Saudi Arabia mired in the quicksand of the Middle East

Between War in Yemen and War of Succession · Two years after his accession to the throne, King Salman faces many challenges. The intervention in Yemen is bogged down and Saudi Arabia suffers setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. While the economic reforms initiated are much criticized, the questions on his succession remain unanswered.

Saudi soldier on the border with Yemen’s Saada
Jamil Bassil/Al Jazeera.

If there is one thing the diplomats posted to Riyadh agree upon, it is that the Saudi leadership analyses the entire regional situation in terms of “the Iranian menace.” “They see the hand of Iran everywhere and take seriously the declarations in the Iranian press, bragging about how Iran now controls four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Sanaa, Beirut and Damascus,” one of them explains. “They are obsessed with Iran,” another chimes in. “They end up forgetting that country is their neighbour and that, however, they may feel about its policies, it’s not going to disappear overnight.” All see this obsession as the main reason for the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

“We had no choice, it was an obligation.” This conviction, voiced by a Saudi diplomat, is shared by most of the officials met in Riyadh. “As we see it,” he went on, “Yemen is a domestic problem: we need a stable, friendly regime on our doorstep. It’s a matter of national security.” And he reminded us that the population of Yemen is as large as that of Arabia.

A “storm” not that “decisive”

King Salman, Abdallah’s successor, had only just been crowned on January 23, 2015, when, discarding a foreign policy that had until then been quite cautious, not to say conservative, he determined to show the world that the kingdom was prepared to defend its vital interests. All the more so as the USA no longer seemed a dependable ally judging by their deal with Teheran on the nuclear issue or their passivity in Syria. And so, in March 2015, Riyadh led a coalition of some ten countries on a military expedition aimed at restoring the “legitimate” government in Sanaa, ousted from power by the Houthi rebels and their allies, accused of being manipulated by Teheran. However, the operation dubbed “Decisive Storm” was anything but “decisive” and shed a harsh light on the limitations of Saudi military (and political) strength. Despite some ten thousand troops deployed along its border with Yemen, Arabia was forced to evacuate a strip of land 200 kilometres long and 20 to 30 wide; 7,000 inhabitants had to leave their villages for fear of Houthi incursions and still today the latter are firing missiles at cities like Jizan where they don’t do much damage, but create a climate of permanent insecurity, at times causing the shutdown of schools and other public institutions. While the authorities admit to having lost 50 soldiers, the actual figure is said to be over 800, most of the casualties being camouflaged as “accidents.” Finally, the very serious “blunders” perpetrated by the Saudi air force, including the bombing of a funeral in central Sanaa on October 9, 2016, killing 140, which shocked the world and led the US to suspend the Raytheon Company’s delivery of 16,000 precision munitions to Arabia. And on December 19, after having denied using them for many months, Riyadh officially announced it would henceforth refrain from employing British cluster bombs.

The nationalistic euphoria which had united a large share of the Saudi population gradually dwindled as the country found itself bogged down in an endless war, with many civilian casualties. “We are destroying a very poor country,” a young academic deplored. “And it affects us, even if we have no sympathy for Iran.” And he went on to add: “We are beginning to see the connection between the austerity plans imposed on us and the cost of this war.” According to different sources, this cost is estimated at two, three or even seven billion dollars per month, at a time when the collapse of oil prices has drained the resources of the State.

In an attempt to put this bleak overview into perspective, a Saudi official serves us some data: “We have captured 80% of the missiles under Houthi control and prevented South Yemen and the rest of the country from falling into their hands.” This is small consolation, a far cry from the original objectives, in particular the winning back of Sanaa. And so Riyadh is trying to find a way out of this quagmire. But as usual it is much harder to get out of a war than it is to start one. Not only must Arabia take the actions of its enemies into account—at the end of November the Saudi press made much of declarations by the Iranian chief of staff announcing the establishment of naval bases in Syria and Yemen—but many of its allies are developing their own strategies. The United Arab Emirates, who is very active in Yemen with hundreds of soldiers on the ground, distrusts Al-Islah, the Yemenite branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its allegiance to the “legitimate” President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, backed by the Saudis. And he in turn refuses to be the “fall guy” of a deal currently being brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, discussions in which Riyadh seems to place all its hopes of extricating itself from what its adversaries term, with great exaggeration, “a Saudi Vietnam.”

Instability and regional divisions

In the eyes of the new King Salman, the Yemen intervention was only the first step in his country’s reassertion of its role in the regional stage. For the first time since the October 1973 embargo on oil exports during the Israeli-Arab war, the country has detached itself from US tutelage. It tried to hamper the normalisation of Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. The execution by Riyadh of the Saudi Shia leader Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on January 2, 2016, followed by the attack in reprisal on the Saudi embassy in Teheran led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Iran. Several Gulf countries followed suit. “From now on,” a western diplomat explained, “the machinery is well oiled: every incident between the Kingdom and Iran leads to a condemnation before the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), then by the Arab League and finally by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC). However, we need only glance at the regional situation to gauge the limits of this Saudi offensive.”

In Syria, the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian army with the help of Russian bombers, Iranian advisers and Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq has strengthened President Assad’s position whereas Riyadh is trying to unseat him.

In Iraq, the efforts to improve relations with the Haider Al-Abadi government, formed in August 2014, have turned sour. The new Saudi ambassador, Thamer Al-Sabhan, appointed in December 2015 after a break in diplomatic relations that went back to the Gulf War (1990-1991), has repeatedly denounced the role of the Shia militia (Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi ) in Iraq, responsible for escalating tensions with the Sunnis, with the result that on August 28, 2016, Baghdad demanded the ambassador be recalled. “However,” said a Saudi diplomat reassuringly, “we still have relations with Iraq, even if we would like our government to be more incisive. Daesh was fostered by a policy that excluded and ostracised Sunnis. The departure of Maliki—the former prime minister whose confessional policies were favourable to the Shias—was necessary, and yet his influence subsists.”

In Lebanon, after having frozen a gift of 3 billion dollars for the purchase of (French) weaponry—to punish Beirut for failing to sign an Arab League statement accusing the Hezbollah of being a “terrorist” organisation—and after cutting off funding to their ally Saad Al-Hariri—not a very profitable investment for Riyadh—the Saudis withdrew completely from the Lebanese arena. When General Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, was elected president on October 31, 2016, there showed up in Beirut in quick succession to congratulate him the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif and Bashar Al-Assad’s special envoy Mansour Azzam, whereas the Saudi embassy in Beirut had closed two months earlier. It was not until November 21 that Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, governor of Mecca finally met President Aoun.

On the pediment of the Saudi foreign ministry is inscribed this verse from the Koran: “Oh humankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” An exhortation with which Saudi diplomats have had great difficulty in complying, even with regard to other Sunni countries. It is not entirely their fault, the region has never been in such turmoil, what with the US withdrawal, the rise of powerful non-state armed groups and the fluctuating alliances in which yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies: three years ago, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were on the brink of war, today they are on much closer terms while during the last few months relations between Cairo and Riyadh have steadily deteriorated. The United Arab Emirates has failed in their attempts to mediate between the two countries. The visit to Ethiopia in December by one of King Salman’s advisers—followed by that of the Qatari foreign minister—and to that country’s Renaissance dam site on the Upper Nile, may be regarded as a message: for indeed Egypt regards the construction of this dam as prejudicial to its water supply. And to top it all, the CGC has rejected Egyptian claims that Qatar had a hand in the terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Cairo on December 11, 2016. As was deplored by the Saudi columnist Khalid Al-Dakhil: “The crisis occurs after three years of exchanges, visits and assistance. Which means that there was never any real agreement on regional issues. And yet a threat to one of these countries is a threat to the other as well. The collapse of Egypt would be a major threat to Arabia and vice versa.”

The attempt to create a broad coalition among Sunni Muslim countries against terrorism, hastily announced on December 15, 2015—some countries had not even been informed Mansur Azzam, was little more than propaganda. Even the plan to transform the CGC into a tighter and more efficient alliance has not only been rejected out of hand by Oman but has met with the reluctance of other members, fearful of Saudi hegemony. From this point of view, the CGC summit held last December in Bahrain in the presence of King Salman, produced no concrete results. And while it is still too early to analyse the significance of Oman joining the anti-terrorist alliance at the end of the year, it does not appear to signal a radical change in the Sultanate’s foreign policy.

In his confrontation with Iran, King Salman can only claim one major success, the establishment of closer ties with Ankara at the end of December 2015. Turkey is a powerful ally, with substantial economic capacities and an army that could weigh heavily in the balance of power with Iran. However, in recent months a rapprochement has occurred with Russia, whereas the two countries were on the brink of war in 2015!

Tensions within the royal family

The results of this policy offer an uneven picture, to say the least, and have sharpened the debate inside the royal family as shown by a strange incident which was the talk of Riyadh. A Saudi daily paper, Al Watan published on its website off-the-record remarks, supposedly made during a meeting of the Gulf countries in Jeddah by the crown prince and Minister of the Interior, Muhammad Bin Nayef —best known by his initials, MBN. They were removed several hours later on the pretext that the site had been hacked and that the paper had never reported any such declarations! Of course no one believed these denials.

What did Prince MBN have to say? “Although we responded to the call for help from the legitimate government of Yemen,” he explained in substance, “our ’Decisive Storm’ operation has lasted longer than we foresaw and got out of hand, in particular because of the failure by other members of the coalition to carry out their tasks.” By inference, he was accusing Egypt of having failed to deploy ground troops. “In Syria,” he went on, “we wanted to see the regime overthrown with the help of Turkey and the United States,” which did not come about. And in conclusion, he said “we must revise our politics and our calculations” and on these two issues we must make “genuine, agonising concessions” if we do not want the Arab world to become embroiled in endless conflicts.

In a country where arrests of “suspected terrorists” are a daily occurrence—on October 30 a terrorist cell was dismantled that was preparing attacks on government officials and soccer stadiums—, where rewards are now being offered for denunciations of “terrorists”, the crown prince cum minister is primarily concerned by the war against transnational groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS. And he favours political settlements of regional conflicts for fear that their extension will favour such groups.

But this debate over strategy also conceals a power struggle. The crowning of King Salman resulted in the meteoric rise of his son, Mohammad Bin Salman, who is scarcely thirty. First he was appointed defence minister, then vice-crown prince, in other words, third in line of succession to the throne.

“Salman’s ambition,” an Egyptian official interviewed in Cairo observed sarcastically, “is to create a Salmani Arabia to replace Saudi Arabia” . . . and, in other words, get rid of the crown prince. Indeed, the latter has been pushed aside, the war in Yemen and major economic reforms entrusted to MBS, chief promoter of an ambitious development plan, “Vision 2030” launched in April 2016 and meant to reform the economy according to precepts worthy of Margaret Thatcher.

Now this plan, adopted in answer to the fall in oil revenues, has caused steep price rises—especially in water and electricity bills—as well as a general shrinkage of middle-class purchasing power (due to unprecedented wage and bonus cuts for civil servants, the hardest hit being academics and military personnel, who have lost 50% of their income). In 2016 the economy experienced its first recession since 2009 and the budget deficit was over 85 billion dollars—according to the next budget, it should fall to 53 billion in 2017. As a result of the concentration of power in the hands of the King and his son, decision-making is increasingly opaque and uncertain, much to the chagrin of business men, already thrown off balance by the late payments of the State. Not to speak of the governmental instability marked by the fusions of various administrations and the ministerial merry-go-round (four ministers of education in two years).

As a European diplomat put it, MBN, the crown prince, was wise enough not to be associated with either the war in Yemen or the economic reforms, which have as yet to produce any results. He is beginning to reap the rewards of his patience and has made a comeback on the political stage and in the media.” All the more so as he had made known his qualms about these policies via the dense news networks which irrigate Saudi society, a mix of familial and tribal connections, but also an intensive use of Twitter—the Kingdom has a penetration rate of 35 to 40%, one of the highest in the world—and of WhatsApp (more secure), while over 90% of the population, has access to the Internet via their cell phones1. In Riyadh, anyone interested knows about the power games while, needless to say, nothing transpires in the media.

For the moment, the King, although he is over 80, has a firm grip on the reins of power. But is he still in a position to impose his son as his successor? Much will depend on the results of the economic reforms and regional developments but also on the new administration about to take over in Washington on January 21. Everyone in Riyadh is waiting for Donald Trump to take office with mingled hopes and fears. No one in the circles of power will regret Barack Obama, accused of abandoning Hosni Mubarak to his fate, of being too soft on the Iranians and failing to come through in Syria. And glossing over his declared Islamophobia and his sympathies for Israel, it is hoped that Donald Trump—with the men he has appointed to carry out US foreign policy—will side with the enemies of the Islamic Republic, the spectre which haunts the Saudi monarchy.

1Readers will find interesting information on the uses of the social networks in the Arab world in: “Media use in the middle east 2016: A Six-Nation Survey” and “Arab social media report 2015”.