Saudi Arabia on the Sidelines

Geopolitical Futures

The kingdom is a spectator watching Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia and the U.S. compete to reshape the region.

By Jacob L. Shapiro

No region has been as active thus far in 2018 as the Middle East. The action has been driven by Iran, which is seeking to fill the vacuum left by the Islamic State’s defeat in Syria and Iraq. Amid the fighting and diplomatic horse-trading, one actor has been conspicuously silent for the past two months, the last major Sunni Arab power still standing in Iran’s way: Saudi Arabia. That silence ended this week. On Feb. 26, Saudi Arabia reshuffled its top military commanders, and on Feb. 28, it hosted Lebanon’s prime minister in Riyadh for a friendly visit. Neither event bodes well for Saudi Arabia’s future, which is looking more uncertain every day.

Saudi Arabia’s occultation was particularly notable because of its suddenness. In November 2017, it seemed like events in Saudi Arabia might be the most important in the region after the Islamic State’s defeat. That was the month when Saudi Arabia removed the economy minister and the head of the National Guard, set up a new anti-corruption agency, held numerous Saudi princes in a Ritz-Carlton hotel for ransom and threatened to declare war on Lebanon. The November political reshuffles suggested that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quelling a potential threat to his newly confirmed succession to the throne. The Lebanon affair became an embarrassment because it showed that Riyadh was out of touch with the limits of its own power.

Relegated to the Sidelines

Since these developments, Saudi Arabia has been relegated to the sidelines. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia was a major sponsor of anti-Assad rebel groups. Now, Saudi Arabia is a spectator watching Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia and the U.S. compete to reshape the region. Saudi Arabia’s benching is not for lack of interest; it’s for lack of ability. The kingdom is mired in a protracted conflict in Yemen and, up until November, was burning through its foreign reserves. (An increase in the price of oil has helped matters in recent months, but it’s a temporary state of affairs, and Saudi Arabia continues to run a budget deficit.)

Suffice to say, there is not much Saudi Arabia can do now in Syria. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been focusing on internal affairs. The most important of these has been extorting money from princes and other officials picked up in the anti-corruption drive to replenish state coffers. But there have been other notable, albeit small, developments. In January, the kingdom ended a 35-year ban on the public screening of movies when “The Emoji Movie” was shown on a projector in a tent. Last week, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority chief announced that $64 billion would be spent in the next 10 years on entertainment projects such as movie theaters and an opera house.

Those may seem like frivolous developments, but they aren’t. They speak to the depths of Saudi Arabia’s challenges: $64 billion is about 10 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 2017 gross domestic product – a luxurious sum for a government in dire financial straits. But of course, the issue here isn’t just entertainment. It’s keeping the Saudi population pliant as the new crown prince reshapes the kingdom’s economic and political structure away from government handouts to an ever-expanding circle of royalty and oil payoffs to keep tribes invested in the system. Bread and circuses helped maintain the Roman Empire for centuries after its prime. The crown prince believes he just has to get to 2030, by which point his “Vision 2030” will have fixed all of Saudi Arabia’s problems.

That is all nice in theory, but it is much harder in practice. Even were we to grant that his plans could fix what ails Saudi Arabia (hint: we think it’s a pipe dream), every move he makes creates new enemies among the more conservative and religious parts of Saudi society, or simply among the princes who have been on the losing end of the anti-corruption drive. If the prince is to survive his reform drive, he will need the Saudi military on his side, which is exactly what the most recent reshuffling is designed to ensure. On Feb. 26, the Saudi Press Agency issued a short release that announced the termination and retirement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of the Air Defense Forces, and the commander of the land forces. Nearly all were replaced by relatively unknown officers whose main qualification is likely loyalty to the new crown prince.

Dangerous Foreign Threats

Serious though Saudi Arabia’s internal issues are, its foreign threats are even more dangerous. 2017 was a disastrous year for the kingdom’s foreign policy. Saudi Arabia tried to prevent Qatar from deepening its relationship with Iran – it failed. Saudi Arabia tried to get its allies in Lebanon to declare war on Hezbollah, and instead revealed how little the Saudis’ desires matter on the ground in Beirut. Saudi Arabia made little headway in the Yemeni civil war, and watched Iranian-backed Shiite militias, legitimized in Iraq in 2016, win important victories on the ground in Syria. Even the Islamic State’s defeat, which Saudi Arabia greatly wanted, did not come without its own attendant threats: Saudi Arabia is an enticing target for future IS operations.

It is not a surprise, then, that Saudi Arabia has decided to rethink its strategy. It replaced threats to the Lebanese prime minister with an invitation to come to Riyadh, and no doubt promised to deliver large sums of what Saudi Arabia has always purchased its allies with: money. When Iraq recently asked for money to help finance its reconstruction after the war against IS, Saudi Arabia pledged $1.5 billion, and would likely pledge much more if it meant Iranian influence in Iraq could be reduced. Money is ultimately all Saudi Arabia has to offer, and this explains why Saudi Arabia is collecting funds from its own princes even while it still retains more than about $500 billion in foreign reserves. Saudi Arabia sees the domestic and foreign challenges it faces and knows that even a sum as large as $500 billion isn’t going to be enough to solve them.

The irony about Saudi Arabia is that besides Israel, it has the region’s best-equipped military, but few forces. Having the equipment, however, isn’t enough – someone has to use it. Until Saudi Arabia can solve that problem, it is not going to be a major player because, while Saudi Arabia is looking for proxies to take its money, Turkey and Iran are providing their proxies with armor and artillery support. That’s why it doesn’t matter if Saudi Arabia develops a military-industrial complex (which it is trying to do) or that Saudi Arabia increased its defense budget by 9 percent in 2017 and will increase it by a projected 12 percent in 2018. At this point, the best-case scenario for Saudi Arabia is to break out the popcorn, root for Turkey and hope Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms work. The worst-case scenario is a Saudi civil war. Hope is never a good policy. Replacing military commanders is a better one, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem. It only buys the crown prince time – and the clock is ticking.