What's behind Saudi Arabia's new muscularity

The desert Kingdom takes an assertive new stance. What it means for the Middle East and the world.

Jim Bourg/Reuters/File
Saudi Arabia's King Salman is seen during President Obama's visit to Erga Palace in Riyadh in this January 27, 2015 file photo.

It happened every night at 7. Life came to a sudden halt in the bustling Saudi capital of Riyadh, and a silence fell across the country. Saudi businessmen, government workers, and families huddled around TVs for an event that had become more gripping than a prime-time soap opera – the nightly military briefing on the Saudi-led bombings in Yemen.

Decked out in military fatigues, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri calmly detailed the airstrikes delivered by the Saudis’ American-sold warplanes, while a fascinated public peered at high-definition maps of Yemen, carefully tracing every hit against the Houthis – the latest perceived proxy of Iran to have come into Saudi Arabia’s cross hairs.

Elsewhere around the country, billboards and banners offered “blessings” for the airstrikes, which marked Saudi Arabia’s first foray into war in nearly a quarter century. Media outlets likened the bombing campaign to the battle of Khozaz – an uprising by Arab tribes against Persian invaders of Yemen more than 1,500 years ago.

The public not only supports Saudi Arabia’s new war, but also its new role as Middle East “policeman,” filling the void left by American reluctance to intervene in the region. “The Arab states that do not stand with us today will regret it tomorrow,” said Mohammed Hamdan, an electrical engineer, as he watched war updates from a cushioned smoking den outside Riyadh. “You are either with us or against us.”

The nationalist pride recently on display is indicative of a bolder, more assertive Saudi Arabia as the desert kingdom tries to expand its geopolitical footprint in the Middle East and around the world. Less than five months after it went through a transition of power from King Abdullah to his brother King Salman, Saudi Arabia is looking beyond its borders to play a more active role as a political and economic power – one that could dramatically affect the strategic balance in a region undergoing the biggest changes in a century. 

Riyadh is increasingly flexing its military might, using funded and armed Sunni proxies and now its own fleet of warplanes to contain the growing influence of regional rival Iran. It has recalibrated its oil policies to give it more leverage in foreign capitals, is pushing ahead with a retooling of its workforce to boost its economic clout, and is exerting more control over what’s said from the pulpit to reinforce its new assertiveness.

The shift in Riyadh was also evident this week in King Salman's conspicuous absence at the touted Washington-Arab Gulf summit, a move that was both symbolic and strategic. By deputizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, King Salman placed the spotlight on the first of the third generation of the Saud family to be in line for the throne, a diplomatic passing of the torch. The Saudi monarch also sent a message: the house of Saud will not always be at Washington’s beck and call.

Yet all this change comes amid a host of problems for the new regime. Riyadh’s mounting cold war with Iran – coupled with the endless conflict in Syria, Islamic State’s presence in Iraq, and the escalating violence in Yemen – has enmeshed the country in several simultaneous theaters of war for the first time in history. It faces enduring problems of religious extremism internally and enduring criticism from the West for its repressive human rights practices.

Underneath it all, the question persists: How far will Saudi Arabia go with its new boldness and what does it mean for the region?

“For decades, Saudi Arabia relied too much on its allies, waiting for consensus and green lights rather than proactively protecting its own interests in the region and the world,” says Hani Wafa, analyst and political editor at the Saudi daily Al Riyadh. “We have the political and military capital, and we are ready to use it.”

•     •     •     • 

Riyadh Yassin hurries through the black marble hotel lobby and into a conference room. He is flanked by his trusted Yemeni advisers, who are in turn flanked by blue-uniformed Saudi security guards. For two weeks, Mr. Yassin has been using the five-star hotel in the heart of Riyadh as a makeshift Foreign Ministry, holding endless meetings and working the phones late into the night to rally international support as violence continued to spiral in Yemen.

On this day, the Yemeni foreign minister in exile is holding a cabinet meeting and a briefing with Saudi officials to discuss the latest airstrikes in his country.

“Saudi Arabia is committing its military and its resources to protect the Yemeni people and the legitimate government,” Yassin says in between talks with Yemeni tribal leaders in a bid to win their support. “In Yemen, we were prisoners. From Saudi, we can govern.”

In recent years, Saudi Arabia’s capital city has grown into a haven for Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies, a Casablanca of deposed dictators and exiled ministers where Arab leaders fleeing revolutions go to wait in hopes of a return to power, however improbable that might be.

Ahmad Jarba, former head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, calls Riyadh home, as do many of the Free Syrian Army generals who took funds, arms, and directives from Riyadh to turn against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has been quietly living in the Saudi capital since being ousted by Arab Spring uprisings in January 2011. The rogues’ gallery of exiled leaders is a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s failed policy to check and contain Iran over the past decade through a concerted war by proxy.

Under the reign of King Abdullah, the Saudis counted on their Sunni surrogates across the Arab world to thwart Iran’s Shiite patrons, contesting every town and village from northern Lebanon to southern Bahrain. Since 2005, Riyadh has channeled an estimated $30 billion to tribes and militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain, creating a wide network of Sunni movements linked and directed by Saudi intelligence services.

Yet as of 2014, Riyadh was realizing the painful limits of proxy warfare. Offensives stalled. Uprisings were quashed. Wars were lost. A Sunni-led political movement in Lebanon failed to rein in Shiite militant movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sunni tribal resistance movements wilted in the face of Iran’s dominance in Iraq, and after four years of revolution in Syria, Mr. Assad appears more entrenched than ever.

The worst came in January 2015, when Shiite Houthi militias, now in control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, drove out the Saudi-backed government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. In Riyadh’s eyes, Iran and its agents for the first time were approaching Saudi soil.

“For over a decade, Saudi Arabia stayed silent as Iran interfered in Arab affairs,” says a Saudi palace insider, characterizing the Saudi royal family as “enraged” over the Houthi takeover. “Iran’s presence in Yemen was the red line.”

On March 25, when Houthi militias drove the Hadi government from Aden and out of Yemen entirely, King Salman turned that frustration into action. Just two months into power, he dispatched Saudi warplanes to Yemen, launching a monthlong aerial campaign and plunging Saudi Arabia into its first state of war since the 1991 Gulf War.

On paper, the exact goals of Operation Decisive Storm were unclear, while the whole air campaign reportedly left US diplomats “baffled.” The Saudi military said the bombings aimed to “restore the legitimate government of Yemen” and to “protect Yemeni citizens from Houthi militias and militias of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” the country’s former dictator. Yet after a month of airstrikes, and around 1,000 people killed, the Hadi government remains in Riyadh.

The humanitarian costs of the bombings have been astronomical. Despite a pledge by Saudi Arabia to cover in full a $273.7 million United Nations aid appeal, aid agencies continue to struggle to reach more than 300,000 internally displaced people within Yemen and an estimated 2 million civilians in need of urgent food and medicine. Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of using US-sold cluster munitions in its Yemen airstrikes, munitions banned by a 2008 convention signed by 116 nations but not Saudi Arabia or the United States. Despite the announcement of an end to Decisive Storm, daily bombing runs have continued.

No matter the results, analysts and officials say, the greater goal of the bombings was to send a message to both allies and enemies – namely the US and Iran. The message was simple: Saudi Arabia was ready to act and act alone. It would no longer be content to sit and watch from the sidelines.

“We as a country are ready to act against aggression when even our allies turn a blind eye,” says a military commander close to the operation.

To Riyadh, the bombings marked a changing of the guard in the Middle East, a new regional order in the Arab world where Saudi Arabia now stands as the leading power.

“If you look around, all the great historic Arab powers – Iraq, Syria, and Egypt – are all in chaos,” says Jasser al Jasser, managing editor of the pro-government Saudi daily Al Jazirah. “There is a need for a great Arab power in the region, and Saudi Arabia under King Salman is now stepping up to become that power.”

Saudi military officials brag in private that the country acted so swiftly in Yemen, “the Americans didn’t know until four hours before the first strikes.” While Riyadh did not move as quickly as it would like others to believe – the late King Abdullah reportedly warned Western officials of military action as early as October 2014 – Western diplomats were taken aback by how fast the Saudis built a “coalition of the willing” in Yemen.

“We knew Saudi was willing to act if the conflict touched their borders,” says a Western diplomat based in Riyadh. “What we didn’t know was that they were going to turn this into a Sunni coalition.”

The Saudis quickly convinced their stalwart Sunni Arab allies – Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt – to participate in the bombings. Saudi military insiders say it is a coalition Riyadh wants to use again and again throughout the region, waging war after war to stamp out Iranian influence.

In a motion passed through the Arab League in March, Saudi Arabia and Egypt moved to make the coalition a permanent “Arab joint military force” to be used in operations to combat extremism and lend aid to beleaguered Arab governments. Under the guise of a permanent force, the Saudis intend to use their superior US-sold weaponry and Egyptian and Jordanian manpower to protect their interests, combat extremist groups, and engage in a full-on war against Shiite movements. The Saudis have a fleet of 84 advanced F-15s at their disposal and soon will have more than 200 advanced Patriot missiles. For them, Yemen was only a training exercise.

“We are building a coalition to endure Iran’s campaign of destabilization in the region,” says the military commander. “Today we are in Yemen, tomorrow Iraq, and then maybe Syria. We will strike wherever Iran and its agents are.”

While it is difficult to separate the saber rattling from Riyadh’s true appetite for war, the zeal is telling about how Saudi Arabia sees its future role in the region. With an unmistakable swagger, Saudi officials are preaching a “proactive” military doctrine, echoing the brash style of President Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. 

“This isn’t war,” the military commander says of the Yemen operation. “This is a preemptive strike.”

Riyadh’s new assertiveness can also be seen in the way it’s using one of its other most potent weapons – oil. As crude oil prices have dropped dramatically in the past year, Saudi Arabia has had every opportunity to reduce production and boost energy prices once again. That’s what it would have done in the past. Not this time. 

It has continued to pump, and pump at record levels, despite recently posting a record budget deficit of $38.6 billion. 

The reason: By maintaining production and keeping oil prices low, the Saudis succeed in hurting Iran, which, unlike Riyadh, does not have billions of dollars in currency reserves to soften the blow. The oil-price plunge also harms economically ailing Russia, whose ties with Iran and unflagging support of Assad have heightened tensions between Riyadh and Moscow.

While the Saudis have clearly kept the oil spigot open to undercut the upstart oil shale industry in the US as well, geopolitical interests remain a top focus.

“The maintenance of oil production is Saudi Arabia’s new instrument in foreign policy,” says Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Saudi Arabia’s state-run Al Arabiya news network.

 •     •     •     • 

In 2011, Lateefa Alwaalan was one of some 80,000 Saudis studying at universities in the US. At the time, many Saudis saw an American degree as merely a badge of honor: Their time at a university was simply a four-year wait for a cushy government job back in Saudi Arabia.

Yet Ms. Alwaalan wanted something more. While studying for her MBA at the University of Washington, she immersed herself in the culture of one of the coffee capitals of the US – Seattle.

She found herself wondering why global coffees, from frothy lattes to silky macchiatos, could be made by machines at the flick of a switch, but Arabic coffee, the bittersweet blend that is the centerpiece of Saudi social gatherings, remained a half-hour chore to brew. “Our coffee-making techniques were stuck in the Stone Age,” says Alwaalan.

So she developed an automatic electric kettle designed specifically to bring Arabic coffee to the perfect temperature within minutes, modeled after espresso machines in the Pacific Northwest. She also produced a line of instant Arabic coffee blends.

Bearing the name Yatooq, or “longing,” Alwaalan’s coffee and kettle dominate the shelves of supermarkets across Saudi Arabia and have entered the Kuwaiti market. Her company now employs more than 70 people. In her university days, Alwaalan was seen as a dreamer. Now she’s the future.

Saudi Arabia’s strength and its ability to play a more prominent role in the region will hinge in part on its attempts to reform its one-dimensional economy, currently the Arab world’s largest. For decades, Saudi oil revenues have acted as an employment fund for citizens, with Riyadh providing government jobs and benefits to at times as much as 90 percent of the population.

The security of a government job and a minimum salary of $2,000 a month – twice the average wages in the private sector – has led over the years to a ballooning public sector and a moribund private sector. As of January, 75 percent of Saudis worked in government agencies. Public-sector salaries accounted for 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, some $80 billion, representing the largest drain on the Saudi budget.

Private companies looked to foreigners to staff their factories, hotels, and restaurants. From Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, hundreds of thousands have come to fill positions ranging from taxi drivers to heart surgeons.

Now, a startling 9 million foreigners participate in the Saudi labor force, holding more than 80 percent of its private-sector jobs. Meanwhile, around 60 percent of Saudis are under the age of 30, and Riyadh is struggling to absorb the 100,000 Saudis entering the workforce each year.

Starting in 2011, the country promoted a campaign to “Saudi-ize” the labor force, providing incentives to factories and companies to hire Saudi nationals. The results have been mixed. The Ministry of Labor reported a 30 percent increase in Saudi private-sector hiring between 2011 and 2014, with the percentage of Saudis in the labor force rising from 10.9 percent to 15.2 percent. Despite the measures, Saudi unemployment stands at 10.5 percent – nearly twice the government’s target – with the jobless rate among Saudis under age 30 hovering around 30 percent. 

Even though the country has yet to forge a vibrant private sector, a new generation of young Saudi entrepreneurs is returning from the US and Europe ready to create at home. Osama Natto has seen this economic revolution up close. An angel investor, Mr. Natto and his Innovative Business Solutions firm have launched eight Saudi companies since 2010. He says a deep-rooted “culture change” over the past few years has led to increased confidence in the Saudi private sector.

“The capital investment was always there, the skilled human resources were always there, but investors always wanted to go with international companies – the sure thing,” Natto says. “Now, after a few successes, people have the confidence to ‘go Saudi.’ ”

Thanks to a series of tax breaks and entrepreneur-friendly government regulations, Riyadh is starting to see a nascent business and investment class emerge. The Saudi economy grew 5 percent in 2014, despite the sharp drop in oil prices, with Riyadh leaning more on its young private sector.

 •     •     •     • 

More than 100,000 pilgrims from Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and as far away as China enter the cavernous marble archways of the Prophet’s Mosque in Mecca – the second holiest site in Islam and the final resting place of the prophet Muhammad. Enrobed in simple white ihram cloth, they file into the mosque to pay their respects at the tomb, embarking on the 1,200-year-old rites of umrah, or little pilgrimage.

As noon approaches, pilgrims gather in the mosque’s canvas-covered courtyard. United by a bond that transcends language, nationality, ethnicity, and politics, they kneel in unison for Friday prayers.

They gather for a sermon that is decisively political.

“May God bless Operation Decisive Storm and the campaign of the custodian of the two holy mosques to protect this Islamic world,” Imam Abdulmohsen al-Qasim thunders through the overhead PA system. “This is a war not only on the Yemeni people, but on its Islamic identity. This is war to defend the Islamic world.”

Despite its billions in oil wealth and newfound military might, Saudi Arabia still relies on the pulpit as the main platform for its policies. The title “custodian of the two holy mosques” accompanies every mention of King Salman, and Saudi Arabia trumpets its position as both birthplace and guardian of Islam.

Riyadh continues to use its state-employed clerics and scholars to issue fatwas to justify and enforce royal policies, ranging from upholding a ban on women drivers to observing daylight saving time. Yet in 2015, the House of Saud has fine-tuned its message even further. It is exerting its influence over Islamic universities and highly visible clerics to protect its interests abroad, give a religious legitimacy to its allies in the region, and denounce its enemies as deviants of Islam.

In one of its more public crackdowns, the state arrested renowned cleric Mohamad al-Arefe, whose televised sermons and speeches reached more than 20 million homes across the region, for speaking out against the Egyptian military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Riyadh had opposed Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement ever since it came to power and let it be known that its clerics must not speak out against the military coup. After a second jailing in October 2014, Mr. Arefe said nothing more on Egypt and later came out as an ardent advocate of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

The country’s tight controls, of course, extend way beyond the pulpit. Women are still banned from driving, while the Saudis resentenced blogger and activist Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes in 2014 for “insulting Islam” with his criticisms of the Saudi royal family.

The heavy-handedness at times draws the ire of Saudi Arabia’s democracy-minded Western allies. In the most recent spat, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström ignited a diplomatic crisis in February when she described the House of Saud as presiding over a “dictatorship” and denounced Mr. Badawi’s flogging as “medieval.”

After Riyadh recalled its ambassador and refused to renew the business visas of Swedish nationals, threatening some $1.3 billion in annual Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia, Swedish King Carl Gustaf sent a personal letter to King Salman to defuse the crisis.

Despite the criticisms, Saudi Arabia has made strides in the area of women’s rights. Some 30 women were included in the Majlis al-Shura, the royal handpicked parliament in early 2013, while women continue to make advances in the private sector.

•     •     •     •

Mohammed Abu Baker represents a different threat to the Saudi regime – and one far more ominous. The 22-year-old former engineering student says he was moved by a “religious calling” to promote and defend Islam. He joined the ranks of Islamic State.

“We must defend our lands from the Alawite and Shiite aggressors,” Mr. Abu Baker says in a Skype conversation from northern Syria.

When asked why he joined the jihadist militant movement, which has threatened the royal family itself, Abu Baker echoes Riyadh’s narrative of a greater Sunni-Shiite struggle for the Middle East. “If the Sunni world does not stand up, the Persians and the distorters of Islam will destroy us,” he says.

An estimated 2,000 Saudis have followed Abu Baker’s footsteps and joined Islamic State. They are only the latest generation of young Saudis to be seduced by jihadist groups – a peril never far from the minds of Saudi authorities.

“Day and night, our top concern is terrorism,” says Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry.

For more than three decades, the battlefields of the various conflicts that have struck the Arab world have attracted thousands of Saudis to embark on jihad, or holy war – from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s to the US occupation of Iraq in the 2000s. Osama bin Laden was the most famous of the militants.

Now with Syria on the brink of becoming a failed state, Islamic State entrenched in Iraq, and spiraling violence in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is facing multiple conflicts that are attracting and radicalizing hundreds of Saudi youths.

“Wherever there is conflict, there is an opportunity for extremism to take hold. And that is why we are concerned,” Turki says.

Saudi Arabia’s fears are real. Eleven deadly terrorist attacks have been carried out on Saudi soil over the past two years, leaving eight citizens and 11 security personnel dead. The country faced its most recent attack in April when alleged Islamic State supporters killed a police officer in East Riyadh.

Despite all the challenges, Saudis argue that the country has never been stronger. From the Yemeni battlefield to the Riyadh stock exchange to the entrepreneurial suites of Riyadh, officials see the country as poised for a larger and more forceful role in the region.

“For decades, we have been the West’s partner and ally,” says Mr. Jasser. “Now it is time for Saudi Arabia to stand on its own, and stand tall.”

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