As dynamics in the Middle East continue to shift, Saudi Arabia has taken on a more aggressive foreign policy approach. According to Perry Cammack, Middle East Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, these changes in Saudi policy are a reaction by the Saudi royal family to Iran’s strategy of “fomenting civil war, promoting sectarianism, and undermining stability.” Furthermore, Cammack explains that despite a cooling in U.S.-Saudi relations in recent years, “Riyadh has no real alternative to Washington as its core security partner.” ​

The Cipher Brief: To what extent is Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy – intervening in Yemen, cutting assistance to Lebanon, threatening military action in Syria – a reaction to Iranian regional behavior?

Perry Cammack
Perry Cammack is a nonresident fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on long-term regional trends and their implications for American foreign policy.
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Perry Cammack: I see Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented assertiveness, not as a sign of confidence, but as reflecting deep anxieties about a collapsing regional order. The Saudi royal family sees Iran as responsible for much of this turbulence, by fomenting civil war, promoting sectarianism, and undermining stability in places like Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.  Riyadh is also frustrated by what it sees as an anemic American response to this turmoil. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s responses have mostly only added fuel to the fire. For example, the 14 month old Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is a humanitarian calamity with thousands of civilians killed and more than two million displaced, and little discernable progress toward Riyadh’s policy objectives.

In fact, the extent to which Saudi and Iranian rhetoric mirrors each other is fascinating. For their part, the Iranians see Saudi Arabia as a supporter of religious extremism and view the Islamic State as a natural evolution of the Kingdom’s ultraconservative doctrine, frequently referred to as Wahhabism. Neither side seems capable of genuine reflection on their own contributions to the Middle East’s profound problems.

TCB: What is the current state of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia? Is the Kingdom looking to build stronger alliances with other actors, such as Russia, Egypt, and possibly even Israel?

PC: In a word, complicated. On one hand, the Saudis have signed contracts to purchase over $100 billion worth of American military equipment since 2010. Bilateral security and intelligence coordination remains as robust as ever. President Barack Obama has had four meetings with Saudi kings and Secretary of State John Kerry seems to consult with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir as often as any other counterpart.

However, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is built on common interests rather than common values, and these interests are undergoing important changes.  After more than 25 years of near-continuous – and mostly unsuccessful – military engagement in the Middle East, the United States has little interest in getting bogged down in further crises. Washington and Riyadh have divergent views on the causes of the region’s instability and what to do about it, particularly with respect to Iran. In the wake of the American shale revolution, the two countries are suddenly economic competitors. And of course, there is the issue of the 28 classified pages of the Congressional joint inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, which apparently describe possible connections between Saudi officials and some of the 15 Saudi attackers.

Given its historical overreliance on American strategic security, it makes sense for the Saudis to seek to diversify their portfolio. But there are limits to how far this can go. Moscow and Riyadh are deeply at odds on Syria policy; the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate greatly narrows the scope for Israeli-Saudi cooperation; Egypt, though dependent upon Gulf largesse, has its own leadership aspirations; and so on.

Because none of these or other plausible alternatives can match America’s military and diplomatic capabilities, Riyadh has no real alternative to Washington as its core security partner. I expect both sides to make efforts to reinvigorate cooperation when the next President takes office in January. But I believe we’re entering a “new normal” in U.S.-Saudi relations, in which both sides, though continuing to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, increasingly disagree on a range of regional and international issues.

TCB: How have succession issues and internal dynamics in the royal family impacted Saudi’s foreign policy, specifically the rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

PC: Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s favorite son and deputy crown prince, has accumulated unprecedented influence in foreign and domestic policy formulation. It’s reasonable to assume that this consolidation of power is generating a reaction from the large number of royal family members whose own political and financial equities are in jeopardy. Saudi family dynamics occur behind closed doors, so it is difficult to predict how things might play out. What is clear is that Prince Mohammed has staked his personal reputation on two parallel initiatives – the military intervention in Yemen and the “Saudi Vision 2030” plan to revitalize the economy – whose ultimate successes are still very much in question. We haven’t seen the end of this story.

TCB: Have fallen oil prices affected Saudi Arabia’s purchasing power (primarily of defense equipment) as well as the country’s foreign policy strategy?

PC: The real question is whether the collapse in oil prices is a cyclical phenomenon or more fundamental in nature. While no one knows the full answer to this question, it is significant that Prince Mohammed is openly talking about the post-oil economy, as part of “Saudi Vision 2030.”

Saudi Arabia’s 2015 defense expenditures are estimated at $82 billion, even more than Russia’s. It sits on nearly $600 billion in currency reserves, so it can sustain military operations in Yemen and its broader regional policies for some time. But the annual budget deficit has ballooned to nearly $90 billion, and in recent months, the major ratings agencies have all downgraded the Kingdom’s credit ratings. The longer oil prices remain depressed the more Riyadh will find its foreign and domestic policy options curtailed.

TCB: Will Saudi Arabia continue to be an aggressive player in the region? How should the U.S. approach Saudi’s increasing role?

PC: As long as the tensions between Riyadh and Tehran remain as high as they currently are, I suspect the answer is yes. More than 2,400 years ago, Thucydides wrote that the Peloponnesian War was caused by the “growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta.” The situation in today’s Persian Gulf is, in some ways, analogous. Saudi Arabia’s concerns of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement in the wake of last year’s nuclear agreement were clearly unfounded. However, in the agreement’s aftermath, Iran does have a plausible long-term pathway to increasing its national power, if it can overcome its own political and economic mismanagement and begin adapting to global norms of interstate behavior.

I think the United States should take the long view and pursue two parallel tracks with Saudi Arabia. First, Washington should continue to reassure Riyadh of its support for the Kingdom’s external defense and signal that continued implementation of the Iranian nuclear agreement does not constitute a free pass on Iran’s destructive policies in the Levant and elsewhere.

Second, Washington should convey that real stability in the Middle East also requires an evolution in Riyadh’s approach. The immediate challenge is to de-escalate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which can reduce sectarianism and facilitate diplomatic processes to find political solutions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. The longer-term challenge is for Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to provide genuine support for the development of political arrangements throughout the region that promote power-sharing, provide more responsive governance, and create dynamic economic systems, as an antidote to the radicalism that is tearing apart the region. 

This q&a was originally published in the Cipher Brief.