Since the rise of Saudi Arabia’s new de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), there have been subtle yet important changes in the Kingdom’s foreign policy. The traditional Salafist discourse has partly made space for increased references to 'Arabness'. Although support for Syrian opposition groups during the Syrian war was legitimised based on religion, MbS has framed the current Saudi intervention in Yemen as an Arab matter. When Ali Abdullah Saleh, the assassinated Iran-aligned Yemeni president had called for talks with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh welcomed him “back to the Arab fold.”
Based on this Arab discourse, the Kingdom has also begun engaging Shia Arabs rather than only Sunnis. This is most visible in Riyadh’s Iraq policy. In 2017, former Shia hardliner Moqtada al-Sadr visited the Kingdom; Riyadh invited Ammar al-Hakim, another former hardliner; And Saudi Arabia's King Salman received Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is part of the Iran-aligned Shia Islamist Da’wa party.
This use of the Arab identity discourse is a noticeable break with Saudi Arabia's recent past. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia has attempted to isolate Iran by embarking on a Sunni Islamist foreign policy, thus intensifying the latent Shia-Sunni divide in the region. Based on this discourse, the Kingdom has supported various Sunni, and especially Salafist, allies in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. However, an Arab component is not entirely new to Riyadh’s foreign policy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser (then seen as the leader of the Arab world), supported by the erstwhile USSR, engulfed the region with his Pan-Arabism to roll back Western influence embodied by the Shah of Iran. Despite its fear of the anti-monarchist current that intended to unify the Arab world, the Kingdom partially appropriated the ideology. Especially after Egypt’s defeat in the Yom-Kippur War and the subsequent peace treaty with Israel, Saudi Arabia took up the mantle of Arab leadership. Even in the 1970s, Riyadh’s Arab leadership did not exactly mirror Nasser’s popular thinking. While Pan-Arabism had a distinct secular character, Islam always remained a secondary yet significant component of Saudi Arabia’s appropriation. To highlight this contrast, this article uses the notion of ‘Arabness’ rather than the loaded term, ‘Pan-Arabism.’
The current reintegration of the Arab identity in the Kingdom’s discourse will lead to a fusion of Arabness and Islam as opposed to the secularism Nasser espoused. This policy shift is borne foremost out of pragmatic considerations in the region. Saudi Arabia’s policy of supporting Sunni proxies has largely failed to contain Iran, which made engaging with actors outside of the Sunni world inevitable. The new discourse would also resonate with allies like Egypt. The country is the birthplace of Arab identity politics and is ruled by a secular establishment that is faced with a Salafist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Surveys have also indicated that in many countries in the region, the most salient identity amongst the youth is not sectarian or national, but the Arab identity. This means the reintegration of Arabness in the Kingdom’s foreign policy has a lot more soft-power potential in the region than its conventional Islamist ideology.
Furthermore, the new identity narrative backed by non-sectarian engagement has the potential to replace the current Sunni-Shia schism in the region by an Arab-Persian division. This could redefine West Asian politics and swing the balance in favour of the Kingdom. As the pool of Arab allies in the region is broader than possible Sunni partners, a shift to an Arab-Persian paradigm would allow the Kingdom to isolate Iran further, limit potential proxies for Tehran and simultaneously increase its influence in the Arab world.
For this new narrative to be effective against Iran’s—who sees no merit in an Arab-Persian schism—sectarian status quo in the region, it needs reciprocation from local actors. Iraqi Shia figures like Sadr, Hakim and Abadi have, for various reasons, embarked on a nationalist discourse based on a sense of Arab unity and antagonism towards Iranian meddling. Thus, they have every incentive to cooperate with a Saudi Arabia that legitimises their discourse and can act as a counterweight against Iranian influence in the country. Before he was killed, Yemen's former president Saleh, a Zaidi Shiite, too called for an alliance with Saudi Arabia, which too could have led to a cross-sectarian Arab alliance. While the new Saudi approach is taking root in Iraq and possibly in Yemen, a lot will depend on future local political conditions in the Arab world.
To sum up, Saudi Arabia is increasingly framing its regional policy with a discourse hinged on 'Arabness' as opposed to one hinged on Islam. This shift, combined with Riyadh's recent engagement with Shia actors in the region, could redefine the fault lines of conflict in West Asia. However, the success of this envisioned paradigm shift will depend on the capacity of Iranian resistance and local political conditions.