In recent months, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure and criticism from the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament for its human rights abuses both at home and in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Meanwhile, Saudi diplomats and leaders have worked tirelessly to improve relations with Russia, China, and other nations.
The significance of Saudi Arabia, a long-time U.S. ally, cozying up to countries that oppose not only U.S. but also Saudi interests in the Middle East, shows a bit of creative footwork from the oil-rich kingdom, as they seek to hedge their bets and build assurances away from their traditional allies.
“You have to realize that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is driven by complex factors,” Dr. Zubair Iqbal, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute and an expert on Saudi Arabia, told ThinkProgress.
Saudi Arabia’s main concern is keeping control over the domestic situation, Iqbal said, adding, “That drives their foreign policy, and links to China, Japan, and Russia are all driven by that.”
But while Saudi is looking to improve relations with a number of international powers, analysts say that the U.S.-Saudi relationship won’t disintegrate anytime soon due to the unique nature of Saudi’s reliance on the United States — and the arms it provides.
Saudi’s New Relationships
Saudi Arabia may be looking to improve its image abroad, and has been for some time, but it isn’t indicative of a dramatic shift in their foreign policy. The oil-rich kingdom’s foreign policy shifts are more focused on encouraging and diversifying domestic economic investment.
Saudi Arabia has a young population, and the unemployment rate is only growing among this age bracket. The royal family has traditionally relied on its oil wealth to keep its economy stable, but with a younger, more educated population emerging — many of whom are not intrinsically linked to the royal family — problems may arise in the future. This is where Saudi is looking for new allies to help its domestic economy.
Russia and China are the two big players Saudi has turned to in recent months — despite their opposing stances on the civil war in Syria. One of the reasons Saudi has been looking to bolster ties is its massive disappointment in the lack of intervention by the United States in Syria (it has been saying this for years) and the thawing of U.S.-Iran relations. There has also been some speculation in recent months that Saudi Arabia and Israel are getting closer, due to their shared interest in opposing Iran since the nuclear deal was reached last year.
Analysts, however, say there isn’t enough shared ground to indicate a major shift in Saudi policy. Nor will relations with Russia, China, or Israel dramatically affect Saudi Arabia’s traditional alliances with the United States or Great Britain.
“The sort of deals with the Chinese, Russians, and Japanese are noteworthy, but none are earth shattering that should cause us to question the fundamentals of Saudi foreign policy,” Weinberg said.
“I’m skeptical about the assertion Saudi Arabia is undergoing a dramatic transformation in foreign policy,” he added. “I think the U.S. plays an irreplaceable role in Saudi military planning as well as efforts to bring about really lasting meaningful military interventions in Syria or Yemen.”
The United States is responsible for a third of the world’s arm exports, and the largest recipient is Saudi Arabia. In November of last year, the State Department approved $1.29 billion in arms sales to the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia primarily relies on U.S. and British arms, and analysts say they will continue to do so, mostly for the purpose of standardization and to avoid having to retrain their military engineers who are already used to repairing U.S. and British aircraft engines. To acquire new weapons from abroad means that the Saudis would also have to find and train their staff on how to use new equipment. To date, they’ve only done that on a minimal level.
“Saudis have long turned to Europeans for some arms they don’t get from America and to Russia and China arms that they don’t get from NATO states, but they are always small and things like missiles that they want to get from the west but can’t,” Weinberg said.
Wayne White, a former Deputy Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia (INR/NESA) and now a policy expert at the Middle East Institute, said that the superiority of American weaponry also ensures that Saudi Arabia will not seek to downgrade its relationship with the United States in favor of another burgeoning ally.
“I got the distinct impression that there is a deep seated realization that Russian and Chinese and even British arms were not up to the levels of what they can get from the U.S.,” White said, referring to numerous meetings with high ranking officials in the Saudi government in the 1980s and 1990s. He added that while some figures have changed, the “mindset remains the same.”
Criticism Of Saudi Foreign Policy
While the Saudis don’t view the Americans with any less importance, the other side of that spectrum is rapidly altering. Saudi’s vicious air assault campaign on Yemen has led to widespread international criticism and claims of Saudi committing war crimes with U.S. support. These developments have not gone passed undetected by the American people, either.
Congress recently ramped up its criticism of Saudi Arabia with 60 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle trying to push back a $1.15 billion arms deal over human rights abuses (and potential war crimes) committed in Yemen.
“This military campaign [in Yemen] has had a deeply troubling impact on civilians,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to President Obama earlier this year.
Also, on Friday the House will vote on allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia — a stark indication of the how American’s are questioning their long relationship with Saudi Arabia. But Saudi’s foreign policy is unlikely to change, regardless of international criticism.
“Saudis will do what they feel is necessary regardless of what foreigners, even allies, have to say,” Matthew Reed, Vice President at Foreign Reports, a Washington-based consulting firm focused on Middle East oil politics, told ThinkProgress over email. “Today, Saudi leaders are acting boldly like never before and what they’re doing appears to be popular at home. That’s not a recipe for restraint.”
The Saudis are cognizant and aware of international criticism. They’ve launched PR campaigns to try and get lawmakers on their side and are sending their foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, to privately engage with British parliament after recent calls for an arms embargo. But such critiques are unlikely to have a significant impact, as Saudis realize the administrations are king makers in such circumstances.
“These kind of criticisms are meaningless. What it boils down to is what are governments in power willing to do?” Iqbal said. “The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is based on the U.S. administration and not on Congress — that’s neither here nor there. The position will remain stagnant until there is a new president and then they will think very hard about what they want to do.”