There are several reasons why the Saudis will struggle to be an uncontested regional power in the Arab world. At the heart of their unsuccessful bid to lead, inspire, defend and cool down the Arab hot spots is the archaic Saudi religio-political system. A traditional absolute monarchy struggling to cast itself as an ultra-modern state, while maintaining its adherence to the most exclusive religious tradition, is truly unappealing across the region. If Saudi Arabia has ever been tolerated or even beloved, it’s been because of its massive wealth, now dwindling under the pressure of collapsing oil prices. Its mythologized sacred geography, inflated Islamic credentials, massive oil wealth and charismatic patriarchs have yet to guarantee its rulers the undisputed stature they aspire to.
Both the US and European powers have exaggerated the Saudis’ ability to be an “island of stability in a turbulent Arab sea”, a “neutral arbiter in regional conflicts”, and a “moderate voice” among radicals and extremists. The West has wanted the Saudis to serve specific foreign policy objectives, maximize investment options, and more recently to help with counter-terrorism security and intelligence. From the Cold War to the present, the Saudi regime had been presented, against all available evidence, as an indispensable force for good in the region and beyond. The myth of Saudi hegemony is now proving unsustainable, but interested parties are yet to draw the curtain on it.
Since Barack Obama became US president in 2008, the Saudi leadership has felt increasingly alienated from its former close patron and guarantor of security. The day after Obama’s election, King Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 2015) woke up to a different reality in Washington. The American presidency was now unwilling to maintain the unconditional support for the Saudi leadership that characterized US-Saudi relations throughout the post-war era. King Abdullah had used a mixture of charisma and state soft power to push for Saudi regional and even international hegemony following what he perceived as an American retreat from the Middle East. His post-9/11 charm offensive partially succeeded in containing an open collision with Washington. The critical breaking moment in this relationship came when President Obama refused to bomb Iran and Bashar al-Assad at Saudi Arabia’s request.
However, when Salman bin Abd al-Aziz became king in 2015, he thought that the Saudis could yet emerge as the undisputed regional arbiters of Arab and Islamic affairs. Saudi pundits in the US began to publicize a new “Salman Doctrine” for the Middle East, to counter what they saw as a failed “Obama Doctrine”. Since the launch of the war on Yemen in March 2015, the Saudis have advertised their new foreign policy as a snub to Washington, despite the fact that most of its “hawkishness”—from sending troops to Bahrain in 2011 to bombing Yemen in 2015—has been approved or assisted by the US.
On several occasions, Obama has stated that the United States cannot use its military to intervene in support of threatened Arab dictatorships. Consequently, King Salman has broken away from the soft-power Saudi traditions of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and charm offensives, deployed by Abdullah with limited success. Salman’s new doctrine is mainly a blueprint for dealing with Iran and its clients, from Beirut to Sanaa, especially since the US changed course and rehabilitated Iran. Salman’s doctrine is centered on projecting military power abroad, through military support to threatened regimes, military airstrikes or sponsored rebellions against those in the Arab world deemed to be Iranian clients, or aid to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s own client states.
Redirecting foreign policy towards other Muslim countries, including new military joint ventures and solidarity campaigns, is also instrumental in pursuing the Saudi dream of leading the Islamic world. The Saudis narrowly define this world as Sunni, in order to contain heretical Shia threats (Iran).
Saudi soft power previously relied on religion as a policy instrument to pacify domestic audiences and charm Muslims worldwide. This revolved around spreading the Wahhabi religious tradition, and sponsoring religious education, from Detroit to Jakarta—though this policy has backfired and became central to the post-9/11 collision with the US. The regime continues to send clients monetary gifts and boxes full of dates and Qurans, all locally produced in the sacred geography of the holy land, under the guardianship of the protectors of the two Holy Mosques.
The religious tradition adopted and propagated abroad by the regime, from the Saudi-sponsored madrasahs in Pakistan to scholarships for Muslims to study Islamic sciences in Saudi universities, has now become another major obstacle to Saudi regional leadership. Recipients of Saudi religious largesse have doubts about blindly endorsing a narrow, puritanical religious tradition, known as Wahhabiyya, that does not respect the universal principles of Islam. Benefitting from the general impoverishment of many Muslims across the globe, the marginalization of Muslims in non-Muslim-majority countries, and the paucity of Islamic and general educational resources in contemporary Muslim nation-states, the Saudi regime used its petro-dollars to spread its religious interpretations, with their local parochialism, exclusiveness, and ability to inspire violence or even terrorism.
Certain conditions of modernity also contributed to the appeal of Wahhabism’s literal, textual, and absolute categories among uprooted, marginalized and de-cultured Muslims. The twentieth century’s great waves of migration, dispersal, diaspora and up-rootedness, characteristic of life in major Muslim capitals as in Western ones, magnified the appeal of Saudi-Wahhabi religious discourse. In a fluid post-modern world in which binary opposites (male-female, Muslim-non-Muslim, good-evil, right-wrong) are increasingly blurred, the clear-cut boundaries of Wahhabiyya and its overtly sectarian focus found a niche among a minority of Muslims worldwide.
Under Saudi patronage, Wahhabiyya became a theology of empire and empowerment, triumphalism and illusory victories. Paradoxically, it appealed to both the dispossessed and disenchanted and the very educated and wealthy. The poor found salvation in it, while the affluent found empowerment and a return to an imagined glorious past.
But this overstretched and inflated appeal has not gone unchallenged, both in the heartland of the Muslim world and on the periphery. Since the eighteenth century, Muslim scholars’ intellectual war against Wahhabiyya has limited its spread in their far-away territories. Muslims have challenged Saudi religious expansion, asserting their agency as critical Muslims and refusing subjugation by a parochial religious tradition alien to their own culture. Both Sunni and Shia Muslims, not to mention the wide range of other Muslim sects, resisted conflating Wahhabiyya with a universal Islam, despite vast sums deployed to make it appeal.
It is fair to say that religious expansionism earned the Saudi regime more contestation, animosity, and rejection than everlasting prestige, legitimacy or consent. Religion proved to be a dangerous weapon in the struggle to achieve undisputed world leadership. The regime is paying a high price for its misguided policy. It cannot lead and impose control without resistance.
Instrumentalizing Islam since the Cold War era was not a Saudi invention, but had the approval of successive American administrations. But now, with mounting criticism of this policy in several world capitals, to secure the kingdom’s leadership dream amidst serious questioning of its religious expansionism and transnationalism. Salman has moved quickly to an aggressive military position. This has been enabled by decades of accumulating sophisticated weaponry, purchased mainly from the US and its allies, in addition to new Asian sources.
The Salman Doctrine is yet to yield tangible results. So far it has amounted to starting unwinnable wars in still-volatile Syria, Yemen and Bahrain (where Saudi intervention had been sustained since 2011), which have earned the Saudis more enemies than friends. Certainly the Saudis have not been crowned as the region’s political arbiters.
Domestic politics is another obstacle to Saudi regional hegemony. Personalized politics and ad hoc policies lack the durability of politics embedded in elected institutions. Like others, the Saudi regime comprises multiple state actors with conflicting views, interests and practices. Saudi pluralism, associated with senior personalities, does not translate well into hegemony and projection of power abroad. Rival visions and actors can block decisions and derail policies. Without democratic institutions where differences can be expressed and debated, dynastic family rule becomes a negative. The kingdom’s multiple fiefdoms compete and seek clients abroad, themselves competing to receive Saudi favours. The end result is a chaotic policy that fails to inspire Muslims abroad. This is sometimes lost amidst rhetoric in support of the Saudi leadership across the Muslim world. The latest such support was voiced when a suicide bomber targeted Medina, the Prophet’s burial-place.
There is also a sinister side to the plural political landscape. With incredible personal wealth accrued to senior princes in their private and official capacities, it is possible that each will pursue his own personal interests and seek clients abroad. Fifteen years after 9/11, the Saudi princes remain guilty until proven innocent. There is one reason for this. Secrecy, opacity, and the mixing of public and private wealth are hardly conducive to trust and transparency. Without the princes being accountable in their own country, it is hard to think that they can emerge as undisputed regional leaders. At best, they are tolerated for the funds they promise and at worst they are challenged by their own clients. General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt continues to exploit Saudi anxieties without becoming an obedient, loyal or unquestioning client.
The multiple Saudi state actors are Big Men reminiscent of a bygone era, rather than revered and pious Muslim arbiters of regional affairs. Capitalizing on the symbolic significance of Mecca, various kings hold regional and international conferences to bring warring parties together and solve old and new conflicts from Jerusalem to Baghdad, without any tangible success.
If both religion and politics have yet to secure Saudi regional hegemony, how does the regime feature socially? The regime’s restrictions on the freedoms and rights of immigrants, minorities, and women leave no room for inspiration. Foreign unskilled labour that flocks to the country is driven by push factors related to poverty in the sending countries, rather than the intrinsic appeal of the host country. Western expats and unskilled Asian, African and Arab labourers are drawn to Saudi Arabia’s wealth, not to lifestyles under the most socially restrictive conditions.
The prevalent gender model is being challenged not only by a nascent Saudi women’s movement but also by women activists across the globe. In progressive women’s associations from Kuala Lumpur to Rabat, Muslim women do not aspire towards a Saudi model. When King Abdullah proposed to extend GCC membership to Morocco, an established and successful Moroccan women’s movement raised serious objections, as they feared an expansion of the Saudi gender model undermining their own historical struggle to achieve equality. Needless to say, the Saudi regime suffered the humiliation of being snubbed by the Moroccan king who despite intimate relations with the Saudis prefers greater integration with Europe.
The Saudi regime is tolerated across the region for its oil wealth. But what is the future of this petrodollar hegemony in light of the dramatic collapse of oil prices? For how long can the Saudi regime buy loyalty and penetrate the region, whether with soft power, diplomacy, military action or even the sponsorship of controversial militias? Can the Saudis continue to pour money into the coffers of a wide range of Arab regimes from Egypt to Yemen, when oil prices have dropped by 40% since 2014?
King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, has assured the world that he can end Saudi reliance on oil by 2020, attract investment, raise money from privatization and secure the country as the region’s number one economy. His vision of 2030 promises great transformations, amidst serious and legitimate doubts expressed by economists and financiers. Successive Saudi budget deficits will no doubt have major domestic implications and regional impact. The Saudis will face real dilemmas in keeping domestic constituencies happy with welfare provisions and their regional clients quiet with massive subsidies. Under dire economic conditions, war cannot always be ruled out. So far, the interventions in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have pacified Saudi Islamist activists, who swiftly moved from criticizing the regime for contributing to the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall in Egypt to supporting it unconditionally for its aggression in Yemen against Shia Houthis.
In military strikes, King Salman has found an opportunity to boost his young son’s credentials and silence opposition from other princes and dissidents. He has mobilized people with marshal patriotism and Salafized nationalism against the heretic Shia and Iran. The result so far is a fleeting moment of domestic acquiescence. However, regional hegemony has not followed from a prolonged Yemeni war yet to achieve its stated objectives. It remains to be seen what impact economic transformations will have on domestic audiences and regional clients.
If a new international doctrine, religious expansion, colossal oil wealth and international support have not guaranteed undisputed Saudi regional leadership, against the obstacles of religious parochialism, personalized politics and social conservatism, what would? Western powers’ promotion of Saudi Arabia as a regional power has truly failed to convince millions of the authenticity of this illusion. Saudi Arabia can only lead if it is transformed politically from an absolute monarchy to a model political system that many Arab countries aspire to emulate. For this to happen, its own religious tradition needs to undergo serious reform from within, to shed its overt sectarianism and reach a universalism representative of a world religion like Islam. For the time being, Saudi Arabia remains a regional power manqué.
Dr Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious trans-nationalism and gender, and is a columnist for Al-Monitor. Her latest book, published by Hurst, is Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia.
On Twitter: @MadawiDr