Deprived of ‘checkbook diplomacy’ in Yemen and Syria, Saudi Arabia flounders

A Houthi militant sits amidst debris from the Yemeni Football Association building, which was damaged in a Saudi-led air strike, in Sanaa May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
A Houthi militant sits amidst debris from the Yemeni Football Association building, which was damaged in a Saudi-led air strike, in Sanaa May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

The latest series of WikiLeaks cables have once again embarrassed the Saudi government and forced it on to the diplomatic defensive. The cables, over half a million documents said to have come from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, contain titillating details about how Riyadh operates — but no smoking guns related to nuclear enrichment or other issues of global fascination.

What these cables do show is Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming desire to prevent the public from seeing how it uses its “soft” power assets — its oil and financial largesse — to persuade strategic allies and major powers to support its foreign policy goals. Successive Saudi monarchs have relied on this indirect strategy for decades, as it has delivered domestic political stability and maintained Riyadh’s status as a major regional power. However, the recent examples of Syria and Yemen, where Riyadh has been forced to take the foreign policy lead — delivering inconclusive, confusing and unpredictable results — show that when the Saudis are forced to implement their foreign policy objectives by diplomatic or military means, they struggle to manage the fallout.

Nevertheless, the newly released cables reinforce Saudi Arabia’s willingness to use its financial muscle to achieve its goals — an approach that could be described as “checkbook diplomacy” — and its ongoing preoccupation with attempting to push back the influence of regional rival Iran. The cables reveal the dependence of some Sunni and Christian Lebanese politicians on Saudi financial largesse, money Riyadh makes available to counter the influence of Iranian disbursements to Hezbollah and other pro-Tehran factions in Beirut. They make public an idea to pay Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood $10 billion in exchange for a guarantee that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former Saudi ally, would not go to prison, a plan Riyadh aborted after diplomats objected to paying what amounted to a “ransom” and the realization that the Brotherhood could not or would not offer any such guarantee against Mubarak’s imprisonment. Finally, they expose Saudi attempts to manage the potential media fallout of diplomatic efforts to persuade Russia to abandon its support for the Assad regime in Syria.

These issues are consistent with Riyadh’s foreign policy objectives since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. In subsequent years, Saudi monarchs have sought to contain opposition at home and ensure that countries like Egypt remain allies — while using opportunities like the conflicts in Syria and Yemen to reaffirm or expand its regional influence at the expense of Iran.

Riyadh remains committed to both removing the Assad regime and defeating Iran. However, Saudi efforts to convince the United States and others that this goal is as urgent as defeating Islamic State, or that it will somehow contribute to the weakening of Islamic State, have found little traction.

From the Saudi perspective, the United States and its allies have dithered enough over Syria and are unable to define exactly what they want to achieve, leaving the conflict at a stalemate. At least Riyadh can claim to be changing the dynamics of the conflict, although arguably not in a way that will allow Syria to be reconstituted and rebuilt unless Islamic State is defeated. While the Saudi approach seems to be “remove Assad first, ask questions later,” the United States, scarred by its experience in Iraq when it took a similar course of action, is wary that, once and if Assad is removed, the Saudis will leave other countries to manage the fallout.

Likewise and perhaps even more so in Yemen, Saudi policy goals have become muddied and unpredictable. When Riyadh launched Operation Decisive Storm (since renamed Operation Restoring Hope) in March, it expected that after a short but powerful military campaign, the Houthis would surrender and the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi would return to power. Yet today, the Saudi-led offensive continues and Riyadh is no closer to achieving this goal.

The WikiLeaks cables revealed how Riyadh wants to shape the Middle East, often in a way that highlights its double standards and disagreements with allies. While this may not be viewed as controversial from a Western perspective — where cynicism and scepticism about states’ motives is built into foreign policy analysis — for a country like Saudi Arabia that is sensitive to the way its government is perceived, both internally and externally, the WikiLeaks exposures will continue to embarrass the House of Saud.

David Hartwell is a Middle East political, military and security expert, and Director and Managing Editor at Middle East Insider.

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