Saudi foreign policy in 2020s is characterized by development is multiple sectors including the economy, tourism, and energy diversification. The country developed a policy of a “Saudi-first” nationalism according to which interest precedes cultural, religious, and traditional beliefs and priorities. The new approach entails a series of reforms that has already kicked off in cultural and religious spheres with the kingdom overhauling a series of codes that were imposed on the nation for multiple centuries.
The new era in Saudi Arabia started with the death of King Abdollah and the takeover of power by King Salman in 2015. Starting his career as the king at the age of 79, Salman unofficially handed over the power to his son, Mohammad, right after throning, turning the young crown prince the number one man of the nation. Ever since taking the power, Mohammad Bin Salman (generally referred to as MbS) consolidated his power by arresting, confining, and killing all other potential rivals among the princes, political elites, and businessmen.
Bin Salman’s grip on power coincided with the Trump era in the United States, a man generally known for his support of Saudi Arabian policies. The general notion, nevertheless, might be inconsistent with the overall evolution of events that shaped the Saudi foreign policy during the years after the turn of century.
The United States
Saudi Arabia has always enjoyed the patronization of the United States as its major western ally. The ties, however, started a complex process of straining following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq by Bush administration on claims regarding Saddam Hussain’s reservoir of WMD. Saudi Arabia found the assault at odds with its regional policies and disapproved the intervention.
Barack Obama’s takeover of power in 2009 proved more debilitating for the already sick ties between Riyadh and Washington. Obama’s passive policies in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings followed by its detrimental role in the emergence and development of ISIS during the early years of 2010s made the United States a less confident ally to rely on. The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was taken as a treacherous move, as Riyadh found it a step to reinforce its traditional arch-rival in the region. The JCPOA was reached during the years that Riyadh had the lowest level of diplomatic ties with Tehran. As such, the process of a division in deep layers of political partnership with the United States started years before the 2016 election in the United States.
With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new president in 2017, the early insight by commentators forecasted the prospect of healing the bilateral ties. Republican presidents were more favorable options for the leaders in Riyadh, considering their tough policies on Saudi regional foes like Iran. Ironically, Trump proved an even less secure ally with his “America First” policy that entailed abandoning any cost-imposing intervention across the world that served the allies, and not the United States.
Evacuating the leadership role turned Washington into a more unreliable partner, with Riyadh seeking more diverse global powerhouses as allies. China emerged as a safe partner economically, while Russia waS an anti-thesis to the American volatile security patronage. Riyadh maintains security and arms agreements with the United States, while partners with Russia on energy and oil security sectors.
Joe Biden’s introduction to power followed his campaign vows to alienate Saudi Arabia and its de-facto leader as violators of human rights. Biden’s reference was to the murder of Saudi columnist of Washington Post in Turkey, whose report was released few months after inauguration asserting Bin Salman’s direct approval of the murder operation. As such, Biden entered the White House having already started a war with MbS.
A policy transformation in Saudi Arabia after 2020 and the outbreak of war in Ukraine turned the tide against Biden administration who sought to make for past sins in an infamous visit to the Kingdom in July, 2022. Bin Salman’s cold welcome, represented in a fist bump, and his refusal to abide by a western sanctions campaign against Russia and cutting down on oil production and export, promised the continuity of cold relationship between the two sides. Washington kept up with efforts to heal the wounds through a normalization of Saudi ties with Israel in return for economic privileges and a nuclear agreement with the Kingdom. The United States, albeit, will never turn to the one and only prioritizing ally of Saudi Arabia, with the latter having experienced years of pressure and alienation.
Saudi Open Diplomacy
The Saudi prescription for the crisis in its relationship with the United States has been to broaden the borders of its foreign policy to include more powers, further opportunities, and more partnerships. In less than a month, Saudi Arabia starts the membership in BRICS along with five other countries, joining China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa. The fresh alliance, with the members accounting for about half of the world population, is aimed at boosting the political cooperation and economic partnerships to rebalance the financial and power structures in the world.
Riyadh has been hosting a considerable number of summits on various issues ranging from the Sudan war and Ukraine invasion to Gaza conflict and GCC summits. The country has also been enjoying visits by leaders from China, Russia, Ukraine, Iran, and loads of other nations from across the world. Apart from the political elite, Saudi Arabia has also held various cultural, economic, and tourism events during the 2023. The Kingdom is introduced as the only bidder for the 2034 World Cup games while it was also thrilled to win the World Expo 2030.
The Saudi cultural and political overhaul took less than a decade to impact the global insight about the monarchy. To inject the new body of Saudi society with a soul, the growth must take place at deeper levels, like the scientific achievements, cultural influence, and literary products. Still in process of molting, Saudi Arabia has a long way to take; A way that has seemingly no intersection in Washington.