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Opinion: The Future of Saudi Foreign Policy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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New Saudi King Salman attends a ceremony with world leaders offering their condolences following the death of the late Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh January 24, 2015. (Reuters/Yoan Valat)

So far, there has been no indication that Saudi Arabia intends to change the direction of its foreign policy, either partially or completely. Saudi policy is usually set in stone, though the world around the Kingdom has changed a lot. Therefore it’s not necessary for the state’s policy to remain unchanged, especially considering its new leadership. The King, in fact, has the final say. I think—given our accumulated knowledge—that Saudi foreign policy is unlikely to witness dramatic changes on 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 greater interests. Saudi Arabia is nothing at all like the totalitarian regimes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or other similar rulers, who made decisions as per their personal desires.

In Riyadh, there exists a set of government institutions that have their 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 part of government contributes to it. The most famous of these processes was the decision made by King Fahd, mercy be upon him, to join the war to liberate Kuwait and invite American troops into the Kingdom. Though this was his decision, he did not make it until consultations had been held with different ministries and high-ranking figures within the family, and until he had received written pledges that he had the right to demand US forces leave Saudi territory when asked to do so. Most decisions like this, decisions which have major domestic or foreign repercussions, are made in a similar way. 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.

Upon assuming power, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz became the final decision maker regarding foreign affairs. While we must ultimately wait and see what changes this will mean, my hunch is that any 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 just because of his job as governor of Riyadh, but because he was actually a pillar of the ruling system since the 1960s and has held seats within the supreme committees that 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 basis on which decisions were made previously. The King has been personally concerned with foreign political issues for about five decades.

The foreign issues that politicians will keep a close eye on are numerous. As a matter of fact, King Salman is the first King to begin his reign facing so many serious regional and international challenges, all of which require his concern and not just the attention of the officials within various ministries and government 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, as well as the threat they pose to the north of the Kingdom. Yemen is also going through a major transition—the most serious one since the fall of the Imamate in the beginning of the 1960s. There’s also the complicated challenge of Iran’s expansionist project around the Middle East in the north and south, from Iraq to Yemen and through Bahrain and certain Shi’ite 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 on their activities in the Gulf.

There are other countries, Libya and Turkey for example, that are linked conceptually and directly to regional security, although they may seem geographically distant. There’s also a new challenge in that US foreign policy may shift and become open to Iran within the context of reconciliation aimed at reaching an accord on Iran’s nuclear program—a reconciliation that may come at the expense of Gulf countries, especially as the importance of oil has decreased in American political decision making. The relationship with Washington is the most important one for Saudi Arabia on a number of different levels, and it has been troubled 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 reign.

We must not forget that among the issues that await the King’s attention are intra-Gulf relations, which have suffered due to minor disagreements that have caused chaos and indirect clashes among the Gulf Cooperation Council (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 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.

On which course will the ship sail? The situation is in the hands of its new captain. This may be a chance, not for Saudi Arabia to take new stances, but for some countries and foreign parties to extend their hands and begin a new phase with the new King.