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Saudi Arabia grapples with geopolitical change

The Crown Prince will continue to consolidate his control. But he must contend with unpredictable US foreign policy and shifting political alliances

For years, a criticism aimed at Saudi Arabia’s leaders was that the pace of change was too slow to meet the needs of its rapidly expanding, youthful society, as well as the challenges of a globally connected world. Paradoxically, and some might say unfairly, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has since been criticised for trying to do too much too quickly, following his rise to prominence as defence minister and deputy Crown Prince in 2015.

Set against this spectrum of expectations is the intersection of energy, politics, and security in Saudi Arabia—which has undergone rapid changes and necessitated a reassessment of the geopolitical landscape that confronts the Saudi leadership, five years after King Salman assumed the throne.

While King Salman retains final decision-making authority in the kingdom, he has overseen two developments that have altered the dynamics within the sprawling royal family in important and consequential ways. The first and most visible is that MbS has amassed a range of responsibilities unprecedented in the history of the modern Saudi state and now has direct control or indirect influence over economic, defence, security and energy policy.

The Saudi leadership has had to grapple with the policy unpredictability of the Trump administration

The deaths of longstanding senior Al Saud members between 2011 and 2015 predated the rise of MbS but made it possible for him to move into the policy spaces they left behind. Saudi Arabia is closer in 2020 to a one-man-state than at any other time since the death of its founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, in 1953.

Wresting control

With the authority vested in him by his father, MbS has started to remake the structure and balance of power within the Al Saud by appointing a new generation of princes—the grandsons of King Abdulaziz—to key decision-making positions. These include his own siblings—Abdulaziz bin Salman as the first royal to hold the post of energy minister and Khalid bin Salman as his deputy at the defence ministry, as well as other younger royals such as Abdulaziz bin Saud as interior minister and Faisal bin Farhan as foreign minister. Together with other appointments at regional and governorate level, MbS has steadily remade in his own image a kingdom he could conceivably rule for fifty years, just as his grandfather did from 1902 to 1953.

For that to happen, MbS will have to strike more of a balance between the assertive nature of his decision-making style and his record of sometimes impetuous actions—the latter often seemingly facilitated by a small inner circle of youthful and inexperienced advisors at the royal court. The Crown Prince may have weathered the initial fallout from the murder of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 but political outrage in Congress means he is unlikely to be able to the visit the US for years to come.

The close ties between MbS and the Trump administration has also drawn the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia into the hyper-polarisation of US politics. Saudi Arabia will host the G-20 summit in Riyadh two weeks after the US presidential election in November 2020, and after a campaign in which the US-Saudi relationship may well become a fractious point of political contention.

Unpredictable foreign policy

In addition to Congressional tensions, the Saudi leadership has had to grapple with the policy unpredictability of the Trump administration and its unorthodox approach to foreign affairs. The low-key response to the unprecedented attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure at Abqaiq and Khurais and comments by President Trump about his desire to ‘leave’ the Middle East may have been counterbalanced by the deployment of additional US military assets to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is closer in 2020 to a one-man-state than at any other time since the death of its founder

But the lack of a decisive US response to the drone attacks, in particular, has called into question the US commitment to regional security that has underpinned calculations in Riyadh and all other Gulf States. It is little surprise that both the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates have reopened channels of political communication with Yemeni groups, such as the Houthi rebels, and with Iran itself, in the wake of the spate of Iran-linked attacks on maritime and energy targets and amid doubts over the US response.

Much has been made of China and, especially, Russia moving into a regional ‘space’ in the Gulf hitherto dominated by the US and other Western states. Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have warmed significantly in the energy and investment spheres and were a focal point during Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in October 2019.

However, the visit focused far less on regional security issues and neither Russia nor China—nor, for that matter, India or any of the other Asian economic partners towards which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have pivoted—will pick sides between Saudi Arabia and Iran in anything like the manner the US has consistently since 1979.

US disengagement may or may not happen in practice, but internationalisation of Gulf foreign policy is already becoming a reality. It will alter the regional geopolitical map in ways that are not yet clear but must be watched closely over time.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy

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