September 6, 2015

By Michael Stephens  

If the US is not willing to play a hegemonic role in the region, then Riyadh will have to step in.

Saudi Arabia’s recent flurry of diplomatic activity has set kingdom-watchers’ tongues wagging. Recent repeated overtures to Moscow have led many to believe that a grand rapprochement between the king and Tsar Putin was imminently on the cards. Yet, as we all awaited the announcement of a formal state visit to Moscow, the kingdom announced its plans for a trip – not to Moscow, but to Washington DC.

This striking turn of events is the hallmark of Riyadh playing great power politics, engaging with as many actors as possible, and seeking as much support as possible from global powers to get them to align with Saudi Arabia’s security priorities at a time of chronic regional instability.

While it may seem that the kingdom is veering its political engagements in an oddly inconsistent way, it is actually a reflection of a country seeking the status of a rising power and asserting its interests in an insecure world. But it is important to remember one thing: The United States is still Riyadh’s most important foreign ally, no matter what the Russians – or indeed, anyone else – promise.

Shifting US priorities

For all the problems that have emerged between the US and the Gulf Arab states at large, one incontrovertible fact still remains: The US is the only guarantor of security and stability in the Gulf and is the only global power with enough military might and diplomatic clout to be able to radically alter the course of global affairs, should it so wish. The fact that the current president has been unable and unwilling to use the full force of the US’ power in the region is more a reflection of shifting US priorities than any marked drop in its ability to project hard power.

Indeed, this is where the bulk of Saudi frustrations lies and the reason why the anger has set in so deeply. Riyadh has long known that the US could do more to stabilise the Middle East if it wanted to. It is Washington’s preference for weak policy positions on issues that are of critical importance to Saudi Arabia that has left the al-Sauds scratching their heads as to what is going on.

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Change in the name of stability for Saudi Arabia

From the continued failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, to the failure to contain Iran in both Syria and Iraq, to the dropping of regional linchpin Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the US has consistently adopted policies that run counter to Saudi national interests. The important point is that for Riyadh, these were not US policies made out of necessity – but by choice – and it is these choices that have signalled to Riyadh that the US is no longer an ally who can be counted on at all costs.

But King Salman’s visit is designed to show, above all else, that the maintenance of the strategic relationship is important to Riyadh and remains the primary foreign policy engagement outside of Riyadh’s GCC relationships.

Indeed, it is interesting to contrast the way in which Saudi Arabia’s frustrations with US foreign policy have been communicated against those of Israel.

The kingdom’s displeasure

The Saudis have cautiously welcomed US-led initiatives to engage with Iran, while preferring to largely keep their displeasure for private conversations. Save for a few frustrated op-eds appearing in The New York Times and other English-language news outlets, it has largely been understood by Saudi Arabia that it is better to allow Washington its day on the nuclear deal and push for strengthened US commitments in other areas of critical national security interests.

Unlike Israel, the kingdom’s displeasure has been handled in a way that shows a fundamental respect for the institution of the presidency of the US.

There may be difficulties between Riyadh and Washington at present, but presidents come and go, and in two years time, a more favourable administration may step into the White House.

The last thing Riyadh wishes is for a more deep-set and permanent break that will affect access to the Washington elite in times of need in the coming years. Letting the relationship flounder by putting undue pressure upon it is, therefore, simply not an option.

Saudi decision-makers do, however, understand that the US has – to some extent – permanently realigned its policy priorities away from the troubled Middle East region, which explains why the Saudis have decided to assume a far more activist and aggressive foreign policy posture.

The key is to cement an understanding in the minds of US officials that Saudi Arabia will be doing more to secure the region according to its own interests in the future and will not be asking for US permission to do so. In return for acquiescence to the Iranian nuclear deal, Washington must acquiesce to a more assertive Saudi Arabia; this is the quid pro quo that Riyadh not only wants, but expects.

What to do with Assad

The new direction in the relationship has already begun to have an impact in the region. Washington’s support for Saudi-led military operations in Yemen against anti-government forces has taken the form of quiet logistical support and coordination. There has been total support from Washington for the war, and almost nothing said about the mounting civilian casualties and tragic humanitarian costs of this now six-month-old conflict that appears set to continue for months.

In Syria, the Saudis have begun to assume an ever more important role, shuttling back and forth from various capitals, brokering understandings and deals, and forcing home the notion that Bashar al-Assad is the key problem who must be taken care of. A solution that does not ensure Assad’s removal, is not, in Riyadh’s eyes, any sort of solution at all.

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Yemen is a defining moment for King Salman

Again, Western emphasis on the removal of Assad from power seems to have gained new impetus in recent weeks, Western states have had their attention drawn away from focusing on the Assad regime because of the rise of ISIL, but constant pressure from the Gulf has kept the issue of Assad firmly on the table.

It is important to note that Saudi Arabia is not asking Washington and the West for carte blanche to go invading countries at will – the kingdom is, after all, aware of the limits of its own power and of the limited usefulness of military force.

If that were not the case, then perhaps Iraq would feature more highly on Riyadh’s new assertive agenda. But post-2003, Riyadh knows that is a battle it could never win.

What it is seeking to achieve is a relationship in which the Americans primarily understand that if they are not going to play a hegemonic role in the region, then Riyadh will have to step in and do it instead – and the results may not always be to Washington’s liking.

Michael Stephens is a research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.