by Barbara Kelemen
While there have always been attempts to analyse ongoing conflicts in the Middle East through the lens of the Saudi–Iranian relationship, today’s situation is profoundly different than in the past. ‘Vision 2030’, Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) new approach to foreign policy, and a changing world market pushed Saudi Arabia towards a new strategy vis-à-vis Iran. However, when examining the Kingdom’s behaviour, one cannot but notice the underlying pattern behind its decisions which hints at an additional agenda behind the Saudi policy of Iranian containment.
One of the important aspects of the diversionary theory of war is the significance it places on domestic issues when explaining a country’s foreign policy. It claims that leaders, confronted with domestic opposition over economic, societal and political issues, might try to divert the population’s attention from domestic matters to the international arena by means of war or conflict, which enables them to survive politically while simultaneously maintain stability at home. This ‘scapegoat’ hypothesis focuses on examining belligerent foreign policy from the perspective of leaders whom are trying to solidify their domestic political power.
Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing the biggest social and economic transformation in past decades, pioneered through MBS’s ‘Vision 2030’. Reasons for this initiative, as much as diversification being an economic priority since the 1970s, are simply summarised as structural challenges caused by the unsustainable rentier nature of the Saudi economy. This not only requires a plethora of economic changes, but also changes in societal rules, predominantly associated with Islam. While popular backlash, such as that experienced during the 1979 Iranian Revolution is highly unlikely, changes in society and policy might lead to certain degrees of destabilisation. In fact, the history of vigorous opposition from Saudi conservative circles on hot topics like women’s rights is quite extensive. Thus, one of the biggest challenges for the current Saudi leadership will be to mitigate any kind of instability caused by any of Saudi Arabia’s three societal groups: clerics, citizens, and the royal family. This means that if MBS wants to keep Saudi Arabia stable while transforming it as per ‘Vision 2030’, the country needs to be domestically strong and united.
A lot has been written on the sectarian nature of the current conflicts in the Middle East and sectarianisation as a tool for governments to paralyse strong opposition. While Saudi Arabia’s role during the Arab Spring has been often discussed in relations to sectarian conflict between Sunni Kingdom and Shia Republic, its current behaviour is often misrepresented as driven purely by Shia–Sunni animus. The Kingdom, which has embarked on the aggressive policy of Iranian containment through proxies in the region, seems to be more interested in different aspect of the conflict. The unifying principle behind its policy of targeting different groups is the group in question’s sympathy towards Iran, which often correlates with sectarian preference. Nonetheless, sympathy towards Iran is rather divorced from the sectarian profiling of ‘Sunni vs Shia’.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently fighting via proxies on two fronts, Yemen and Syria, while standing on opposite ends vis-à-vis the Qatar diplomatic rift. Despite this having roots in the 2011 Arab Spring, it is only since 2016 that the Kingdom has cut its ties with Iran, taking a more assertive containment stance and stepping up its rhetoric. After international isolation and under an arms embargo from both the US and the UN (since 2006), Iran has been lacking a major security guarantor, a role the US has played in the case of Saudi Arabia. In order to make up for this vulnerability, Iran focuses on asymmetric military capabilities – extending its network of partners and engaging via proxies through what it calls the ‘axis of resistance’ (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas). Iranian fighting through the axis of resistance, which diverts fighting to other countries, is strategically important, given its outdated conventional military capabilities. The war in Yemen has caused serious financial pressure on the Kingdom, given the costs of bombing, ground incursions, and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid given to Yemen. In fact it pushed Saudi Arabia to allocate more than 25 percent of its total budget on military spending, ultimately impacting on its foreign reserves. The rising cost of the intervention, accompanied by falling oil prices, forced it to sell $1.2 billion of holdings in European equities. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has declared its increasing willingness to send troops to Syria.
This begs the question as to why Saudi Arabia would invest such a high number of resources in multiple conflicts in the region, while simultaneously undergoing deep shifts and reforms at home. (The ambitious project Vision 2030 requires at least $4 trillion of investment according to McKinsey.)
While there are legitimate reasons for Saudi concerns over Iranian activities in the region, Saudi Arabia’s current foreign policy does not seem proportionate to the threat, hinting at a hidden agenda of interventionism and aggression. Saudi Arabia is deliberately exacerbating tensions with Iran, while Iran has tried to ease them by proposing dialogue with the Kingdom. This strategy reflects Saudi Arabia’s ongoing social and domestic political reforms. Saudi Arabia is thus trying to reassert its leadership in the region, while uniting its population in the fight against the common enemy – Iran. By evoking the possibility of Saudi annihilation, the leadership engages in hostile rhetoric that evokes fear domestically, while temporarily distracting it from the domestic reforms that are disrupting traditional cultural principles. Whether Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy will indeed escalate into diversionary war is yet to be seen.
Barbara Kelemen is a graduate candidate at the LSE-PKU Double Degree Program in International Affairs. She is currently working on her research on Saudi-Iranian foreign policy at Peking University (北京大学) in China. She previously studied in Hong Kong (嶺南大学) and has written a number of articles on China-Middle East relations for the Institute of Asian Studies in Bratislava. She tweets at @KelemenBarbara