By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
So far, there has been no indication that Saudi Arabia intends to follow a different foreign policy, either partially or completely. Saudi policy is usually set in stone, however the world around the kindom has changed a lot. Therefore it’s not necessary for the state’s policy to remain unchanged, especially considering the presence of a new leadership. The king in fact has the final decision. I think – given our accumilated knowledge – Saudi foreign policy is unlikely to witness dramatic changes regarding major issues. This is due to the nature of the decision making process within the state and more importantly because major issues are linked to the country’s higher interests. Saudi Arabia is nothing at all like totalitarian regimes of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or other similar rulers who make decisions as per their personal desires.
After assuming power, King Salman bin Abdulaziz has become the final decision maker regarding foreign affairs
In Riyadh, there exists a governing institution that has its own decision making traditions. The king is the head of the state and the final decision maker. However, the decision making process is long and more than one governmental party contributes to it. The most famous of these processes is the decision of King Fahd, mercy be upon him, to join the war of liberating Kuwait and inviting American troops. This was his decision, however he did not make it until consultations were held with different ministries and high-ranking figures within the family and until he received written pledges that he has the right to demand the U.S. forces’ exit from Saudi territories whenever he liked. It is in a similar manner that most decisions are made. I am here referring to decisions which have major domestic or foreign repercussions. These decisions go through a long process of debate before the king signs off and approves them. This is why the media criticizes Saudi Arabia, saying it is slow in its decision making.
Final decision maker
After assuming power, King Salman bin Abdulaziz has become the final decision maker regarding foreign affairs. We must wait and see, however my hunch is that changes – if they occur- will be minor because the new king himself was actually part of the decision making process during the previous era. He wasn’t part of this process because of his job as governor of Riyadh, but because he was actually a pillar of the ruling system since the 1960s and he actually held seats within the supreme committees which prepared the ground for major decisions. This is why we assume that he knows the details of all foreign issues and that he also knows the bases on which decisions were made previously. The king has been personally concerned with foreign political issues for about five decades.
The foreign issues which politicians will keep a close eye on are numerous. As a matter of fact, King Salman is the first king to launch his era with such a big amount of very serious regional and international challenges and issues which all require his concern and not just the concern of the bureaucratic system within ministries and institutions. The major issues at hand include the Syrian crisis, the relationship with Baghdad’s government and other Iraqi political players and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and similar groups and the threat they pose to the north of kingdom. Yemen is going through a decisive phase – the most serious one since the fall of the imamite in the beginning of the 1960s – and is also a problem. There’s also the complicated challenge of Iran’s expansionist project around Saudi Arabia in the north and South, from Iraq to Yemen and through Bahrain and certain Shiite powers in the Gulf. In addition, there is the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood who seek to establish a rival system in the region despite their failure in Egypt and the crackdown in the Gulf.
There are issues, Libyan and Turkish ones for example, which are intellectually and directly linked to the region’s security although they may sound as though they are geographically distant. There’s also a new challenge in that U.S. foreign policy may shift and become open to Iran within the context of a reconciliation aimed at finalizing Iran’s nuclear program – a reconciliation which may come at the expense of Gulf countries especially as the importance of oil decreased in American political decision making.
The relationship with Washington is the most important for Saudi Arabia on different levels and it has weakened since the American invasion of Iraq. Perhaps President Barack Obama’s recent visit, in which he was accompanied by a heavyweight delegation, was a frank and positive message to begin King Salman’s era.
We must not forget that among the issues which await the king are intra-Gulf relations which have suffered due to minor disagreements that have caused chaos and indirect clashes among the GCC countries. As for Egypt, I think the Saudi stance is solid, especially as King Salman is more knowledgeable than others when it comes to Egypt and the presidencies of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. There are also political and intellectual problems like the Saudi role in leading the Muslim world – for other powers are trying to compete with Saudi Arabia for this position – and its role in fortifying Islam against extremism and against powers opposing Muslims.
How will the ship sail? The situation is in the hands of its new captain. This may be a chance, not for Saudi Arabia to alter its stances, but for some countries and foreign parties to extend their hands and begin a new phase with the new king.
This article was first published in Al Arabiya News.
A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is also the former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.