Time for a Saudi Rethink

By Abdel Bari Atwan

2016 was a bad year in every respect for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners generally. The kingdom’s cheerleaders who dominate the mainstream Arab media may claim otherwise, but this amounts to little more than posturing and self-deception.

The war in Yemen, which was supposed to be quick and ‘decisive’ when launched in 2015, still has no end, whether peaceful or military, is in sight, and the massive financial, military and human drain it has created is on-going and growing,

The Saudi role in Syria, after six years of lavishing money and arms on anti-regime insurgents, has been marginalized by Turkey’s surprise defection to the Russian camp.

Riyadh even had to abandon its stubbornly-held policy of maximizing oil production after its disastrous consequences became undeniable. It agreed to cut its output by 500,000 barrels per day without being able to compel its adversary Iran to do the same, thereby losing its decades-old status as OPEC’s mover and shaker.

Meanwhile, the kingdom’s economic and financial health experienced an acute downturn.

2017 may prove to be even worse, because Saudi Arabia is continuing to steadily lose friends and gain enemies throughout the region.

Relations with most if not all neighbouring and nearby states are poor.

The Saudi role in the Levant has been severely constrained by the Syrian regime’s recovery of Aleppo and the cease-fire agreement concluded by Russia and Turkey. This is to be followed by peace talks in Astana involving 10 mainly Turkish-backed armed groups, but excluding the Riyadh-based Supreme Negotiations Committee. Even Lebanon has shed the Saudi cloak that used to envelop its domestic politics.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Egypt are extremely tense despite its having channelled $35 billion worth of financial aid into the Egyptian economy. Further afield in Arab North Africa and the Maghreb, Saudi influence has been waning too: Sudan would never have belatedly (and half-heartedly) joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen were it not for promises of financial support – which, incidentally, have still not materialized.

Countering Iran

The Saudi leadership’s attempts to shore up its domestic legitimacy and regional relevance have increasingly taken the form, and adopted the sectarian language, of posing as principal champion of the Sunni Arabs against the growing power of Iran and the Shia.

The fact remains, however, that Iran has been making one gain after another in the region while Saudi Arabia has been scoring successive losses. The Russian coalition which includes Iran has gained influence, while the US–led alliance which Saudi Arabia has long relied on has begun to retrench. It could even turn into a liability for the kingdom if incoming US president Donald Trump makes good on his threats to oblige the Gulf states pay for the American protection they receive, or to use the JASTA law to force the Saudis to compensate victims of the 9/11 attacks, potentially to the tune of trillions of dollars.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah as-Sisi, who is accused by some of not being overly intelligent, proved to be smarter than anyone in his dealings with the Saudis and Gulf states: he milked some $50 billion from them in financial aid, and gave next to nothing back in return – other than some sweet-talk about the warmth of relations and verbal pledges to protect them from Iran if ever needed. Yet in the final analysis, he put his country’s national interests first and opted to to bet on the winning horse, the evolving alliance between Russia, Syria and Iran.

For the past two decades in particular, Saudi Arabia has sought to use its financial power to control the politics of the Arab world. This is the main reason why the region has deteriorated to its current condition. Saudi bankrolling of various political and religious forces was not aimed at establishing a pan-Arab regional project to counter Iran’s – and certainly not Israel’s. Rather, it was directed at weakening – and even destroying — the main rival centres of power in Syria, Iraq and Egypt hat had traditionally been the region’s leading voices, along with less influential countries such as Libya and Yemen.

This was an attempt to exact revenge against all the regimes labelled as secular, leftist or pan-Arab nationalist that had opposed the US and Saudi-led alliance of Arab ‘moderates’ from the 1960s to the 1980s – an alliance that was instrumental in enabling and facilitating sustained Israeli aggression — and instead sided the rival Soviet-led camp.

It is ironic that the Saudi leadership should now be working overtime to try to dispel Western accusations that it has been ‘incubating’ terrorism in the course of its decades-old sponsorship of surrogate groups to use against its enemies. It has gradually been dissociating itself from the Wahhabi religious establishment that has historically sustained it, while publicizing plans to modernize Saudi society in accordance with Western precepts. This has included purging the most hard-line clerics from the influential Council of Senior Scholars, and curbing the powers of its ‘religious police’ to arrest, accuse and harass people and raid their homes in the name of imposing religious observance. This cannot fail to invite a backlash.

Rethinking Policy

Given this bleak state of affairs and unpromising outlook, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states could be expected to conduct a thorough reappraisal of their regional and domestic policies — whether in the political, economic or military/security field– in order to cut their losses. But there has been no evidence of any such rethink by decision-makers, nor even that one is thought necessary.

When, after Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane over Syria in October 2015, President Erdogan realised that he was wrong to think he could take on the Russians in Syria – and that Nato would not back him up in the endeavour — he changed course. He turned his back momentarily on the West and joined forces with the Russian-led axis, giving priority to his country’s territorial integrity and demographic unity.

Iran was equally pragmatic when it signed the nuclear deal with the P5+1 powers early last year. It thus gained ten years in which to salvage its economy and avoid military confrontation with or economic sanctions by the US –led Western powers.

Why don’t the Gulf states do likewise? Why do they stick stubbornly to policies whose failure has been proven adhere and whose costs are undeniable, and continue to wage unwinnable wars in Yemen and Syria? Is there nobody left in ruling circles who is prepared to sound the alarm and warn that popular frustration is overflowing?

The require rethink needs to encompass a range of policies and attitudes, from the Palestine Question and inter-Arab coexistence on the regional front, to equality, social justice and reform at home, in both cases based on a spirit of tolerance of diversity and acceptance of dialogue with others.

By igniting and fuelling proxy wars and moving towards normalization with Israel – on the rounds that it is an ally against the purported Iranian threat — Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners are becoming isolated and increasingly hated in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Those who have been promoting these policies should be cast aside and held to account for the damage they have done to their own country’s interests and the region as a whole. Ironically, their behaviour has facilitated the growth of Iran’s power and influence in the region and internationally, the very thing they claim to be so worried about.

Do the self-styled leaders of the Arab world not find it shameful that Palestine tops Iran’s order of priorities – even if only in propaganda terms – but figures nowhere on the political or media agendas of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states?

This article will doubtless be denounced by many as unacceptable intervention in their countries’ internal affairs. I plead guilty. But at least I am intervening with written observations and advice, rather than with F-16s and Abrams tanks or with billions of dollars worth of arms to kill and main people in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.