Subtle Shifts in Saudi Foreign Policy: Domestic and International Dimensions

13 Mar, 2018    ·   5448

Pieter-Jan Dockx examines the domestic and international significance of the reorientation in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy pivot

Pieter-jan Dockx
Pieter-jan Dockx
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)
Part I of this two-part commentary on the shifts in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy weighed in on the changes in the Kingdom’s foreign policy and explained its regional implications, highlighting two trends. First it posited that Riyadh is increasingly framing its external engagement by prioritising a pan-Arab identity over the Wahhabi discourse it previously pursued; and second that based on this 'Arabness', the Kingdom has begun engaging Shia Arabs in the region. This change could set the region up for a paradigmatic shift from a Sunni-Shia divide to an Arab-Persian one. This would allow for Iran's continued isolation and broaden the pool of possible regional partners for the Kingdom. 

Part II of this commentary examines the domestic and international significance of the Kingdom’s foreign policy changes.

On the domestic front, Saudi Arabia's new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's (MbS) goal is to monopolise political power. To reduce the influence of the clergy, MbS has arrested several clerics. By partly decoupling foreign policy from religion, he is able to further marginalise the clergy who have provided the ideological backing and legitimacy for the Kingdom’s traditional foreign policy. Having initiated his 'Saudi Vision 2030' reform plan, MbS faced a conundrum. On one hand, a continuation of a sectarian Wahhabi policy would have undermined his domestic reforms, and on the other hand, domestic reforms would also undermine the credibility of the Wahhabi Saudi foreign policy.

However, the problem for MbS is that the House of Saud's legitimacy as monarchs of the Kingdom was and remains dependent on Salafi conservatism. Yet, recent surveys indicate that the Arab identity is the most important one amongst the Saudi youth. Clearly, this is a demographic shift in identity; and by portraying himself as the leader of the Arab world, MbS would be able to generate domestic acceptability that is not based on Wahhabism. This is important also to plug the opposition loophole that could be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, as the Arabness pillar could provide a crucial ethnic counterpoint in fending off the religious, Islamist opposition.

The move also has consequences for the 10-15 per cent Shia Arabs living in the Kingdom. Continued institutionalised discrimination against them—such as the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr—only reinforces the existing sectarian divide, de-legitimising the new discourse. Furthermore, much like Arabness forms the basis for engagement with Shia Arabs in the region, the new discourse could equally pave the way for the emancipation of Saudi Arabia's Shia minority.

The turn towards Arabness is also based on international developments. In European countries, the populations have increasingly come to perceive Wahhabism (and by association, Saudi Arabia) as the source of extremism. This popular pressure has led European politicians to increasing calls for an arms embargo against the country and has upset bilateral relationships. Emphasising an Arab identity and moving away from Wahhabism—with the secular connotation that this shift entails—would allow the Saudi Arabia and the European political class to break the negative public perception of the country and portray it through the lens of nationalism over Wahhabism.

A shift would also be welcomed in the White House and is possibly even orchestrated by Washington. US President Donald Trump has built his political narrative around fighting ‘Islamic’ extremism, which, for him, is embodied by Iran. Riyadh's shift away from Salafism combined with Iran's continued isolation would suit Trump's interest and would legitimise his strong ties with Riyadh. During a State Department press conference in October 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson already tapped into this Arab-Persian dichotomy and said, “These are all the same people. Iraqis are Arab. Iraqis are not Persian. So, whether it’s Iraqi-Sunni or it’s Iraqi-Shia, it’s Iraqi-Shia Arabs. They’re not Persians. I think the things that the Saudis are keen to achieve is a reconnection with their longstanding tribal brothers. [….] This is an opportunity for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Take the lead and reconnect with their Arab brothers in Iraq.” 

While this reorientation could solve one set of problems, it also creates a new set of dynamics for MbS to address. Although the abovementioned change could reduce antagonism from vast sections of the public in economically important Western countries, it could also cause the Kingdom to risk compromising its image of leadership in the Islamic world—which will requisite  demonstrating a balancing act. This is already visible in Saudi engagements with Belgium and Bangladesh. While MbS was quick to relinquish control of the Brussels Grand Mosque upon the request of the Belgian government, Riyadh is also allegedly funding the construction of hundreds of new mosques in Bangladesh.

To sum up, as the Arab identity emerges as the most salient one among the Saudi youth today, MbS's new narrative could provide a new pillar of domestic legitimacy for the Saudi royal family. However, internationally, the Kingdom would have to strike a balance between its quasi-secular and religious credentials to retain and maximise its influence in both the West and the East.