold out until their extreme demands on Qatar have been met—well, buckle your seat belts.
The Saudis are trying to manipulate to their own advantage the differences within the Trump administration over regional strategy. President Donald Trump has expressed full support for the Saudi position in the dispute with Qatar, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis are seeking to defuse the situation. Trump would be well advised to let the State and Defense Departments take the lead on this one. Already, the Gulf Cooperation Council spat has exposed dangerous fault lines among the Gulf Arab states at a moment of regional instability. While there is little to be gained—and much to lose—by directly involving the United States in this diplomatic conflict, Washington should support, as a general rule, the sovereignty of smaller Arab states.
However, the dynamics of domestic succession impel Mohammed bin Salman towards more confrontational policies, even where there is little prospect of success. The initiatives he has taken against Yemen, Qatar, and Iran, while appearing to outsiders as profoundly misguided, have succeeded in paving his way to the throne. Whatever domestic constraints his predecessors may have faced no longer exist, at least for now. Trump’s green-lighting of Mohammed bin Salman’s regional assertiveness almost certainly ensures that the young prince perceives no external constraints.
As long as the United States remains the kingdom’s leading cheerleader, Washington and the region will be stuck cleaning up the debris left behind by an impetuous crown prince who is in over his head and has no exit strategies to extricate the Saudis and the region from the messy consequences of his choices.