After attack on refinery, Saudis souring on go-it-alone posture

Why We Wrote This

How is a nation’s security best guaranteed? Treaties and multilateralism have been out of vogue of late, but Saudi Arabia is contemplating the downside of an overreliance on individual allies.

Hamad l Mohammed/Reuters
Men work at the damaged site of a Saudi Aramco oil facility in Buqayq, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 20, 2019.

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For the past five years, Saudi Arabia has acted on the regional stage as the Arab world’s lone “superpower.” Criticisms of its policies in the West were met with diplomatic and economic reprisals. The only relationships that truly mattered were with the Trump White House and its Gulf partner, the United Arab Emirates.

Yet the U.S. refusal to retaliate after Iran shot down an American drone in June was widely interpreted as signaling President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to go to war with Iran. Now, after the Saudi refinery attack, a U.S. pledge to deploy additional forces to the region is being seen as largely symbolic.

Riyadh has been changing tack, returning to multilateralism, diplomacy, and even restraint in the wake of an attack that has exposed its near-isolation on the world stage.

“Saudi Arabia understands that there is a greater chance of an effective military pushback against Iran ... with an international coalition,” says Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at George Washington University. “In many ways this would be a return to traditional Saudi diplomacy, which is a much more cautious and inclusive approach than it has been the past couple of years.”

Considering the scope of the region’s conflicts, the announcement that the United States would deploy additional defensive troops to Saudi Arabia and position a naval destroyer in the Persian Gulf suggests a largely symbolic build-up.

The move, in response to the drone and missile attack on the Saudi oil facility Sept. 14, highlights not only Riyadh’s vulnerability to attacks from regional rival Iran, but the limits of President Donald Trump’s support for a close foreign ally.

Saudi Arabia has taken note – and has been changing its tone.

After four years of an aggressive, go-it-alone policy bolstered by President Trump’s support, Saudi Arabia is returning to multilateralism, diplomacy, media messaging, and even restraint in the wake of an attack on its economic life blood that has exposed its near-isolation on the world stage.

“Saudi Arabia understands that there is a greater chance of an effective military pushback against Iran – and the president is more willing to entertain one – with an international coalition,” says Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and observer of Saudi affairs. 

“In many ways this would be a return to traditional Saudi diplomacy, which is a much more cautious and inclusive approach than it has been the past couple of years.”

Change of direction

For the past five years, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, has acted on the regional stage as the Arab world’s lone “superpower,” and at times, some diplomats say, as “a bully.”  

In 2015, after Sweden criticized its human rights record, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Stockholm and canceled business visas for Swedish nationals.

In 2018, after Canada’s foreign minister called for the release of jailed Saudi women’s rights activists, Riyadh announced an economic boycott of Canada, canceled state-airline Saudia flights to Toronto, and pulled 16,000 Saudi citizens studying in Canada on government scholarships.

The only relationships that truly mattered were with the Trump White House and its Gulf neighbor and partner, the UAE.

Yet with the lack of U.S. retaliation after Iran shot down an American drone in June, which was widely interpreted here as signaling President Trump’s unwillingness to go to war with Iran, and in light of an increasingly unpredictable White House, the Saudis have changed tack.

In one of its first steps after last week’s Aramco attack, which halted 50% of Saudi oil production, Riyadh called for an international investigation, inviting Europe, the U.S., Russia, China, and others to view the evidence and take part in forensic investigations.

Last week, Saudi Arabia joined the International Maritime Security Construct, the U.S.-led maritime defense coalition that patrols and monitors the tense Gulf seaways.

Riyadh has also been reaching out to allies other than the U.S. for diplomatic and political support, including Europe and China, which has become the largest importer of Saudi oil and relies on the kingdom’s crude for 18% of its needs.

As part of its push for international support, Saudi Arabia even addressed head-on the Yemen war, which has turned many Western publics against it and has made Riyadh political kryptonite for European and even American politicians.

In an interview with the BBC, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., Prince Khaled bin Bander, voiced “regret” over the Yemen war, which he portrayed nevertheless as necessary, and said the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi “was a stain on Saudi Arabia, a stain on our culture, our people, our government – I wish it didn’t happen.”

Messaging

Key to building its case following the Aramco attack has been messaging, as Saudi Arabia vies for diplomatic support leading up to the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week in New York.

Saudi Arabia has called on international and regional press repeatedly in recent days, holding real-time press conferences to discuss in detail the attack, oil production, and even displaying the remnants of the missiles and drones themselves.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
Remains of missiles that the Saudi government says were used to attack an Aramco oil facility are displayed during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 18, 2019.

It is a change of approach for the opaque kingdom, which although it has always strived to receive better press in the West, has struggled to shake off its traditional aversion to transparency and has instead relied heavily on Washington-based public relations firms and lobbyists to sandblast its image rather than provide media access.

“They are very much aware that communication has always been a problem for them,” says Ali Shihabi, a U.S.-based Saudi commentator and analyst.

Saudi Arabia has been careful in its language, describing the attacks as “Iran-sponsored.” Riyadh and its surrogates have repeated that Saudi Arabia “does not want escalation” and “does not want conflict,” reminding the international community that its oil infrastructure is the single “most important energy source in the world.”

“I think you are now seeing a new, more judicious use of power and a much more thoughtful approach to things in Saudi Arabia now than you saw before,” says Mr. Shihabi.  

“This is partially due to the lessons learned over the past year, and partially due to the arrival of new people effectively in the circle of power.”

Value of restraint

Although claims of “restraint” conveniently paper over Saudi Arabia’s inability to wage direct warfare on Iran and its limited options without full U.S. military action, they also serve another purpose: shaping the narrative. 

Those in the kingdom have taken note that amid the chaos in oil markets, media coverage of Saudi press conferences, and images of the burning Aramco facilities and clouds of smoke choking the sky, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia and less is being mentioned of its disastrous war in Yemen.

There is a growing belief in Riyadh that the path of Saudi rehabilitation on the world stage – and isolation of Iran – runs through showing restraint, transparency, and even vulnerability.

“This attack shows that Saudi is on the defense, is the victim, and this is a moment we should hang on to as long as possible by showing transparency and open communication with the world,” says a Saudi diplomatic source.

Even Arab allies are unable or unwilling to help; Egypt is embroiled in an economic crisis while Sudan, a major source of ground troops, is consumed with a political transition following a popular revolution.

The UAE has recently parted ways with Saudi Arabia on the Yemen war and has withdrawn from the conflict amid a rising backlash against Abu Dhabi in Washington. It also remains concerned that in any military escalation, Iran will strike the Emirates’ financial capital, Dubai.

The feeling of isolation is being reflected in the state-influenced Saudi press, such as a recent column in Saudi daily Okaz titled “We have no ally but ourselves.”

“If we are to deal with the situation with impartiality and clarity, it requires the knowledge that ... the allies of yesterday will not return today as they once were.”

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