This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 20/05/2011
For the first time since its establishment in 1981, Saudi Arabia is leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into playing a very active role in Arab politics. In March, Riyadh led a coalition force into Bahrain to help the government calm the unrest there. Saudi Arabia is also leading mediation efforts to help resolve the political crisis in Yemen. More recently it called upon Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC with the aim of consolidating the role of the regional origination in the face of the many challenges it encounters. This tendency is seen by analysts and observers as a clear departure from Saudi Arabia’s traditional acquiescence in foreign policy.
For the past several decades, precisely since the end of the Yemen War in the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia has adopted an exceptionally quiet diplomacy in managing its foreign and regional policies. Despite leading the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the Saudis have always tried to keep a low profile in Arab politics. When Egypt signed the Camp David Accord with Israel in 1978, the Saudi government respected the Arab resolution of the Baghdad summit in boycotting Egypt. Yet, it refrained from taking any further step towards antagonising former Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and its endeavours to unseat the conservative Arab Gulf regimes did not fray the nerves of the Saudi government. Riyadh considered, publicly at least, the revolution an internal Iranian affair, adhering to the principle of none-interference.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the Saudi government denounced the invasion and pledged to support the Afghan Mujahideen to expel the invaders.
When the Iraq-Iran war broke out in 1980, Saudi Arabia tried to mediate between the two countries. It was only when Iran rejected every peace initiative that stopped short of full Iraqi surrender; Saudi Arabia took sides in the confrontation.
When Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the Saudi leadership requested the help of foreign forces only when it was presented with satellite pictures, showing the Iraqi army taking offensive positions. Throughout the 1990s, Riyadh played the role of stabiliser in the Arab world through the Syrian-Egyptian-Saudi tripartite axis. The axis slowed down the haste of some Arab countries towards normalising relations with Israel.
The Saudis did not hide their displeasure with the US plans to invade Iraq in 2003. Yet, their opposition was expressed from behind closed doors. During the course of the Arab revolutions, this noiseless diplomacy had to change. The Saudis started to play a more aggressive role in the region, expressing their displeasure clearly and loudly with the unfolding events in many parts of the Middle East.
This dramatic shift in Saudi foreign policy was, in fact, instigated by the fear of Iran taking advantage of the unfolding events in the Arab world and the retreat of the main Arab actors, which have historically played a key role in regional politics. Egypt, Iraq and Syria are all pre-occupied with different sets of internal problems.
The US, the major military power in the region and Saudi Arabia’s key international ally, does not seem interested in any new venture in the region. Anxious to prevent Iran from taking advantage of this fluid situation, the Saudis decided to take the unusual step of taking the lead in an orchestrated effort to fill this power vacuum.
Clearly, many were taken off guard by Saudi Arabia’s new policy. Iran in particular seemed to have been completely unprepared to deal with the GCC move into Bahrain. The Iranians are facing a counter-offensive that threatens the project they have been pursuing for years just when it appeared to be coming to fruition. The success of the Saudis in re-establishing their leading role in the Arab world will result in the emergence of a new balance of power on the ground. This is seen as quite a shift from the traditional passive Saudi role in regional politics and is very likely to create new dynamics in the region.
Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is Lecturer in Media and International Relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.