Saudi Arabia reaps what it has sowed

After squandered opportunities and blunders galore, the kingdom's foreign policy is backfiring across the region and that's just the beginning

David Hearst's picture
Friday 4 November 2016 12:53 UTC

There have been two signs that Riyadh’s grip over its neighbourhood is loosening.

The first was a long range missile which the Houthis fired at Jeddah airport, west of Mecca. The second was the election of Michel Aoun as Lebanese president, which was guaranteed by the support of Saad Hariri, the businessmen the Saudis once bankrolled. Aoun is backed by Hezbollah and Damascus, the power he fought as a general.

Imagine what could have happened if Saudi had poured this money into the region supporting democratically elected governments

Both are a form of blowback to the Saudi kingdom. Each Arab neighbour has its own story to tell about the wild swings of a weather vane which goes by the name of foreign policy in Riyadh. In that time, they made three strategic blunders.

Take Iraq. Saudi gave Saddam $25bn in low interest loans to fight his eight-year war with Iran. In 1990, two years after the war ended, Saddam was debt-ridden and Riyadh and Kuwait undermined him by refusing to lower oil production, one of the reasons for the invasion of Kuwait. They further paid $30bn to the US for the first Iraq war in 1991.



After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia holds hands with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak upon his arrival for an emergency Arab Summit (AFP)

In 2003, the kingdom played it both ways. The then Crown Prince Abdullah warned Bush about the consequences of invading Iraq and the Saudi foreign minister said Saudi would not allow its bases to be used. In practice, the opposite happened. Saudi land and military bases became essential for coalition forces.

READ: How Britain's party of war gave the green light to Saudi in Yemen

The toppling of Saddam, de-Baathification and the power vacuum it created turned into an invitation on a silver platter for Iran. It started as a provider of welfare services to the Shia-dominated south. It developed into a major political sponsor, and eventually became a military power controlling its own proxy Shia militia.

Take Yemen. For decades, Saudi’s man in Yemen was its dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose life Saudi doctors saved when he was critically burned in a bomb attack. As I reported at the time, the Saudis, along with the Emiratis, made contact with the Houthis and encouraged them to advance on the Yemeni capital Sanaa.



Houthi supporters raise their weapons during a 2015 rally in Sanaa (AFP)

The plan was to provoke a battle with Islah, the Islamists in Yemen. It backfired spectacularly as the Houthis marched into Sanaa unopposed and advanced onto Aden. Only then did the Saudis realise the mistake they had made in providing a new opening for Iran. They were left with few other options.

The result is a Saudi bombing campaign that has levelled the country, but so far failed to recapture Sanaa, or prevent a missile being fired at Jeddah or Mecca.

Take Egypt. There, the late King Abdullah cannot be blamed for failing to take a strategic choice. He did. He decided to counter the Egyptian revolution and it was the biggest mistake Saudi Arabia has made.

READ: Why Sisi is a dead man walking

Along with the Emiratis and Kuwaitis, the Saudis have spent over $50bn on a man who has failed to stabilise Egypt and is now courting the Saudi enemy, Iran. From the get go, his relationship with Saudi was about hard cash. Sisi wavered for three months in 2013 about whether to betray his president Mohamed Morsi.

He only did so, as a source told me and as I have previously reported, after he got the promise of $12bn from the Gulf states. What return have the Saudis got for their money?

Trading places 

The current Saudi-Egypt spat can be overplayed. Some argue the Saudis will be loathe to abandon Sisi because they have invested so heavily in him.

As it stands though, Egypt has failed to provide the Saudis with troops for Yemen and voted for a Russian draft resolution on Aleppo which angered the Saudis. Egypt entered the talks in Switzerland, after the request of Iran to counterbalance countries opposed to the Syrian regime, and has opened links with Hezbollah and the Houthis.



Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) speaking with Saudi deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman during a military academy graduation ceremony in Cairo in July 2015 (AFP)

Egyptian diplomats say the purpose is to mediate an end to the war in Yemen, and support the Syrian state in Aleppo. However, Riyadh, has suspended 700,000 tonnes of oil products a month to Egypt.

As a result of all three blunders, Iran and Saudi Arabia have traded places. While Iran looked isolated before the Iraq wars, and the Saudis enjoyed influence in the region, Saudi Arabia is now encircled in conflict and by collapsing states. The kingdom has got war to the north and south.

Its arch foe, Iran is in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, boasting about controlling four Arab capitals. Saudi has spent tens of billions on its foreign interventions and the region is less stable than ever before. The crisis in Sunni leadership looms as large as ever, as millions are forced to leave cities for the refugee camps, or flee abroad. No one protects them.

Temporary ally, strategic fumbles

The internal stability of Saudi is also affected. It used to be based on a crude pact: “We pay you and you shut up.” After the collapse of the price of oil, and the lifting of some state subsidies, Saudis are inverting the unspoken maxim by asking themselves: “If the state can not pay us, why should we shut up?”

The kingdom considers itself a leader for the Sunni Arab world. To lead you need a vision, not only for yourself or your ruling family, but for your people. Saudi cannot provide one.

Unlike Iran, Saudi has not been patiently and quietly been building its network of local allies. It may spell disaster for Aleppo or Mosul, as its efforts lead to sectarian division, but Iran cannot be faulted for lacking a plan. It seeks to change geopolitical control and the confessional composition of the region. One way or another, it seeks a permanent say in the area from Iran to the Mediterranean.

To this end, Iran creates long-term strategic allies. It thinks ahead. The alliances Saudi makes are  temporary, evanescent, mercurial, either with states, or their leaders. Lebanon was a classic example of that this week.



Then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and then Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz in Jeddah in July 2012 (AFP)

When Saudi had a strategic choice to make, it made the wrong one. That choice was presented by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Mohamed Morsi was clear enough in his offer to Saudi Arabia, the destination of his first foreign visit in his one year in office.

He said: "I hereby say that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in need of the bigger sister Egypt and great Egypt is in need of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If these two partners agreed, if the two countries agreed, if the two peoples agreed, there will be a true renaissance in all the Arab (world) and even across the Muslim (world). God-willing this will happen. If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the Sunni, mainstream and moderate project, the project of the Sunni majority, then Egypt is the protector of this project."

Boom and bust 

King Abdullah had already made his mind up. He reacted to the toppling of his ally Hosni Mubarak personally, by imagining himself in Mubarak’s shoes. From 3 July 2013 until Abdullah's death last year, political Islam became the strategic threat to the Kingdom.

Once again, the Saudis have been caught napping and are faced with a fire sale of their assets at bargain basement prices

It was a fatal mistake. The Arab uprisings could have been an opportunity for the Saudis. Morsi offered a pact in which Saudi Arabia would be in the vanguard of the new Arab status quo while Egypt would act its protector. This is exactly what the Saudis need now and what Sisi cannot deliver.

Crushing political Islam opened up the space for the Islamic State (IS) group. The Sinai graduated from a local to a regional problem. For the kingdom, an almost permanent state of war has been an economic disaster, although a boon to arms suppliers like BAE Systems.

After the US and China, Saudi is the world’s third largest military spender. It spends $56bn, 25 percent of its budget. $1.14bn of this has gone straight into the coffers of BAE for the delivery of Eurofighter Typhoon jet. It is hard to believe, from the gruesome bombing campaign in Yemen, but Saudi has one of the best-funded, state-of-the-art military forces in the region.

America was another destination for Saudi funds. These state assets are now in jeopardy with the passing of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) which makes it easier for the US victims of 9/11 to take civil action in the US courts against the kingdom. I understand from sources that the UAE has already withdrawn its assets from the US. Once again, the Saudis have been caught napping and are faced with a fire sale of their assets at bargain basement prices.  

Imagine what could have happened if Saudi had poured this money into the region, if it had spent this money supporting democratically elected governments in Egypt and Yemen - no matter who won them.

READ: Exclusive Peter Oborne reports from the bloodshed in Yemen

Egypt by now would have been well into its democratic transition. The threat of Saleh and Houthis would have receded. There still would have been an  insurgency in Sinai, but it would have been less virulent. Islamists throughout the Arab world would have had a non-violent and successful model to follow. Support for the jihadists would have waned, as it had already begun to do in the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution.

Saudi’s claim to be the banker of the Arab world, to become to the region what Germany became to Europe, would by now be uncontested. The royal family would be well placed to start the process of political reform at home, increasing political transparency, holding elections, and turning itself into a constitutional monarchy.

It would not have lost its wealth, but nor would it be in the position it is today of demanding that Saudis tighten their belts, while the princes loosen theirs.  

David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Yemeni man covers a charred body amid the rubble of a destroyed funeral hall building following reported air strikes by Saudi-led coalition air-planes on the capital Sanaa on 8 October 2016 (AFP)