By Dr. Farah Jan
Saudi Arabia holds a unique position; being the birthplace of Islam and home to Makkah and Madinah, two of the holiest sites for the more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The Kingdom is a key power player in the region and Gulf states look to Riyadh for leadership on economic, military and political matters. On the world stage, Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role by being the largest producer and exporter of petroleum. On the economic front, the Saudi stock market is worth $450 billion-plus, while the planned IPO of 5 percent of shares in the Kingdom’s national oil company, Aramco, will dwarf the likes of Alibaba Group Holding and Apple.
The Kingdom is currently going through major social and economic transformations. On the domestic front and under the leadership of the young and enterprising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia implemented several social reforms in 2017, including allowing women to drive and opening up cinemas and stadiums. The Kingdom is also reshaping its economy to shift away from its dependence on oil and curb corruption across all strata. These measures are significant and extraordinary, and have made SaudiArabia accessible, progressive, and open to the world for trade and tourism.
Given these significant changes on the domestic front, the Kingdom should also adopt a more assertive and pragmatic power projection policy in the region. In the past, SaudiArabia has demonstrated a passive approach towards its political objectives. The hesitation in its power projection could be attributed to the Kingdom’s reliance on the United States.
In the current international environment, Saudi Arabia needs to play a more assertive role in achieving its political objectives: It must project its power in the region. Power projection is based on the ability to apply “any combination of economic, diplomatic, informational, or military instruments of a state’s national power… An effective power-projection capability serves to deter potential adversaries and demonstrates resolve,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Saudi Arabia is certainly capable of successfully using any or all of these instruments against any state in the region, with the exception of Israel. However, a wise strategic policy requires power projection in a manner where one utilizes its capabilities along with its regional allies to contain rivals and keep mistakes to a minimum.
It is time for Saudi Arabia to exploit its power of diplomacy — a muscle that has yet to be flexed. The boycott of Qatar and the war in Yemen were the two decisions in recent years that demonstrated the Kingdom’s resolve and assertiveness. Additionally, the Kingdom has taken significant steps in fighting terrorism in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia today is leading the region in reforms and progressivism, and it must continue moving forward toward an independent and decisive foreign policy.
Dr. Farah Jan
In the case of Qatar, the decision to boycott is producing the desired outcome. However, Qatar has relied heavily on Turkey, Iran, and India. Each of these countries want to advance their own economic and political interests, and further benefit from the disunity within the GCC. Nevertheless, Doha must stop its policy of promoting extremist political movements in the Middle East and get in line with the GCC. Qatar is a part of the GCC and Doha must keep its position in accordance and in harmony with its neighbors.
In the case of Yemen, it was and remains crucial for Saudi national security: The Kingdom will defend its national security interest against any Iranian influence or threats. Yemen lies at a crucial energy shipping route on the narrow Bab Al-Mandab Strait, meaning it is crucial for the regional power players — whoever controls Yemen controls this important global energy shipping route. Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels is linked with its goals of regional hegemony. Furthermore, Iran has supplied missiles to the Houthis that have been used to attack targets within Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia must prepare for a two-pronged strategy for defeating the Houthis in Yemen: First, reliance on air power has not resulted in the desired outcome. The military option needs to be revamped and the targets should be the leadership of the Houthis, radar sites, missiles stores, communication lines and, most importantly, a complete blockade of the supply ports of Hodeidah, Aden, Ash Shihr and Nishtun with the help of Saudi allies. These are the ports known to receive illicit weapons shipments from Iran. Second, the force projection strategy should be followed by informational warfare against the Houthis, along with humanitarian assistance to win the hearts and minds of the Yemenis who have suffered during this crisis. Saudi military strategy must concentrate on not only winning the war, but also preventing the emergence of another civil war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia is crucial for the US as a steady and reliable strategic partner in the region, and the two sides have supported the other’s interests for almost eight decades. However, since Donald Trump took office, the region has faced the challenge of US retrenchment. From threatening to withdraw from Syria to the controversial decision to move the US embassy in Jerusalem, Trump’s isolationist policies have emboldened and strengthened Russia and Iran’s position in Syria. Additionally, Trump’s recent statements on Syria and the oil-richMiddle Eastern countries not taking responsibility must ring alarm bells in the capitals of the Gulf states. These statements capture Trump’s lack of understanding of world politics and his commitment to the region.
Saudi Arabia today is leading the region in reforms and progressivism, and it must continue moving forward toward an independent and decisive foreign policy. One component of it must include strengthening the Islamic coalition that was formed in 2015, along with building a strong Saudi ground force with the help of its regional allies.
Crown Prince Mohammed is the most powerful man in the Middle East and stands as a beacon of hope not only for Saudi Arabia but also the Muslim world. Thus, wise and sage leadership is expected from him, and the burden of unifying the Muslim Ummah rests on the shoulders of his Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Farah Jan is a lecturer at Rutgers University — NewBrunswick. She writes on the foreign and defense policies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @fjan1
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view