By Iran Review
By Mohammad Khajouei*
One year has passed since Salman bin Abdulaziz became the king of Saudi Arabia. It was last January when he ascended to the throne following the demise of his brother, King Abdullah, and this development was a beginning to fundamental changes in Saudi Arabia’s behavior. The image projected of King Salman’s Saudi Arabia during the past year has been totally different from the image that we had in mind of this country for many years. During the preceding year, we have been facing a brand new, and of course less known, Saudi Arabia, whose officials’ words and deeds have been frequently characterized by elements of “surprise” and “haste.”
The Saudi Arabia that we knew before the rise of King Salman was a country with extremely conservative and moderate rulers. Serenity and patience and avoiding hasty measures were major features of those times and the former King Abdullah bin Abulaziz played an important role in the adoption of this approach, both when he was the king and when he was the crown prince of his ailing predecessor, King Fahd.
This policy was so well-known that even Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran as a country with extensive differences with Saudi Arabia, admitted in an address last April that Saudis showed “tact” and “prudence” in their foreign policy.
Today, however, there is no sign of that tact and prudence. During the past year, Saudis have been following an aggressive, rash and nervous policy to show a new image of themselves.
The war on Yemen, which started soon after King Salman rose to power, was another manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s new approaches, because before this war and in past decades, Saudi Arabia had never attacked any country. Severing diplomatic relations with Tehran was also another example of Saudi Arabia’s hasty measures.
Without a doubt part of this alteration can be attributed to changes among the country’s decision-making officials. In terms of origins, King Salman belongs to the Sudairi family within the House of Saud, which is known for its austere, fundamentalist and extremist approaches more than other families. At the same time, presence of such young and inexperienced and adventurist figures as Mohammad Bin Salman and Adel al-Jubeir in such key posts as the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has played an important part in catalyzing sudden changes that have taken place in Saudi Arabia’s policies.
The issue, however, is not limited to this. An important part of the reason for change in Saudi Arabia’s approaches should be sought in the serial failures of this country in the course of regional developments. When accumulation and persistence of these failures was combined with a change in Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Saudis just lost their patience and opted for inconsiderate and hasty approaches.
In reality, Saudi Arabia has been a loser in many developments and rivalries in the region, or at least, has not been able to proceed with its plans in full. Syria is one of these cases. Saudi Arabia used all its capacities in this Arab country to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad so as to play the main part in determining the regional order by undermining Iran’s power. However, that goal was never achieved. The government of Assad did not fall and, on the contrary, Western countries even gave up his dismissal from power as a precondition for peace, and today, they have accepted Assad as an undeniable reality.
Iran’s nuclear issue was another case in which Saudi Arabia failed. Saudi officials did their best to make the most of the tension that had existed in past years between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program in order to prepare necessary grounds for regional isolation of Iran and, finally, to boost their own role in the region. However, adoption of a constructive interaction approach in Iran’s foreign policy and the warm welcome the West gave this approach, finally ended in the historic nuclear agreement between the two sides and totally thwarted Saudis’ plan.
Supporting terrorist groups with the goal of undermining the regional power of Iran and its allies such as Iraq and Syria was another example of Saudi Arabia’s plans, which finally failed to bear fruit. Today, the process of countering terrorist groups is rapidly going ahead. This is while adoption of this policy by Saudi Arabia has cast serious doubts on this country’s prestige and character as a committed and constructive actor in the region from the viewpoint of Western countries. At present, critical approaches against Saudi Arabia are rising in the West and this country does not enjoy the same status in the eyes of Western countries that it previously had.
Yemen is another case in which Saudis have failed. Contrary to early assessments by Saudi officials, the first war that this country has launched in recent years, dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm,” has been a practical failure as it approaches its anniversary. Saudis, which top other countries in the region in terms of military purchases, have not been able to overcome the weak Yemeni army and Ansarullah fighters. In addition, killing civilians in Yemen has increased criticism of Saudi Arabia’s war in this impoverished Arab country.
The important point, however, is that instead of trying to identify the root causes of its problems and recent failures in the region, Saudi Arabia has been taking even more radical approaches in an apparent effort at projection in order to get out of the complicated situation in which Riyadh is currently caught.
Saudis believe that through an approach of fomenting crises in the region, they would be able to provide themselves with an opportunity to change the course of developments in their own favor.
This is the big mistake that Saudis have made. In order to make up for your failures, you cannot take steps that have led to those failures in the first place. The “all or none” approach has stripped Saudis of any degree of resilience and has put them in a virtual cocoon. Saudis, however, have to come to grips with undeniable realities in the region even if those realities are bitter. Therefore, giving up obstinacy and adopting interactive and reconciliatory approaches, especially toward countries that have different views from Saudi Arabia like Iran, is the sole way for Saudi Arabia to get rid of crises it has fostered with its own hands.
* Mohammad Khajouei
Senior Middle East Analyst