Saudi Arabia signals a more muscular foreign policy less reliant on U.S.

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Just weeks into the reign of Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman, wars were raging across two of the kingdom’s borders.

To the north, Sunni Muslim extremists were threatening the stability of Iraq, which sought help from another of its neighbors, Saudi nemesis Iran. To the south in Yemen, Shiite Muslim militias that had seized control of the capital, Sana, last year began advancing on the southern commercial hub of Aden, where the Saudi-backed president had set up a parallel government.

To the Saudis, the implications were clear: Iran, which Riyadh says is supporting the Yemeni rebels known as Houthis, was making a play to extend its reach into their backyard. The response was swift: The king assembled a coalition of fellow Sunni states and launched punishing airstrikes in Yemen aimed at reinstating the now-exiled President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.


The operation, now in its fourth week, is a dramatic departure for Saudi Arabia, which has preferred to use diplomacy, cash and religion to defend its interests and influence over the Persian Gulf region. Analysts say the air war signals a shift to a more muscular foreign policy that no longer relies on the United States to take an active role in protecting the oil-rich nation and defending vital shipping lanes for its tankers.

The kingdom has spent billions of dollars on weapons and military infrastructure. But its armed forces have until now played a modest role in the Middle East’s many conflicts, including in continuing U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the extremist group Islamic State.

Scholars who study the secretive royal family attribute the new approach to more youthful and less risk-averse Saudi advisors who have started moving into positions of authority. These leaders are fed up with what they view as American passivity in the face of mounting instability in the region, and they worry that nuclear talks with Iran could lead to a rapprochement between longtime enemies Washington and Tehran.

“The fingerprints of this new leadership are there,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and general manager of the new Al Arab TV channel. Their approach, he said, is summed up in the name they chose for the operation in Yemen: Decisive Storm.

Salman, 79, moved quickly to put his stamp on the Saudi leadership when he assumed the throne after the death of his half brother King Abdullah at age 90 in January. Within less than 24 hours, he announced a string of appointments that gave the next generation of royals significant power over policy in the absolute monarchy.

They include Interior Minister Mohammad ibn Nayif, who at a comparatively youthful 55 was named deputy crown prince, putting him in line to become the first grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz al Saud, to become king. The current monarch’s son, Mohammad ibn Salman, was named defense minister and gatekeeper to the royal court.


The defense chief, who is in his 30s and has no previous military experience, has been portrayed as personally directing operations in Yemen. Photographs of him strategizing with commanders and making phone calls have been splashed across Saudi newspapers and shared widely on social media.

Saudi military power — much of it purchased from the U.S. — was on display last week as a swarm of local and international journalists was given a tour of battlefield positions atop rugged mountains and along dried-up riverbeds on the 1,000-mile frontier with Yemen. The troops showed off their tanks and fired artillery rounds into the Houthis’ northern stronghold to shouts of “God is great!”

“Most people in the gulf countries are happy that the independent action of the gulf states has been restored,” said Mustafa Alani, who heads the department of security and defense studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “It’s a question of dignity.”

U.S. officials, however, have grown increasingly uneasy about how the Saudi-led air war is being carried out.

Warplanes and naval artillery have destroyed surface-to-air missiles, fighter jets, munitions depots and other military hardware seized by the Houthis. But they have failed to dislodge the insurgents and their allies from elements of the armed forces still loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former strongman deposed in 2012. Human rights groups say the airstrikes are contributing to hundreds of civilian casualties.

Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, widely viewed as the terrorist network’s most dangerous franchise, has capitalized on the chaos to extend its territory in the south, where it consolidated control last week over a key port city, including seizing its airport and oil terminal.


The Obama administration recently stepped up the intelligence it is providing to the coalition to make targeting decisions and sped up delivery of weapons.

Although the Saudis remain bullish about their successes, there are signs that even some Sunni allies are worried that they may have taken on more than they can handle.

Pakistani lawmakers voted April 10 to stay out of the conflict, a blow to the Saudis who had reportedly asked Islamabad to send planes, ships and troops. Turkey has offered public support for the campaign but has not played an active role. The other notable absence is Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia and Yemen and is the only nation among the six-member regional Gulf Cooperation Council to not join the coalition.

Without a strong partner within Yemen, defense analysts say, Saudi Arabia and its allies are unlikely to achieve their aims through an air campaign alone. But it remains unclear whether the kingdom will risk sending in ground troops massed on its border without more help from its allies.

Saudi leaders have engaged in intensive diplomacy in recent weeks to shore up support for the war effort. King Salman received a visit Thursday from Bahrain’s King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, who commended his counterpart for taking important initiatives “that have saved the region from many dangers,” according to a report in the Arab News.

On Tuesday, the Saudi defense minister was in Egypt, where he met with President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who is providing key support to the coalition. They discussed the possibility of joint military exercises with other gulf states in Saudi Arabia, according to a statement released by the Egyptian leader’s office.


The stakes are high for Saudi Arabia, which sees its influence with Washington diminishing as the U.S. reduces its dependence on Saudi oil and approaches a nuclear deal with Iran.

The gulf monarchies were alarmed at the lack of U.S. support for Egypt’s former strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011. The Saudis sent troops into Bahrain that year to protect the Sunni royal family from a Shiite uprising and later intervened with financial help for the military government that carried out a coup in Egypt, moves opposed by the United States.

The kingdom’s leaders have long argued that the U.S. underestimates the threat posed by Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony. They were especially frustrated that President Obama did not act more forcefully to remove Iranian-backed President Bashar Assad from power in Syria, including a failure to punish Assad’s government for using chemical weapons or provide substantive military aid to rebel groups.

The Saudis are convinced that Iran, which has used local proxies to extend its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, is attempting to place another client in power in Yemen. They also worry the conflict could spill over into Saudi Arabia, which has a small Shiite population that has been advocating for greater political and economic rights.

“Iranian success is worrying everyone,” said security researcher Alani, who is close to Saudi Arabia’s rulers. “Are you going to allow this expansionist policy of Iran, this interventionist policy of Iran, to be practiced in your backyard in Yemen as well? … Enough is enough.”

Tehran denies supplying weapons, training and military advice to the Houthis and has called for a halt to the Saudi-led air campaign.


In comments seemingly designed to goad the Saudis, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on April 9 lashed out at the “inexperienced youngsters” who he said have come to power in Riyadh and replaced their predecessors’ restraint with “barbarism.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal accused Iran of meddling in Yemen, saying the kingdom is “not at war with Iran.” Hadi had asked the Saudis to intervene to “protect the legitimacy of the state” and prevent the Houthis from occupying all of Yemen, Faisal told reporters in the Saudi capital.

On April 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin cleared the way for delivery of sophisticated air defense systems to Iran, a move that threatened to replay the Cold War rivalry with the U.S. on Middle Eastern shores.

Although the Saudis like to emphasize their independence from U.S. policy, Western analysts say their actions thus far have not seriously challenged Western strategic interests in the region. The airstrikes in Yemen, for example, have not jeopardized the multinational nuclear talks.

“At the end of the day, the gulf countries are heavily dependent on the U.S. to supply them with arms and training,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East scholar at the Chatham House think tank in London. “The Saudis would have been much more reluctant to do this [campaign in Yemen] if they felt that it would jeopardize their ability to procure arms in the future.”

Times photographer Carolyn Cole in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, and special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.


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