Saudi Arabia Policymakers’ Outlook: How to Convert Financial into Political Clout?

Commentators are now highlighting the Jamal Khashoggi situation as the last in a series of reckless and disruptive activities of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a point that is well taken. But I would like readers of the current crisis to be aware of one of the possible reasons that have led to these reckless or “irrational” activities. I would like to concentrate on a quasi-psychological factor which motivates senior Saudi policymakers. Seen from this vantage point, we can hopefully gain a greater understanding to help bridge different divides.

Agree with it or not, sympathize with it or not, the following is a sense of this perspective.

The main dilemma is how to transform Saudi financial capabilities into political power regionally and internationally. Saudi Arabia is one of the major states in the Arab world and the Middle East. Its economic size is greatest in the region. Many businesses try every trick in the book and outside it to enter the Saudi market. The country and the government are rich in oil and liquid assets; most of Saudi Arabia’s regional neighbors rely, at least in part, on its largesse. The United States does not keep secret that the Kingdom should invest in American Treasury bonds and buy unneeded hardware of every civilian and military kind that have to be replaced every so often for the benefit of American companies.

Is it possible and “rational” for such a financial giant to be treated like a political midget? The Saudi policymaker looks around and sees that Riyadh has no political clout any more to its North all the way from Iraq to Lebanon through Syria after Iran was permitted by international powers to spread its wings in that region. Egypt and Jordan welcome Saudi money, but remain aloof from any costly alliance with Riyadh. In Yemen to the south in what Riydah feels is its own backyard, the Iranian backed Houthis control the major cities and keep the flow of Iranian military hardware coming through the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The sea lanes from Hormuz through Bab-el-Mandeb to Hodeidah remain open despite the presence of a flotilla of Western warships and carriers that observe and watch, but don’t act. Many western academics are, on the whole, more concerned about repairing US-Iranian relations and defending Tehran and even its Ayatollahs while belittling Saudi steps however small in the region. The war in Yemen is reduced in most of the American press to a duel between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni people. The Iranian player who supports the pro-Tehran Houthis in that country is usually absent from the academics’ and pundits’ commentaries and the news media coverage. Attempts to lure Turkey and Russia to common understandings that would also give Saudi Arabia a regional say did not prove successful.

To add insult to injury, President Donald Trump shuts off opportunities for dialogue and respectful exchanges by flagrantly saying, in essence, that Saudi Arabia is good for only one thing: to pay Americans money. The president is repaying the Kingdom by heaping insult upon insult on this provider of money to his treasury and economy. No Arab political concern, whether in the Gulf or involving the Arab-Israeli conflict, is really taken into consideration when American policies are drawn up! In fact, the United States policy in the Middle East made all Arab governments lose legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Israel is sacred in the White House and on the Hill, while Arab interests and feelings are sacrilege! No attempt to reach a middle ground is seriously considered. Is it really necessary to insult 300 million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims all the time to prove America’s superiority in the world?  But, why would these American policymakers even spend time caring about these considerations, since the bigger powers have the bigger guns?

All these factors, I believe, led to “policies of frustration” that often contribute either to recklessness or terrorism or both.  Such ways of interacting with the world on the part of the Kingdom were then destined to backfire—as they should have. However, I think Riyadh feels that it is surrounded from many regional and international sides. No ally has proven reliable. Outside actors simply want to put their hands in the Saudi pockets again and again! It is said that “money is power” but in the case of Saudi Arabia, the question is very different:  “How can financial power yet be translated into geopolitical clout?” 

About the Author(s)

Mahmoud O. Haddad

Professor of History, University of Balamand, Lebanon.