Is Saudi Arabia's Grand Strategy Shifting?
Even in this era of global paradigmatic changes, Saudi Arabia’s shifting grand strategy is perhaps one of the most surprising developments to occur thus far, but the fast-moving Russian-Saudi rapprochement is likely to provoke an Iranian “zero-sum” reaction which could complicate Moscow’s multipolar efforts in managing the “New Middle East”.
Vladimir Putin with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the official greeting ceremony, Moscow, October 5, 2017 (Photo: kremlin.ru)
Most observers were taken aback by what to many seemed to be the inexplicable visit of Saudi King Salman to Moscow this week, wondering how and why the two long-standing Great Power rivals were able to get so close to one another in such a short period of time – and apparently without much public fanfare, too – in making this historic event possible. The usual Alt-Media demagogues decried this as a sellout of Russia’s fundamental national interests, with the most extreme pundit-provocateurs even ranting that it amounts to President Putin siding with “terrorists” such as Daesh and Al Qaeda, especially in light of Moscow’s decision to sell the much-vaunted S-400 anti-air missile systems to Riyadh and even set up a Kalashnikov production plant in the Kingdom.
Had the Saudi Arabia of 2017 been the same country as it was half a decade ago, or even last year for that matter as some could argue, then there might be some rhetorical substance to this outlandish claim no matter how false it would still be, but what most people don’t realize is that Saudi Arabia is in the process of comprehensive changes to its foreign and domestic policies, and that there’s a very high likelihood that it will moderate its traditional behavior in becoming a more responsible actor in international (and especially regional) affairs. A lot of this has happened away from the public eye, at least in the sense that the developments weren’t “sexy” enough to draw widespread attention from most media outlets and commentators, but these piecemeal changes have altogether contributed to the formation of what looks to be a totally new grand strategy.
Before getting into the details of the drastic policy changes that Saudi Arabia has been up to lately, it’s important to comment a bit on why Russia is embracing its erstwhile nemesis. For starters, Russia’s foreign policy is driven nowadays by the “progressive” faction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which believes that their country’s 21st-century grand strategic ambition should be to become the supreme balancing force in the Eurasian supercontinent. To this end, they’re diligently employing “military diplomacy” and “nuclear diplomacy”; the first in selling arms to rival states in order to preserve the status quo between them and prevent a hot war from transpiring (which is the opposite of the US selling weapons in order to tip the balance in favor of its preferred partner and spark the said conflict that Russia wants to avoid), and the second in utilizing its global leadership in nuclear energy technology to make important strategic inroads with non-traditional partners.
Multipolarity In Action
Concerning Saudi Arabia, this has seen Russia sign deals with it for the S-400 anti-air missile system and Kalashnikov production plant (“military diplomacy”), and Rosatom’s proposal to build Riyadh’s first-ever nuclear power plant (“nuclear diplomacy”). Of course, there’s also traditional and energy diplomacy at play here as well, the former as it relates to cooperation in uniting the Syrian “opposition” as a prerequisite to resolving the War on Syria, and the latter when it comes to both sides’ participation in the historic OPEC+ output deal from last year and subsequent renewal earlier in 2017. Moreover, none of this is occurring in a multipolar vacuum either, as Russia’s premier Chinese partner has been making great strides with Saudi Arabia in the same timeframe, including by inking two sets of deals totaling than $130 billion in the past six months alone.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Moscow (photo: kremlin.ru)
Most of the Chinese-Saudi agreements were signed in the framework of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 project for diversifying away from his Kingdom’s present oil-exporting dependency and towards a more “real-sector” economy. This can’t happen unless crucial socio-cultural reforms are made in Saudi Arabia, and the young prince – who’s far from a fundamentalist Wahhabi in real life and therefore something like a “rock star” among his country’s majority “moderate-prone” youth population (over half of which is under 25 years old) – recently undertook the pivotal decision to allow women to drive in the future, understanding that this a necessary step to increasing their future participation in the economy. It can be expected that more such reforms might follow in the future, such as the possible reopening of movie theaters and maybe even one day lessening the patriarchal legal restrictions placed on women’s freedom of movement.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s reforms aren’t without controversy, however, as they’ve produced a lot of resistance among the country’s ultra-fundamental clerical class, as was explained in the author’s recent analysis about “Why Allowing Saudi Women To Drive Is Very Dangerous”. The fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia isn’t a pure “monarchical dictatorship” in the structural-political sense, but a “dual dictatorship” between the monarchy and the clergy, but the Crown Prince’s socio-culturally modernizing reforms are being perceived of as an unprecedented “power grab” which de-facto constitutes a “soft coup” by the monarchy against the clergy. In turn, the most extreme clerics could become a pressing national security risk if they rally their followers against the monarchy in fomenting unrest, whether manifested through street protests, a royal coup, or terrorism. It’s the fear of this happening which explains the Kingdom’s recent crackdown and the author’s subsequent investigation into “Who’s Really Trying To Overthrow Mohammed Bin Salman?”
As the aforementioned article concludes, the only serious player with the clandestine competencies to pull this off is the US, which is considering the “Balkanization” of the Kingdom into a collection of emirates aided by the duplicitous connivance of its regional UAE ally. This was elaborated on more in depth by the author in his work a couple of months ago explaining “The Machiavellian Plot to Provoke Saudi Arabia and Qatar into a ‘Blood Border’ War”, but the overriding idea is that the US has had an interest in betraying its decades-long ally ever since the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal was agreed to, which the author predicted in his summer 2015 piece about a “Polar Reorientation In The Mideast” that also described the strategic contours that would eventually lead to the present-day Russian-Saudi rapprochement. It’s this Great Power convergence between Moscow and Riyadh, as well as the latter and Beijing, which is driving the US to wage an incipient but increasingly multifaceted Hybrid War on Saudi Arabia.
Rosatom SEO Alexey Likhachev with his Saudi counterpart after signing program documents in nuclear sphere (photo: kremlin.ru)
Stopping The Saudi “Deep State” Conspiracy
Mohammed Bin Salman must masterfully manage to tame both the radical clerics and domestic terrorists if he’s to have a chance at avoiding a US-backed royalist coup against him. He already has the support of the majority-youthful masses who could come out to the streets to support him in the event of a sudden coup, just like they did for Turkish President Erdogan during last year’s failed pro-US coup attempt, so this infers that he needs to win the backing of the military-security services in order to preemptively suppress clerical-terrorist destabilizations before countering the royalist conspiracy that’s taking form. However, Saudi forces are embroiled in the bloody War on Yemen, which was one of the first decisions that he made as Defense Minister and is therefore attributed entirely to him, but would have probably happened regardless of whoever was in power at the time due to the geopolitical dynamics involved.
In fact, the author forecast that a forceful Saudi response could be expected to developments in Yemen as early as September 2014 in his article about “Syria’s Yemeni Opportunity and the Rise of the Shia Circle”, which deliberately analyzed events from Riyadh’s sectarian perspective in an attempt to better understand the Kingdom’s future response. Likewise, the follow-up piece in January 2015 about “Yemen: The Saudi Coup That Totally Backfired” presciently concluded that “the Saudis are expected to hit back as hard as they can against the phantom ‘Iranian menace’ that they’re attributing their Yemeni failings to”, and that “no matter which form it takes, it’s not going to be pretty.” In any case, the only way for Mohammed Bin Salman to be confident in the support of his military-security services is to downscale the disastrous War on Yemen and eventually follow the Syrian peace format in resolving the conflict there in as much of a “face-saving” way as possible.
That, however, won’t necessarily endear him to any of the conspiratorial royals who are plotting his ouster, many of whom are reportedly irreconcilably opposed to him for his high-profile foreign policy failings in the aforementioned War on Yemen and Qatar Crisis, which is why the young prince so urgently needed to make up for them with a dramatic success elsewhere, ergo the reason why he decided to commence his country’s now-successful rapprochement with Russia. Conversely, it’s precisely because of his pivotal role in carrying out this game-changing foreign policy rebalancing that the US wants him out, and Washington sent a very clear message to Riyadh of its displeasure just the other day when it announced that it will be halting some of its military exercises with “Gulf countries” until the Qatar Crisis is resolved. Reading between the lines, this is the Pentagon voicing its strong opposition to King Salman’s visit to Moscow and Saudi Arabia’s S-400 deal with Russia, thereby signaling to its in-country proxies that it’s time to commence their planned regime change operation.
Russia-Saudi Arabian talks in extended format in Moscow, Oct 2017 (photo: kremlin.ru)
Moderating The Monarchy
All in all, Mohammed Bin Salman is trying to compensate for his earlier errors of judgement in “moderating” his country’s foreign policy to the most realistic extent possible under the present circumstances, which in an historical comparison amounts to an unprecedented pivot of sorts towards the Multipolar World Order. This doesn’t just have geopolitical implications, however, as there’s the very real possibility that Saudi Arabia might de-dollarize new Vision 2030 and energy contracts with its new non-Western partners, which would in effect equate to the death of the “petrodollar”. The author predicted this in a late-September forecast after it became abundantly clear that the country was no longer as solidly in the American camp as most observers had considered it, especially following its fast-moving rapprochement with Russia and the $130 billion’s worth of deals that the Kingdom signed with China.
The combined effect of these two multipolar realignments, as well as the likely downscaling of the War on Yemen and the “Damocles’ Sword” potential that Saudi Arabia has for dealing a deathblow to the dollar, are increasingly turning Mohammed Bin Salman into the “Saudi Saddam”, in that he’s now being targeted for elimination by the US because this one-time American subordinate was brave enough to chart his country’s own sovereign path in the world. If he can successfully withstand the US-encouraged “deep state” coup against him being waged through the Hybrid War mechanisms of a rebelling clergy, a possible domestic terrorist insurgency (as partial blowback from Saudi Arabia’s support for such groups abroad), and a royalist plot, among whatever other means might soon make themselves available, then it’s expected that the end result will be a considerable moderation of the Kingdom’s destabilizing activities in the region.
While the welcoming of Saudi Arabia into the multipolar fold as a responsible member of the international community would be celebrated by many because of the far-reaching consequences that it could have in altering the entire course of the New Cold War, there’s one multipolar party which would actually be incredibly irate at this happening, and that’s Iran. The Islamic Republic is caught in an intense security dilemma with the Kingdom, inspired partly by the centuries-old but previously long-dormant Sunni-Shiite split, and also the US’ efforts since the 1979 Revolution and especially after 9/11 to exacerbate this into taking on geopolitical dimensions all across the international Muslim community (“Ummah”). Iran and Saudi Arabia both conceive of international affairs as being a “zero-sum” game between them, and it’s very likely that Riyadh and its media surrogates will intentionally misportray King Salman’s visit to Russia as being against Tehran instead of epitomizing Moscow’s skillful geopolitical balancing act.
It’s understandable if Iran feels uncomfortable with these optics, though it should recognize that Russia’s overall intent is truly apolitical and driven by neutral Great Power considerations, not anything directed against it personally no matter what the forthcoming Saudi psy-ops might infer.
That being said, it’s very tempting to perceive of events through the aforementioned “zero-sum” prism in seeing any betterment of Russian-Saudi relations as being to the overall detriment of Russian-Iranian ones, which in turn might prompt an asymmetrical response or set thereof from Tehran in countering what some of its leadership might truly believe is Russia’s “unfriendly” and “humiliating” gesture by hosting the Saudi King, selling him S-400 anti-air missiles and state-of-the-art Kalashnikovs, and bidding to produce the Kingdom’s first-ever nuclear power plant. This isn’t speculation either, as Iran already isn’t happy with the de-facto alliance that Russia has struck with “Israel” in Syria, which is explained in detail in the author’s earlier work rhetorically questioning whether “Anyone Still Seriously Thinks That Russia And Israel Aren’t Allies?”
Phase 1: Syria
Moreover, Iran doesn’t like how Saudi Arabia is the main reason why it hasn’t been invited to join BRICS, and while the other four members are in a technical sense equally responsible for this too, it’s only Russia which is courting Saudi Arabia in a way which could make Iran uneasy given how impactful the latest rapprochement will be for Syria. Therefore, even though Iran’s official media has been largely silent on the implications of the Russian-Saudi rapprochement, it can’t be ruled out that the millennia-experienced Iranian diplomats are preparing one of their stereotypically asymmetrical responses to what’s happening, and that it could most immediately have consequences for Syria. For example, Iran could make the Astana talks more difficult by siding more closely with Damascus in attempting to rebuff the joint Russian-Turkish efforts to get the Syrian government to enter into certain political-administrative concessions (e.g. a “phased leadership transition” and “federalization”) as part of a comprehensive peace plan that would meet the interests of most external parties to the conflict and therefore maximize Moscow’s geopolitical “balancing” capabilities.
Phase 2: Caucasus
Apart from that and stepping its response up a notch, there’s also the possibility that Iran could work with India to redirect the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) from Azerbaijan and Russia to Armenia and Georgia instead, the latter route of which was predicted in the Mideast chapter of the author’s book-length analytical series about “The Chinese-Indian New Cold War” and would allow both on-the-fence Great Powers to pioneer a trade route to the EU. This would be a geopolitically troubling development for Russia and contribute to its perception that Armenia has become an “obstructionist” actor vis-à-vis Moscow-led Eurasian integration processes and has probably been totally taken over by the powerful American-based diaspora lobby, though China’s latest inroads in building its second-largest embassy in the post-Soviet space in Yerevan might help to “balance” everything out in preventing this potential move from being completely disastrous for multipolarity. Nevertheless, if Iran takes this step in rerouting some or all of the NSTC to Armenia, Georgia, and the EU, then it would probably mean that it’s also seriously considering expanding its asymmetrical response to the third phase of operations in the Balkans.
Phase 3: Balkans
The third and final escalatory phase of Iran’s most realistic responses to any perceived “security dilemma” with Russia after Moscow’s rapprochement with Riyadh would be if Tehran seeks to broaden its asymmetrical measures to include energy and geopolitical dimensions in the Balkans. The author wrote about the future role that post-sanctions Iranian energy exports to Europe could have in challenging Russia’s present market dominance in certain regions, and while this might not happen if the EU reimposes sanctions against the Islamic Republic in compliance with American pressure, it still can’t be entirely discounted that Iranian LNG exports to Croatia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and even Poland could be in the cards, as well as its exit from the OPEC+ output agreement. However, the most destabilizing consequence of Iran’s irritability with Russia could be if it decides to return to its post-Yugoslav role in breaking up Bosnia, using the Serbs as stand-ins for the Russians in a new proxy war. That’s the most extreme step that Iran could take and there’s nothing right now which indicates that it will happen, but it should nevertheless be included as the worst-case “dark scenario” forecast.
Saudi Arabia’s grand strategy is shifting away from its former Western-/unipolar-centric focus to a more diversified one of “multi-alignment’ with multipolar leaders such as Russia and China, motivated in part by the US’ hostile energy and geopolitical actions against it. On the domestic front, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is modernizing his country’s socio-cultural situation by enacting belated reforms that will complement his ambitious Vision 2030 project of multisectoral economic diversification away from its present dependency on oil exports. Taken together, the international and domestic dimensions of Saudi Arabia’s grand strategic shifts are expected to have game-changing implications in altering the global dynamics of the New Cold War, to say nothing of what would happen if the Kingdom de-dollarizes its future Vision 2030 and energy deals with its new non-Western partners, hence why the initiator of all of this, Mohammed Bin Salman, is now the “Saudi Saddam” in the sense of being targeted for elimination.
That’s not all that there is to it, however, since even in the event that the young prince is successful in thwarting his myriad Hybrid War adversaries and the wide variety of weaponized threats that they’re poised to utilize against him, it’s unlikely that this will result in multipolar stability in the Mideast, owing mostly to the fact that Iran is expected to be incredibly irate at its hated rival being feted as a privileged partner by Russia and China. The difference between the two Eurasian Great Powers, however, is that Moscow’s outreaches to Riyadh are having direct consequences for Syria, particularly as it relates to possibly “counterbalancing” or even “rolling back” Iran’s intended post-Daesh influence in the Arab Republic, or so it may seem, which is why Tehran looks much more suspiciously at Moscow than it does at Beijing. The problem, though, is that Russia isn’t doing any of this “against Iran”, but in the “larger multipolar interests” of becoming the supreme “balancing” force in the Eurasian supercontinent, which in and of itself necessitate having excellent relations with Saudi Arabia.
If the Iranian leadership is misled into viewing Russia’s ties with Saudi Arabia as part of a “zero-sum” game and not the “win-win” strategy that it’s actually intended (key word) to be, then it’s very likely that the Islamic Republic will resort to one of its stereotypically asymmetrical responses honed by millennia of diplomatic experience in making its silent disagreements well known. This would be an unfortunate development because it would mean that Russia’s sincere efforts to balance and then mediate the Saudi-Iranian/Sunni-Shiite rivalry would be for naught, and that the US’ unstated goal of redirecting Iranian attention away from Saudi Arabia and towards Russia would have been partially successful. Nevertheless, should this happen, then it’s expected that the three-phase tier of escalatory responses could see Iran create “complications” in the Astana peace process; redirect the North-South Transport Corridor away from Azerbaijan and Russia and towards Armenia, Georgia, and the EU; and begin actively competing with Russia for part of the European energy market. At the worst, it might even try to restore its destabilizing influence in Bosnia and spark a proxy war against Russia’s Serbian partners there.
American Backup Plan:
None of Iran’s forecasted responses are certain, or even that it will negatively appraise the fast-moving Russian-Saudi rapprochement in the first place, but in the possible event that it does, then it would inadvertently be playing into the US’ intended strategy of indirectly using Iran as a backup plan for replacing Saudi Arabia in countering Russian interests in the Mideast, Caucasus, and the Balkans. In addition, Riyadh’s reversal from the unipolar camp to the multipolar one would leave the US without a regular source of jihadi recruits, thereby necessitating that it scout elsewhere in such countries as Sudan, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The most likely scenario to happen in the near future is that Iran’s suspicions of the Russian-Saudi rapprochement manifest themselves subtly in Syria, at least at first, while the US begins looking to non-Mideast “Global South” countries for mercenaries while concurrently commencing its regime change operation in Saudi Arabia.
The best outcome would be if Russia’s multidimensional diplomatic efforts could bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together in a “New Détente” like how Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr unsuccessfully tried to do, all the while assisting both of them in warding off the US’ Hybrid War threats, but the most likely result is that this wishful thinking eventuality is still a far way’s off, if it ever happens at all, since the US is well known for flexibly adapting its unipolar grand strategy to accommodate for any multipolar contingency such as this one.