Saudi Arab’s Balancing Act in the Middle East?

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In the complex landscape of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Saudi Arabia emerges as a pivotal player, with strategies aimed at maintaining its influence in the region’s ever-changing politics. As the site of Islam’s two holiest sites and possessing substantial natural resources, Saudi Arabia’s actions resonate far beyond its borders. However, the Kingdom’s pursuit of regional leadership and security has also led to interventions and alliances that have sparked controversy and drawn criticism from external actors. Since the onset of Israel’s barbaric attacks on Gaza, the situation is no more delicate than it has been in the past few years. Saudi Arabia’s balancing act in the Middle East faces numerous challenges, including power dynamics in the Middle Eastern region and with the great powers, internal and external security threats, and the need to diversify its economy away from oil dependence. This brief delves into Saudi Arabia’s delicate balancing act in the Middle East, exploring its stance on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, and its efforts to safeguard its interests and establish itself as a regional leader.

Amidst this geopolitical complexity, about  46,000  US soldiers are stationed in 11 Middle Eastern countries, along with all the equipment and support that goes along with it. Foreign policy is changing, and with it, the balance of power in the world. The United States has indicated a waning interest in the Middle East following a time of protracted obsession with the region. After the US troops withdrew from Iraq, and the end of the fight against ISIS, a strategic vacuum was created in the Middle East. Then, Iran surfaced as a new regional threat, endangering not only America’s friends but also the unrestricted movement of oil supplies around the world. Although the Biden administration believed that this issue could be resolved through a series of agreements and incentives with Iran, the Gaza War has once more shown how inaccurate U.S. views were that highlighted that this region is no longer important to America’s strategic interests. The United States’ influence and confidence among Arabs in the region are diminishing due to its backing of Israel. US President Joe Biden vetoed UN ceasefire plans and recklessly pledged unconditional support to Israel following Hamas atrocities, alienating most of the American public as well as the rest of the world. His approach to the Middle East is antiquated and disconnected. Despite being accused of genocide and fighting a war in the Gaza Strip, Israel continues to receive unwavering US support. However, the USA’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific area is constant, and its primary goals in the region’s diplomacy are to strengthen its ties with allies and contain China’s influence. Through the creation of QUAD and AUKUS, the US has bolstered its strategic ambition regarding Indo-Pacific, while slowly pulling away from the Middle East.

China has become the new focal point in the Middle East and has been able to establish long-term economic authority. China already holds stakes in at least 20 port developments along vital maritime routes that cross the Middle East and North Africa as a result of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China along with Twelve Arab Nations has formalized extensive economic or strategic relationships. China signed cooperation agreements under the BRI framework with twenty-one Arab Countries and the Arab League. Although Beijing is arranging leadership meetings, mediating peace agreements, and increasing its economic influence. China is yet to take strategic leadership in the region.

As a country that engages in dialogue and negotiation with all parties, the Russians pursue a strategy of remote balance, or more accurately, a policy of mediation. The Middle East lacks a Russian willingness to step in militarily, commit significant financial resources to resolve the conflict and reshape the security environment to suit their interests, in contrast to crises like those in Kazakhstan or Ukraine.  Even in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Russia is more comfortable playing the role of a mediator. Given all these, there is a strategic vacuum in the region, and with the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, Saudi may be more than eager to feel that place,

For several months, Saudi Arabia and Israel believed that the US-backed process of normalizing their relations would benefit both nations politically and economically and increase regional stability. However, negotiations have stalled after Israeli barbarism in Gaza, though they have not been called off. The Palestinian issue was marginalized during Saudi Arabia and Israel’s reconciliation, but due to this crisis, a potential partnership with Israel is now again contingent upon a political resolution for the Palestinians. A portion of the Saudi population, which has always supported the Palestinians in their fight for independence, has begun to express sympathy for the Hamas militia, which is supported by Iran.

With China, Crown Prince Salman hopes to establish a “comprehensive strategic partnership” Saudi Arabia received an invitation to join the informal BRICS alliance in August 2023, along with China, Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. All sectors of the Saudi Arabian economy are included in the Crown Prince’s plan, although diversification away from oil will receive particular attention. Although the alliance is mostly based on economic connections, both nations continue to support the same position on the Palestine issue.

American attempts to persuade Saudi Arabia to repair relations with Israel have failed due to Saudi demands that the United States extend Riyadh a defense treaty and collaborate on the development of a civilian nuclear program, meaning one that does not produce weapons of mass destruction. However, the 87-year-old King Salman of Saudi Arabia is against full-scale normalization without concrete measures by Israel for a Palestinian state. Although Crown Prince Salman normally makes the decisions in this situation, the Old Guard still has the upper hand because of their standing with the Saudi people and the Arab community at large. Opposition to a short-term diplomatic breakthrough with Israel has intensified in Saudi Arabia, as Israeli annexations of the West Bank and Gaza approach.

After prolonged negotiations to end the conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has unofficially succeeded and reached a truce with the Houthis that lasted until October 2023. The decision to hold talks regarding a long-term truce in Riyadh with a group of Houthis was a breakthrough. Since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in March 2015, there has never been a meeting of such a nature between the two countries.

Leaders from Saudi Arabia and Israel had previously made encouraging remarks about establishing such a connection. For instance, Saudi Arabia allowed all airlines to use its airspace in the summer of 2022, allowing flights to and from Israel to pass over the nation. The Abraham Accords opened up the potential for regional stability in early 2021 by facilitating normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. However, it still needs to be determined how effective these accords would be. It is impossible to ignore Saudi Arabia’s ascent in several Gulf, Arab, regional, and global affairs. The Kingdom has established itself as a major force in regional peace processes and the shift away from hostilities and cold conflicts, particularly with Iran and its allies in Yemen, Iraq, and the Mediterranean. The prioritization of stability and sustainable development is crucial in attaining the objectives of Riyadh’s Vision 2030. In order to achieve this, it is diversifying its income streams, lowering its reliance on petrochemical earnings, and making Saudi Arabia a hub for investment and finance in addition to religious, cultural, and athletic travel. A key focus is on engaging celebrities from the entertainment and sports industries and a major focus lies on hosting with the goal of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2030.

Saudi Arab has the largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa, which has exceeded $1 trillion for the first time in 2023. The country is the biggest oil exporter in the world and a member of the G20, which is made up of the major economies in the world. A seven-year struggle and cold war ended earlier this year when China confirmed the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This made it very evident to the US that Saudi Arabia has options and partners outside of the US. It also led Riyadh to insist that Washington include a legally binding military pact with Saudi Arabia in exchange for Washington supporting a peaceful nuclear program and making significant concessions from Israel to the Palestinians in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.

In the midst of Israel’s genocide in Gaza, Saudi Arabia expressed it is “incredibly concerned” for Middle East security, citing the need for a Palestinian state and the possibility that the fighting may spread throughout the region. Since the middle of November 2023, the Yemeni organization known as the Houthis has been attacking the Red Sea, attempting to seize vessels that it claims are supporting the Palestinians and Hamas with missiles and drones. Then, in an effort to halt Houthi attacks, the US and the UK fired missiles against targets used by the Houthis. However, the organization sponsored by Iran declared that it would intensify its aggression until Israel left Gaza. The Red Sea’s freedom of navigation is important for Saudi. Thus, it is evident why de-escalation is their top concern.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing an extraordinary experiment in social and economic change, and the results could have a significant impact on the Arab world as a whole. The country is also aiming to strengthen its role as a regional leader with the strength of its booming economy. This is reflected in the policies adopted by the country. The main goal of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan is to move the economy away from fossil fuels as its primary objective. This is an appropriate turnabout, considering that the Paris Climate Agreement’s target of 1.5°C global warming must be met by 2030 with a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a net zero emission level by 2050. Saudi Arabia has established its position through some diplomatic, economic, and strategic measures like hosting Gulf, Arab, and international summits having the Chinese president visit Riyadh; hosting the Arab League summit in Jeddah; hosting the previous Gulf summits in Al-Ula, Riyadh, and Jeddah; and ending the impasse with Turkiye. Furthermore, US President Joe Biden visited the Kingdom in 2022, even though Biden had previously vowed to corner Saudi Arabia following the 2018 murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Kingdom has maintained its firm position that diplomatic ties with Israel would not begin until an independent Palestinian state is acknowledged on the 1967 border. After Saudi’s disappointment about the lack of a US response to the Houthi attacks, Saudi Arabia now expects a more solid and reliable security partnership with the USA, which now may not be possible, especially after the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Riyadh also wants US collaboration in arms control and assistance for its nuclear program. The Saudis think that a different kind of rhetoric is required given the current circumstances. Saudi Arabia is home to some of the holiest Muslim sites, therefore the country’s leadership position among the Islamic world explains why they are taking this action. They are therefore unable to restore their relations with Israel in the absence of a potential resolution to the protracted dispute over Palestinian statehood and Israeli occupation. Despite the fighting in Gaza, Saudi Arabia also wants to see stability in the area. Regional crises and wars would hamper Saudi Arabia’s development plan.

Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East is characterized by a delicate balancing act, where the Kingdom must face geopolitical dynamics to safeguard its interests and security and also to assert its influence in the region. Riyadh’s approach to pragmatic diplomacy and strategic partnerships will lead the way for the country to further balance the country’s position in a region like the Middle East.

– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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