Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Riyadh's annus horribilis

Riyadh's annus horribilis
Published 28 Nov 2013   Follow @RodgerShanahan

As 2013 comes to a close, Saudi Arabia should be concerned that it is increasingly being seen as an observer of events that threaten to re-shape the region in ways that will weaken its standing.

I am currently in Lebanon and the feeling of disappointment with Saudi Arabian leadership of the Arab world is palpable.

President Obama's withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and a desire to limit America's involvement in the Middle East, Washington's preference for diplomacy over military action in Syria and more recently the election of President Rouhani as a relative moderate in Iran have posed challenges for Riyadh to which it has been unable to respond.

Iran is a particularly difficult problem for Riyadh. For all of its flaws, the Iranian electoral process delivered a new administration which has been willing, and more importantly capable, of arriving at an interim nuclear agreement. What's more, the Iranians now have a leadership group which is both loyal to the revolution and has a good understanding of the West. Iran is also a key player in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, countries in which the US has important interests.

The view from Riyadh, by contrast, is one of a region in which it appears to have an increasingly limited degree of influence and is hostage to the efforts of others.[fold]

In Syria, Saudi Arabia has been keen to remove Bashar Assad since the beginning of the conflict; it is also a generous financial donor to the opposition. Yet Assad remains in power and the opposition has never achieved political unity, let alone military effectiveness. Riyadh urged the US to take military action in response to the use of chemical weapons. Instead, it got a Russian-sponsored solution in which Damascus signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and is supporting the UN investigative team.

Riyadh also urged caution about rushing into an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, only to learn that the US had been in secret talks with Tehran for a year. Its reaction to the agreement was both muted and delayed, indicating its frustration with being out-manoeuvred by its Gulf rival yet again. Riyadh's centralised and opaque decision-making processes are often slow, and internal policy contestation is absent.

Riyadh has always been happy with an Iran that sits outside the international community and is contained. The prospect for US-Iranian detente, no matter how limited, is not something Saudi Arabia can easily accept.

Riyadh' s reaction to this turning of the tide has not exactly been a model of diplomatic maturity. Rejecting its seat at the UN Security Council after assiduously lobbying for it and increasing military support to Syrian opposition groups without any policy to address the second-order effects do not indicate well thought-out foreign policy responses.

Although the Obama Administration has been careful to reassure Riyadh that Saudi Arabia remains fundamental to US interests in the region, some US commentators believe the Saudis are simply reaping what they have sown for the past few decades. Unless Saudi Arabia is able to learn from its leaden foreign policy approach to a region in flux, it risks becoming increasingly sidelined or worse still, acting as little more than a regional spoiler.

Photo by Flickr user zbigphotography.

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