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On 3 January 2015, Salman bin Abdul Aziz was crowned king of Saudi Arabia. Following his coronation, he appointed Adil al-Jubeir, Saudi ambassador to the United States since 2007, as foreign minister. Some predicted that despite these changes, the kingdom’s foreign policy would not undergo any drastic changes. However, the foreign policy decisions the king has taken so far are challenging those predictions.
Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness, visible for example in its military involvement in the war in neighbouring Yemen, has been linked in the first place to the growing influence of the king’s 30-year-old son and deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. Prince Mohammad has been accumulating power since he was appointed minister of defense immediately after his father became king. He has also dominated economic policies, rocking the commodities world by announcing the creation of a $2 trillion megafund to make the country less depend on oil.
Several press reports also consider the shift in Saudi foreign policy to be a response to the foreign policy of the United States (US). President Obama’s endeavours to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran led to tensions between the long-time allies. Saudi Arabia regards Iran as a dangerous regional rival, and fears that lifting the sanctions imposed on the country will strengthen the position of Shiite minorities, threatening the security of the predominantly Sunni kingdom.
A quick reading of historical relations between Saudi Arabia and the US are sufficient to highlight the transformations in the former’s foreign policy.
Ties between the two nations date back to 1931, when the late King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud sought to establish diplomatic relations with several countries, rather than relying heavily on any one country in particular. Saudi attraction to the US, despite the geographical distance between them, was due to the US’ lack of a colonial past, which distinguished it from European countries such as France and Britain.
In 1933, after two years of negotiations, Saudi Arabia and the US signed a concession granting the US company SOCAL oil exploration rights. This marked the beginning of an economic alliance between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia was opposed to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and refused to allow the use of its territory to launch attacks on its neighbour, yet it provided support to the US after the invasion became a war. At the same time, Saudi Arabia was repeatedly accused of supporting Sunni tribes and forces opposed to the then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the growing Iranian influence in the country, fearing that such influence would harm its own security.
The Saudi move was a strategic one aimed at restoring relations between Washington and Riyadh, which had become strained following the 9/11 attacks. Although the US does not hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the attacks, some started to question the US-Saudi alliance and called for disengagement with the kingdom, especially as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The Saudi position on the Arab Spring was a further point of disagreement. While the US endorsed the revolutions, hoping they would further the spread of democracy, Saudi Arabia feared that they would expand to threaten the Saudi regime. This fear became more pronounced after the US abandoned its two historical allies in the region – Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – who were both ousted in the turmoil. This political divergence became crystal clear when Saudi Arabia backed the 30 June 2013 revolution in Egypt that overthrew the subsequent president and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi, whom the US had supported on the grounds the he was democratically elected.
US rapprochement with Iran and the signing of the 5+1 nuclear agreement in April 2015 served to entrench the divide between Riyadh and Washington and pushed the former to take more aggressive steps in the region.
One of these was the launch in March 2015 of air strikes on Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are considered in Riyadh to be stooges of Iran, although many international experts believe Iranian support is limited. The US soon voiced its approval of the strikes, not least because it needed to show the Saudis that the nuclear agreement with Iran did not mean the start of a normalisation of relations with Tehran.
The US and Saudi positions on the Iranian dossier and the conflict in Syria have also been at odds. While Saudi Arabia continues to back the Syrian opposition, the US seems to be moving closer to the Iranian-Russian camp. Since the start of the Syrian war on 15 March 2011, there has been a Saudi-US agreement to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In January 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Adil al-Jubeir declared that “Riyadh will support any political process that leads to the departure of al-Assad or will continue to support the Syrian opposition in order to remove him by force.” Al-Jubeir’s statement was a response to a threat by US Secretary of State John Kerry to suspend aid to the Syrian opposition if its representatives did not participate in the April 2016 peace talks in Geneva. The Syrian opposition had expressed scepticism that these talks would not result in a transitional government that does not include the Syrian president.