These are troubling and uncertain times for Saudi diplomacy. A string of regional upsets and friction with the United States has cast the kingdom into rocky, uncharted waters. Washington’s support of the Islamist government in Egypt and its response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria elicited outrage and accusations of U.S. unreliability and even betrayal from Riyadh. Then came the slight warming in U.S.-Iranian relations—highlighted by the unprecedented phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. That mild rapprochement brought to the fore an old specter: an U.S.-Iranian breakthrough that marginalizes the Gulf states and erodes their long-standing position as beneficiaries of U.S.-Iranian hostility.

On the editorial pages of Saudi newspapers, columnists have sounded familiar themes with new levels of intensity: The Gulf is being shut out of regional negotiations. The United States was duped on Syria and Iran. The Gulf needs to adopt a more muscular, unilateral approach to safeguard its own interests, and it should cultivate new security patrons to compensate for U.S. capriciousness, perfidy, and retreat from the region.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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But what does this latest round of hand-wringing, protest, and introspection really mean in terms of new directions in Saudi foreign policy?

If history is any guide, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf more generally, will continue to pursue policies that align with the broad contours of U.S. strategy—but with a creeping preference for hedging and unilateralism that will, in some cases, clash with U.S. interests. It is in the Gulf’s domestic landscape that the sharpest breaks between Saudi and U.S. views are emerging: regional tensions have enabled a harsh security campaign against a wide range of dissidents, the rise of sectarianism, and the troubling use of censorship.

A Wake-Up Call in Egypt

A key trigger for the recent round of misgivings in the Gulf was Washington’s tepid and confusing approach to the Egyptian military’s ejection of the Muslim Brotherhood government, which had been in power in Egypt since June 2012. In July 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a military coup that ousted Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency. At the time, the United States solicited Saudi and Emirati back-channel help in imploring Sisi to reach a peaceful compromise with Morsi, but there is ample evidence that the Gulf states were working at cross-purposes with Washington.

Riyadh’s ultimate interests lay in the unequivocal end of the Brotherhood government and the quashing of Brotherhood protests. The ruling al-Saud family fears that the Brotherhood’s ideology and political activism could animate opposition inside the kingdom and challenge Saudi Arabia’s quietist form of Salafism. In the aftermath of the Brotherhood’s ouster, King Abdullah chided U.S. policymakers for “supporting the very terrorism they call for fighting against.” Together with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the kingdom quickly promised $12 billion in aid to the military regime.

In the Saudi press, commentators defended the move as being made to advance Riyadh’s overarching objective of stability in Egypt not to further an intentional campaign against the Brotherhood. Having an unstable Egypt on top of parallel crises in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, these voices argued, would be simply too much for the kingdom to bear. Moreover, Riyadh’s backing of Sisi was a matter of simple expediency: Saudi Arabia had a long-standing relationship with the Egyptian military, so the army was a natural partner.

According to prolific columnist Khaled al-Dakhil, Saudi aid is intended to pave the way for a resumption of Egypt’s regional role in opposing Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq. He also explained that the current military arrangement should be a transitional bridge to an Egyptian government that is even more predisposed to Saudi interests.

Regardless of the desired end state, the messages underlying Saudi policy and the ensuing commentary are clear: the United States is increasingly hesitant, weak, and indecisive—and Saudi Arabia (along with the UAE and Kuwait) cannot afford to wait while Washington vacillates.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, some observers have argued that the seemingly one-sided U.S. position toward the Brotherhood heralds a major rift in U.S.-Saudi relations. Comparisons are made with the Arab-Israeli war and the oil embargo imposed by Saudi King Faisal in 1973, implying that when confronted with a choice, Saudi Arabia will always stand on the side of Arab fraternity rather than with the United States. Other voices advocate greater ties to Russia and France as a means to counterbalance the warming of U.S.-Iranian relations. Such warnings are not new and are in line with a general trend that sees Gulf states attempting to broaden contacts with China, European governments, India, and Russia.

The Syrian Chemical Weapons Bombshell

On top of the Egypt debacle, Obama’s decision not to take military action against Syria and the U.S. administration’s acceptance of a Russian-backed deal to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles further shook Saudi policy.

Riyadh has been backing the Syrian opposition with the intent of toppling the Assad regime, eroding the power of the Syrian Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, and clipping Iran’s influence in the Levant. Working with Turkey and Jordan to provide funds and weapons to its favored rebels, Saudi Arabia recently gained an edge over its competitor, Qatar, which had been backing Brotherhood factions in the opposition. Riyadh has also tried to strike a blow against al-Qaeda-allied factions by sponsoring the creation of a new Syrian Salafi umbrella grouping, the so-called Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam). In a parallel track, Riyadh is backing secular-oriented strongmen in Syria who would preserve the Syrian security bureaucracy but would eliminate the inner circle of President Bashar al-Assad and marginalize the Syrian Brotherhood.

In the initial wake of the Syrian chemical weapons attack in August 2013, pro-government Saudi commentators seemed relieved that Obama had “finally decided to enforce his redline” and launch a military strike in response to the Assad regime’s actions. In the ensuing deliberations over a U.S. strike, Saudi officials pushed for an overwhelming operation that would decapitate the regime. Saudi leaders were among the signatories of a statement at the G20 calling for military action, and they reportedly offered economic incentives to lobby Moscow to back down from its opposition to a military strike. But the limited scope of the planned attack, followed by the deferral of authorization to U.S. Congress, was decried in Riyadh as a catastrophic move that would empower al-Qaeda in Syria.

Saudi hopes were further dashed with the passage of the UN Security Council resolution that demanded Assad turn over Syria’s chemical weapons, which Saudi commentators saw as a “ploy” that had tricked an unsuspecting Obama into prolonging the conflict, thus ensuring the survival of Assad. Some wondered whether a chemical weapons deal still meant that regime change was on the table. Even worse than the dwindling possibility of a military strike, one columnist argued, was the snub to Saudi steadfastness: the U.S.-Russian agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and leave Assad in power had marginalized “regional actors” (that is, the Gulf states, Jordan, and Turkey) who were carrying the lion’s share of the burden in backing the opposition. Moreover, the cooperation of those actors is essential to a lasting solution. Instead of striking Syria as he promised, one observer noted, Obama had struck his longtime allies in the Gulf.

At the diplomatic level, Saudi Arabia’s official displeasure over Syria was reflected in the cancellation of its UN General Assembly speech, although the hidden subtext behind this protest was the remarkable set of conversations between U.S. and Iranian officials.

Fears of a U.S.-Iranian Breakthrough

The Iranian president’s tentative steps toward bilateral engagement with the United States, although certainly far from a Nixon-in-China breakthrough, are disconcerting for Saudi Arabia on a number of levels. One commentator argued that it is precisely the prospect of an incomplete and circumscribed rapprochement—what he terms “the politics of the minimum”—that is so dangerous for other countries in the region (the Gulf and Turkey) because it gives Iran more space to maneuver but leaves unchecked the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ ability to meddle in Saudi Arabia’s neighbors.

Familiar and overhyped themes of betrayal have also resurfaced: any compromise on the Iranian nuclear file will come at the expense of Arab Gulf states and Arab countries in general. In tandem, these commentators raised the fear of Iran reassuming the role of the Gulf’s policeman that it played during the era of the shah, with Obama’s backing. For others, it is not so much the danger of rapprochement—they agreed that U.S.-Iranian reconciliation would be good for regional peace—but rather the fact that the Gulf states are being sidelined, especially on a potential regional settlement of the Syrian crisis. “The road to Tehran goes through Moscow and Riyadh . . . only after Damascus,” trumpeted the headline of one op-ed in al-Hayat.

Also at play here is a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran stemming from their contested views about the U.S. role in the region and specifically the Gulf. Iran sees Saudi Arabia as America’s local proxy, responsible for inviting American forces to the region, where they have encircled the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s attempt to project power and break free from this encirclement as a form of hegemonic ambition in the region.

The disagreement over the U.S. presence is rooted in an imbalance of national power that has existed in the Gulf since the days of the shah. Recognizing their weakness compared with Iran’s, the Gulf have always solicited an external power (whether the British or the Americans) to balance Iran. Tehran, for its part, has made routine calls for the ejection of “extraregional forces” (read: the United States) and for the Gulf to be policed through a Gulf-only security architecture—an arrangement that is a nonstarter for Riyadh because it would relegate the kingdom to the status of junior partner to Tehran.

This fundamental asymmetry is made worse by the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen, which have invited meddling and inflammatory rhetoric by both sides. Iran’s nuclear ambitions also add fuel to the fire, and the Saudis remain deeply suspicious of any solution short of full suspension of enrichment or the destruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Greater Hedging in Store

In assessing these trajectories, it is important for policymakers to take the long view in U.S.–Saudi Arabia relations. They should accept that warnings of U.S. impotence in the face of regional threats, moves toward unilateralism, and solicitation of new security patrons are hardly new. They surfaced at the height of Iraq’s civil war, when Saudi voices goaded Washington into taking a more active role in curtailing Iranian influence. The warning signs once more became clear in the midst of the 2006 Lebanon war, when these same figures warned that “pan-Arab” files—Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine—were being wrested from Gulf hands by Iran and Hezbollah. And the hand-wringing appeared again in the wake of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that downgraded the Iranian nuclear threat and during the U.S.-Iranian-Iraqi trilateral talks in Baghdad in May 2007.

In many respects, recent lamentations in the Gulf press arguing that Saudi Arabia’s support for the Syrian rebels came too late are reminiscent of previous admissions that the Saudis failed to develop a plan for safeguarding their interests in a post-Saddam Iraq and thus ceded the strategic advantage to Iran. Among those currently calling for a remedy to these past mistakes, Khaled al-Dakhil has been the most articulate in demanding a more muscular and unilateral Saudi foreign policy. He attributes the kingdom’s diplomatic setbacks to a long-standing overreliance on soft power—financial and diplomatic tools—rather than on building up its own military capability. More directly, he argues that Saudi Arabia needs to be a player in the regional balance of power (that is, military might), not just in the balance of interests.

Echoing this, the editor in chief of Asharq al-Awsat, whose views are often believed to signal those of King Abdullah, makes a similar case. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, he advises, should act in the region as if Washington does not exist. The United States and the West will invariably follow the Saudi lead, as they did in Egypt and will do, eventually, in Syria. Toward Iran specifically, there are similar calls for the Gulf to leverage its newfound economic and political power to thwart a potential Western-Iranian alliance or backdoor deals made against the Gulf.

At least one writer, Jamal Khashoggi, opposes this school of thought, arguing that its timeworn tropes should be jettisoned. The Saudis need to overcome their excessive fear of a secret U.S.-Iranian alliance that would hurt Gulf interests. The Middle East, he notes, is capable of containing all of the region’s countries, including Iran and Turkey, and reconciliation with Iran is in everyone’s interests. He also contends that the idea of a regional policeman role in the Gulf, played by either Iran or Saudi Arabia, is exaggerated given the enduring presence of U.S. troops and the apparent stalling of the U.S. pivot to Asia.

The actual trajectory of Saudi diplomacy may lie somewhere in the middle of the two extremes articulated by these writers, for a number of reasons. For one, the road to a real breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations—to say nothing of a more modest nuclear détente—will be longer and more uncertain than both Saudi alarmists and Washington optimists believe. If and when it occurs, its effect on U.S.-Gulf relations and the broader region is likely to be less seismic and transformative than is commonly assumed. Saudi Arabia will continue to embrace U.S. diplomatic and defense cooperation for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Washington is still the only game in town, given Europe’s disarray and China’s unwillingness to shoulder a security burden for the region.

In addition, Saudi Arabia may find that the so-called Sunni front it is leading against Iran is becoming increasingly diluted. In fact, consensus among the Gulf states about Iran, the Arab uprisings, and the regional order has always been more elusive and fractured than outside appearances imply. Competition and crosscutting policies have been the norm, whether in the form of Qatari-Emirati rivalry during Libya’s revolution, Qatari-Saudi competition in Syria, Kuwait’s abstention from meaningfully contributing to the Gulf’s Peninsula Shield forces that deployed to Bahrain to quell the uprising there, or Oman’s deviating from the norm by maintaining good relations with Iran.

This absence of clear unanimity in the Gulf, combined with the momentum of U.S.-Iranian talks, leave Riyadh few options. Moving forward, it is likely to follow in the broad wake of U.S. policy, but with a greater preference for hedging. It may pursue multiple, overlapping policy initiatives as a form of insurance, some of which may clash with U.S. strategies and goals. This is evident most recently in Syria with Riyadh’s sponsorship of the Army of Islam, which is intended to undercut al-Qaeda but which also weakens Washington’s favored clients in the Syrian rebel joint military command, the Higher Military Council.

Saudi Arabia may actually be spurred to pursue its own unilateral initiative toward forging greater ties with Iran in the wake of Rouhani’s professed desire for better relations and moves toward dialogue with Washington. Despite the common assumption of an immutable and primordial rivalry based on sectarian and geopolitical differences, Riyadh and Tehran have shown the propensity to temper sectarian tensions and cooperate on areas of shared interest. Conflict regulation between the two sides has emerged in areas where both governments have realized that continued confrontation harms their respective national interests and economies. Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 war was one such instance; there are signs that the two sides may eventually reach similar exhaustion over Syria. Yet, even under the most favorable outcomes, there are still limits to just how far a warming can go because of Saudi domestic politics, the power of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and the fragmented state of the Middle East regional order.

The Domestic Backlash in the Gulf

If there is a real chasm opening between Saudi Arabia and the United States in light of regional developments, it may not be on the foreign policy front at all, but rather in disagreements over how the Gulf states are conducting their internal affairs in response to regional tumult. What is often overlooked is that Gulf rulers tend to conflate external ideological threats with internal political dissent. Put differently, Gulf reformists and dissidents are frequently seen to be the agents (or potential agents) of outside powers who are bent on destabilizing Gulf monarchies.

This dynamic has been manifested lately in a Gulf Cooperation Council agreement on internal security coordination: states will share blacklists; intensify roundups of reform activists, dissidents, and expatriates believed to be tied to Hezbollah, Iran, or the Brotherhood; and link censorship efforts. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are also attempting to depoliticize clerics by muzzling those who make public reference to events in Syria and Egypt. In the UAE, the ripple effects—mostly from Egypt but also from Syria—have been felt in dragnet arrests of Brotherhood activists. In Bahrain, the security backlash has been particularly corrosive. The regime of King Hamad Al Khalifa recently forbade political societies, most pointedly the Shia grouping Al Wefaq, from meeting with foreign diplomats or NGOs. In the state-controlled media, there have been repeated accusations that Shia activists in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are proxies for Iran.

While these worrisome trends are unlikely to seriously jeopardize the survival of Gulf regimes, they are creating a toxic political environment. In the midst of the heady developments on Iran and the continuing impasse in Syria, U.S. policymakers must not lose sight of these domestic dynamics.

The author is grateful for the research assistance provided by Carnegie Junior Fellow David Bishop.