Is Saudi Arabia on the way to economic collapse

Saudi Arabia

Ellinor Zeino-Mahmalat

To person

Dr. phil., born 1980; Project coordinator at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Country Office Morocco, 11, rue d’Agadir, 10010 Rabat / Morocco. [email protected]

For a long time, Saudi Arabia was considered a reliable guarantor of (pro-Western) order and stability in the Middle East. With Israel, Egypt and Jordan, the kingdom was one of the USA's most important allies in the region and formed a reliable anchor of stability in the regional security architecture promoted by the United States. On the other hand, there were all those anti-Western states and actors who were involved with the pax americana Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein were and are dissatisfied. Within this order, the kingdom was able to show itself as a constructive Arab leadership and shaping power, agenda setter and mediator in regional conflicts.

This traditional role of Saudi Arabia is increasingly being put to the test. As early as 2003, the kingdom's strategic situation had deteriorated significantly, which was also accompanied by the questioning of its previous role in the region. The US-led Iraq war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, as well as the first Shiite, pro-Iranian government in Iraq under Nuri Al-Maliki, represented a radical reorganization of the regional power constellation. Saudi Arabia's dissatisfaction with this new power structure became increasingly evident in its foreign policy .

The upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 and the resulting, not yet foreseeable, long-term changes in the power structures in the region pose new foreign and domestic political challenges to Saudi Arabia: the overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, social protests such as in Bahrain or Yemen as well as ongoing civil war-like conditions and struggles for statehood in Iraq and Syria are a persistent factor of uncertainty for Saudi Arabia. Together with the rise of political Islam embodied by the electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood and the growing presence of jihadist forces throughout the MENA region [1], they add up to an unprecedented threat scenario. Saudi Arabia must rethink its strategy in the region and its alliance policy and adapt it to the new, more complex and changeable structures.

Paradoxical constellations of interests

The shift in interests in the Middle East has given rise to conflicts within traditional alliances and at the same time revealed overlapping interests between strategic rivals and political opponents. New, previously difficult to imagine (functional) alliances have become conceivable: The classic ideological division of the region into status quo-oriented, pro-Western actors on the one hand and revolutionary, anti-American actors on the other has not become obsolete, but has weakened and ramified.

On the one hand, a split in the conservative Sunni camp and the formation of a front against the regional influence of the Muslim Brotherhood can be observed. This is most evident in the intensified rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While the leadership in Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and related organizations in the region, Saudi Arabia has taken on a pioneering role in curbing the Muslim Brotherhood and the form of political Islam it promotes. With the new Egyptian military government, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, Saudi Arabia forms a loose ideological front against the Muslim Brotherhood. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain called their ambassadors back from Doha in protest against Qatar's regional support for the Muslim Brotherhood. They accused Qatar of supporting Muslim Brotherhood movements in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, thereby violating the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.

In addition, the new threat to Saudi Arabia has led to a paradoxical, albeit probably only temporary, convergence of interests with two ideological opponents: In view of the strengthening of jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq, which is seen as a threat to its own external and internal security, Saudi Arabia and Iran developed a common interest in containing it. The proclamation of a transnational caliphate state by the terrorist group "Islamic State" (IS) [2] in the immediate vicinity and the international recruitment of jihadist fighters represent an imminent security risk for both states feeds from a religious-ideological hostility and the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, temporary ad hoc cooperation could become conceivable - or at least increased tolerance from Saudi Arabia to increased Iranian action against Sunni jihadism. The cautious rapprochement with Iran at the beginning of 2014 shows at least a certain Saudi Arabian openness to new approaches in regional cooperation.

What is particularly striking, however, is the current convergence of Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests in view of the current US policy in the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel view US-Iranian rapprochement in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program with concern. In addition, both states would like the United States to take more decisive action against the remaining regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, as well as less acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood and its related parties in the region. For Saudi Arabia as the Arab-Muslim leading power and advocate for the cause of the Palestinians, however, a direct cooperation with Israel or even an open commitment to common interests is difficult to imagine. It is therefore primarily the Israeli media and analysts who openly address this new, paradoxical constellation of interests. [3]

Another development in Saudi Arabia's strategic environment is the increasing divergence between Saudi and US interests. The thesis of the "beginning of the end" of the Saudi-American security pact that has existed since 1945 has already been formulated. [4] For decades, the alliance has been a cornerstone of the regional security architecture, particularly in the Persian Gulf. This pact has cracked: since US President Barack Obama's second term in office, Saudi Arabia has seen the US gradually withdrawing from the Middle East. The reduced or, from the Saudi Arabian point of view, too hesitant engagement of the United States, for example in Iraq or Syria, has given the leadership in Riyadh fears that it will no longer be able to act as a regulatory power in the region.

At the same time, the question arises for the royal family as to what extent the USA will remain a reliable security guarantor in the future. The reason for these doubts is the possible appreciation of Iran in the region by the USA. Further rapprochement between the United States and Iran in the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program or the involvement of Iran in the fight against Sunni jihadism are worrying scenarios for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian leadership also fears the US's willingness to democratically involve forces of political Islam, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, in the political processes in the region.

As a consequence of this perception, the Saudi Arabian willingness to take on a more independent and active role in regional politics has become apparent. The leadership in Riyadh repeatedly expressed the wish for more personal responsibility in regional security. In previous years, Saudi Arabia had already pursued a more independent policy in the region, independent of the US strategy, which observers described as a new "offensive policy". His spectacular rejection of a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in October 2013 in protest against the Security Council's Syria and Iran policy was one of the clearest and most symbolic signals of the tensions in the Saudi-American partnership. In the long term, the far-reaching developments and changes in the region will reduce the intersection of common Saudi-American interests.