Dr. Rich is a lecturer in international relations at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
Since the 2015 ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi state has displayed growing discontinuity with trends in its pursuit of national security. Over the past four years, the kingdom has shifted from being a source of comparative stability and continuity in the Persian Gulf security equation to a disposition that is disruptive to that system. Having initiated a series of destabilizing crises throughout the Middle East, the Saudi pursuit of external security appears no longer defined by the predictability that has been its hallmark since its inception. Instead, it appears increasingly characterized by unpredictable aggressiveness. As one veteran Saudi analyst has argued, anticipating the kingdom’s next foreign-policy move has become more challenging than Soviet watching during the height of the Cold War.
In interpreting paradigm shifts such as these, it is often prudent to return to a discipline’s basic assumptions, to ascertain whether they offer analytical value. In this regard, I ask whether different strands of realism help explain recent developments in Saudi international behavior. I argue that the transformation of the past four years can best be understood as an abandonment of defensive precepts in favor of offensive realism — particularly applicable to the kingdom, where a zero-sum, nonideological mentality has always been seen as key to regime survival. At the same time, liberal ideals such as regional integration and international institutionalization, as well as the promotion of human rights, economic freedom and political participation, have been eschewed when they have not served an instrumental purpose.1 While these factors are often acknowledged in passing, the vast majority of discussions concerning Saudi behavior beyond its own borders avoid significant theory-guided analysis, opting for more historical and materialist approaches,2while only touching on selective components of international relations theory.
POWER AND SECURITY
This paper repeatedly uses the terms “power maximization,” in the case of offensive realism, and “security seeking” in the case of defensive realism, to describe the goals of distinct periods of Saudi foreign policy. I employ a modified form of Dahl’s 1957 definition of power as the “capacity of one state to force another state to do what it would otherwise not do,”3 as opposed to the traditional concept, which primarily focuses on the relative military power of states.4 The latter is elegant in its simplicity, but it fails to capture the complexities of the shift in Saudi foreign policy, which aims to do significantly more than simply dominate rivals. By contrast, in the case of “security,” this article adheres to Walt’s suggestion that the concept can be thought of as “the preservation of the state’s territorial integrity and the physical safety of its inhabitants…. A state is thought to be secure if it can defend against or deter a hostile attack and prevent other states from compelling it to adjust its behavior in significant ways or to sacrifice core political values.”5
Defense vs. Offense
Both offensive and defensive realism share joint ancestry in neorealism 6 and retain a number of common base assumptions on the nature and function of the international order. These include considering the primary international actors to be internally unified rational states whose ultimate goal is survival within a system of anarchy. Despite this shared genealogy, however, offensive and defensive realism diverge in a number of ways, most significantly on the optimal manner with which to pursue survival.
Defensive realism argues that most states are status-quo security seekers aiming to preserve their holdings, rather than aggressively expand them. The objective is to deter external predation and ensure survival by achieving an undefined degree of security that assuages anxieties about anarchy. Defense realists locate the origin of many conflicts in this quest. It heightens the insecurity of neighbors, who cannot be certain of the arming country’s intentions — does the arming country only seek to harden its own defense, or does it intend to employ these growing capacities in an offensive manner? Thus, an intention of deterrence can be interpreted as aggression, leading to a security dilemma.7 As two states subsequently seek security in relation to each other’s growing military capacity, an inadvertent positive feedback loop of martial one-upmanship emerges in which tension increases, and the likelihood of catastrophic miscalculation and open conflict becomes more probable.8
While offering insights into how states mistakenly stumble into conflict, defensive realism argues that proactively aggressive international actors tend to be anomalies. The theory suggests that revisionist, expansionist efforts seeking to forcibly remake local, regional or global security architecture in one’s own favor tend to be self-defeating and likely to elicit severe penalties.9 The reasons for this relate to the potential benefits of these activities versus their costs. The first component pertains to matters of military capacity and strategy. A variety of geographic, political, social and logistical factors in warfare typically favor the defender and pose formidable obstacles for aggressors, making the implementation of expansionist desires challenging.10 Secondly, many expansionist states have been punished heavily by reflexive coalitions of status-quo powers aiming to roll back their revisionism. Belligerent regimes tend to be perceived as threats, not just by those they are directly attacking, but by wider groups of states, facilitating collective actions.11 The more disruptive a state becomes, the harder it is to find allies willing to bandwagon with it against balancing coalitions. One has only to look at the motley alliances that formed to check the ambitions of the Achaemenids under Xerxes, France under Napoleon or Germany under Hitler for clear examples. Defensive realism accordingly suggests that there is little incentive in the international system to explain why states opt to pursue revisionist ends. When they do, one must locate motivations in analyses of individual leaders and internal social and political forces.12
As a result, defensive realism stresses moderate, cautious policies in the pursuit of security. Survival is best realized through a mentality of restraint that tends towards small, incremental and nondisruptive actions in security seeking, as opposed to those that significantly challenge or upend an existing balance of power. In such situations, defensive realism holds that regimes seeking to aggressively dominate in order to achieve security can likely expect precisely the opposite outcome.
Where defensive realism sees revisionism as aberrant to the pursuit of survival in the international system, offensive realists view it as a natural outcome of this same environment.13 For offensive realists, there is no such thing as an adequate level of security; states must hoard as much as possible.14 Rather than cautiously accruing security, states — especially great ones — maximize their power at the expense of their rivals and seek hegemony within their region, for it is only in unipolarity that survival can be guaranteed.15 This assessment focuses on three primary factors: 1) anarchy, 2) the offensive capacity and 3) the inscrutability of rival states.16 In such conditions, revisionism and aggression are not, as defensive realism holds, irrational failures to conform to the parameters of the international system, but pragmatic responses to its realities.17 Offensive realists reject the assertion that transgressive expansionists will be always be punished. Indeed, one assessment concludes that such activities were successful in 60 percent of instances during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 18For a state to maximize its power and thwart its rivals is to increase its prospects for survival. As Mearsheimer bluntly puts it, the “more powerful a rational state is relative to the other states in the system, the less likely it is that a reckless state would attack it.”19
However, although offensive realists hold that aggression and expansionism are inherent to the pursuit of survival, this does not mean the bellicose policies such traits produce are predestined toward recklessness and brinkmanship. As Labs highlights, strategies of power maximization are typically only undertaken when the benefits are felt to outweigh the costs. 20The rationality of states means that, while they have no compunction in pursuing revisionism, the distribution of power and limitation of opportunities often act as constraints on aggressive behavior. Decision makers are unable to act with impunity. Further, approaches to power maximization will differ depending on variables unique to individual actors, such as geography, military traditions, strategic culture and historical precedent.21 Nevertheless, given that offensive realists see revisionism as logical and not intrinsically ruinous, their agenda naturally prescribes a ruthless set of tools for achieving power maximization. As Taliaferro writes, offensive realists can be expected to employ means that are seen as self-defeating by their defensive cousins, including “arms buildups, unilateral diplomacy, mercantile (or even autarkic) foreign economic policies, and opportunistic expansion.”22
In sum, where defensive-realist foreign-policy makers locate the rational pursuit of survival in cautious strategies leaning towards the status quo and “sufficient” amounts of security, offensive realists see the same in the very opposite. For the latter camp, there is no such thing as a sufficient level of security, short of hegemony. While the Saudi state has traditionally adhered to defensive-realist approaches in its pursuit of security, it has displayed a growing adherence to offensive realism since the ascendance of King Salman in 2015.
A DEFENSIVE REALIST STATE
Throughout its history, Saudi Arabia has generally adhered to defensive realism in pursuit of international security and survival. Since its formation in 1932 through 2015, Riyadh positioned itself as a status-quo power within the Gulf region, pursuing policies that emphasized caution, reflexivity and balancing. At the same time, the kingdom explicitly rejected the idea that it should seek to be hegemonic in either the Gulf or the wider Middle East.23 Irrespective of monarch, Riyadh sought cautious containment and proxy engagement of rivals. Moreover, it developed flexible, multilateral alliance structures with both local and global actors against emerging revisionist states seeking to undermine or dominate the region’s balance of power. Such behavior was continuously observable throughout the modern state’s history. Examples include its early alliances with other Arab powers against colonial threats, its rivalry with Egypt under Nasser, its participation in balancing coalitions against Israel, its management of post-revolutionary Iran with Gulf partners, its approach to Soviet encroachment in the Middle East, and its response to expansionist Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War. In these and other instances, Saudi security goals were typically achieved through consensus-based balancing coalitions designed to stymie revisionism and ensure multipolarity in the region, which had lacked a hegemon since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.24
The first significant example of defensive-realist balancing in Saudi security seeking was observed in its “Kings’ Alliance” policy responding to Egyptian expansionism in the late 1950s. Prior to this, Riyadh had viewed independent Egypt as a partner opposing revisionists in the decolonizing Middle East. Common threats were found during this period in a newly emergent Israel, as well as in the vestigial activities of the colonial powers. This alignment was manifested most prominently in the 1956 Suez crisis, where the Saudis sought to respond to the tripartite revisionist alliance among London, Paris and Tel Aviv by imposing a total oil embargo upon the European belligerents.25, 26Such mutual support against common threats appeared to show the two Red Sea states strongly aligned, with the kingdom seeming to be “Egypt’s staunchest ally.”27 However, by 1957, Egypt clearly displayed hegemonic aspirations, exerting growing military and political pressure in the Levant. Riyadh’s response represented a classic example of defensive balancing against revisionism by a coalition of status quo powers — monarchical Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq — as well as the United States in the so-called “Kings’ Alliance.” The products of this included a mutual-defense pact between the Hashemite kingdoms, a limited increase in U.S. support for Riyadh and the deployment of Saudi troops inside Jordan. Collectively, these activities aimed to thwart Cairo’s eastward probing in a manner that was not overtly threatening to Egypt itself, in order to avoid any potential provocation while at the same time maintaining Saudi security.28
Despite the dissolution of the Kings’ Alliance in 1958, Saudi consternation over Egyptian revisionism persisted. Indeed, in the same year, Egypt’s hegemonic pursuits reached their zenith in its merger with Syria into the United Arab Republic (UAR). While rhetorically an egalitarian pan-Arab union based on the concept of qawmiyya, the UAR alarmed the Saudis by centralizing regional power in Cairo.29Shock over the union was such that Riyadh attempted, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Nasser in order to scuttle the project. Isolated from their previous partners Iraq and Jordan, the Saudi leadership was forced to briefly bandwagon with Egypt, reluctantly agreeing to neutrality over the issue of the UAR30 and rejecting a U.S. bid to renew its lease on the Dhahran airfield in 1961.31 This appeasement was hardly a reflection of comfort with Egyptian ambitions, but more an indicator of Saudi political isolation at that particular moment. As a result, positions were not long-lasting; Riyadh would return to balancing against Egypt when growing threats and practical opportunities presented themselves in North Yemen.
Direct encroachment onto the Arabian Peninsula by Cairo began in 1962, when Egypt deployed 70,000 troops in support of a republican coup against the Badr monarchy of North Yemen. As with the UAR, this action employed the rhetoric of Arab liberation and unity, and as before, was perceived by Saudi policy makers as opportunistic Egyptian expansionism.32 While the Saudis had been able to tolerate the relatively distant UAR, the prospect of Arab Republican forces on their border could not be accommodated. This fear became particularly acute after the Egyptians bombed the city of Najran in 1963, demonstrating a willingness to move beyond threats to direct action.33 Despite unprovoked attacks, Riyadh avoided escalation. Instead, Prime Minister Faisal requested assurances from Washington against the revisionist challenge. The Kennedy administration obliged, deploying warships to the Gulf and helping to establish an air-defense network along the Yemeni border that would deter further incursions. 34
Beyond hardening their periphery, the Saudis also participated in a collective response inside North Yemen aimed at rolling back Egyptian expansion. Apprehensions over Cairo’s aspirations were felt not just in Riyadh, but across the region. Containment would ultimately be undertaken by a motley coalition backing the status-quo Yemeni royalists, much in line with the predictions of defensive realism. Here, the Saudis — sometimes purposely, sometimes inadvertently — aligned with Israel, Iran, Jordan, Britain and the United States.35 The kingdom’s contributions to the effort consisted of financial and material aid, as well as diplomatic support for the royalists. Riyadh would also provide logistical support and basing for mercenaries hired by other states to fight for the monarchist cause.
Despite working against Egypt during the North Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia consistently avoided direct military confrontation with Cairo, even when met with aggression. This was driven by material limitations, as well as a broader strategic ethos in line with defensive realism. The Saudi military at the time was unable to project significant capacity outside its own borders. As with many postcolonial Middle Eastern militaries, the Saudi armed forces were mainly an inward-facing instrument designed to suppress dissent; interstate warfare was a secondary concern. As Vassiliev argues, the Saudis “lacked the military might” for a war against the Egyptians. Nevertheless, privation only played a partial role in explaining a reluctance to escalate.36 It would have been likely in any conflict for Riyadh to have found potent allies, including the United States. The Saudi military had also begun acquiring large quantities of advanced arms and jets from America and the United Kingdom in 1965, significantly increasing its war-fighting capacity. Despite this change in material conditions, Saudi policies towards Egypt did not significantly shift. Rather, they maintained their commitment to preserve the regional balance of power.
Saudi Arabia’s response to the Iranian revolution and the subsequent war between Iraq and Iran further illustrated its adherence to defensive-realist principles of cautious conservatism and balancing during the Cold War. Iran’s radical transformation from status-quo to revisionist power in 1979 came as a shock to the Saudis, who had typically aligned with the shah in striving for stability in the region. Apprehension was further amplified when Iraq began blatantly displaying its own expansionist inclinations after initiating war with Tehran in 1980. Although Iran was considered the greater challenge to Saudi interests during the conflict, Baghdad represented its own distinct threat.37 As al-Rasheed writes:
Both [Iran and Iraq had] populations and military capabilities greater than those of Saudi Arabia. In addition, both [saw] themselves as playing important leadership roles in the region. Both had expansionist territorial claims, geographically close to Saudi Arabia. Iraq had long maintained ambitions towards Kuwait, while Iran looked towards Bahrain.38
Saudi Arabia’s primary objective in the eight-year war thus became ending the violence 39 and preserving the balance of power in the Gulf by preventing a decisive victory.40 Riyadh’s approach was once again cautious. While it provided limited diplomatic and logistical support to Baghdad at certain points, it resisted the lobbying efforts of other Arab states, such as Jordan, to align more strongly with the Iraqis, even when the tide turned against the Baathist state in 1982.41 Instead, the Saudis pushed for an equitable diplomatic resolution to the conflict through multilateral institutions, such as the Islamic Conference Organization.42 At the same time, the kingdom attempted to cultivate an inter-Peninsula alliance system against the dual threat, establishing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in May 1981. This bloc encompassed Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Oman in addition to Saudi Arabia. Although representing itself as an economic institution, the GCC was clearly conceived for collective security in response to emerging revisionist threats and represented the most formalized such effort undertaken by the Saudis up until that point. It was a predictable response from those states invested in the regional status quo, adhering closely to defensive-realist assumptions around balancing.43
While the Saudis signed a short-lived nonaggression pact with Iraq in 1989, following the Iran-Iraq war’s conclusion, they were forced to contend with Baghdad’s resurgent expansionist ambitions following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.44 This action escalated the risk to the peninsular states to an unprecedented level. For the first time, the Saudis felt under threat of an imminent invasion. Unlike in previous situations, they shared a border with a regional revisionist that had already demonstrated a willingness for violent conquest.45 Given the rapid escalation of danger and the ineffectiveness of the GCC in countering the threat, it was clear to Riyadh that parochial alliance structures were woefully inadequate to addressing Iraqi expansionism.46
Faced again with an aspiring hegemon, the Saudis sought to re-establish the multipolar regional status quo and, through it, an adequate level of national security. Unable to shoulder the burden alone and finding no viable local partners, the kingdom appealed to its long-term patron, the United States, which had no desire to see Iraq undermine the security of the Persian Gulf and global energy resources. Their goals aligned in the status quo; Washington would go on to mobilize an immense pro-Saudi alliance of over 30 countries. Their subsequent victory would reinstate the Kuwaiti monarchy, devastate Baghdad’s forces, and temporarily restore the regional balance of power. Riyadh’s decision to request international intervention would cause serious domestic fallout, but it once again demonstrated its preference for multilateral balancing, consensus and caution in responding to revisionist and expansionist threats.47 Indeed, despite the harrowing experience of Iraqi revisionism, Saudi defense spending actually trended downwards for several years, thanks to the confidence built on the resounding success of this policy.48
The Saudi response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait showcased what has been the cornerstone of Riyadh’s defensive-realist survival strategy — its alignment with the United States. Since establishing the relationship in 1944, Washington has been Riyadh’s most consistent partner in promoting the status-quo against “threats from radical forces,” including the Egyptians, the Iranians and the Iraqis.49Although not always conspicuous, the Saudis and Washington were aligned in the majority of balancing efforts. Their goals for the region have largely been synonymous: preventing the emergence of a single hegemon, ensuring the flow of energy into the world market, and maintaining regime security and stability. For the Saudis, America has been its great-power patron, providing security guarantees and access to high-end military technology and training. Washington, meanwhile, has viewed the kingdom as a regional deputy and a conservative bulwark against revisionist trends, as well as a (usually) reliable partner in maintaining global energy security.
Another key area of Saudi foreign policy where defensive-realist behavior has been consistently observable has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. Riyadh reliably avoided participating as a leading protagonist in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel primarily supporting the Arab cause through financial and rhetorical means.50 While the kingdom did send symbolic contingents to these war efforts, such contributions were either miniscule or, in one case, missed the conflict entirely.51 The Saudi aversion to assuming even minor costs in military action against Israel suggests that, while Riyadh felt compelled to contribute to the wider Arab effort for purposes of domestic legitimacy and regional prestige, it did not ultimately perceive Tel Aviv as a significant threat to its security. Here, Walt’s balance-of-threat theory seems to hold more explanatory power than the traditional neorealist balance-of-power logic.52 While Israel possesses significant military power, its threat to the Saudi homeland is quite minimal if left unprovoked. Here, a defensive-realist logic would prescribe avoiding needless confrontation that could instigate a security dilemma and arms race between the two states. Despite rhetoric, the Saudi approach to Israel has been primarily characterised as one of letting sleeping dogs lie.
As the experience of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath demonstrate, the behavior of the Saudi state has consistently showcased attributes of defensive realism: a lack of revisionist aspirations; a tendency to respond to aggressive states by means of consensus and reflexive alliance formation focused on the status quo; acceptance of sufficient security to deter, rather than threaten; diplomatic behavior that avoids overly hostile rhetoric; a preference for proxies and token military commitments over large mobilizations against security challenges; a balance-of-threat logic to identify security risks; and generally conservative foreign-policy behavior. Despite such long-term consistency, however, recent shifts in the kingdom’s regional posture suggest that this view is outdated.
A NEW SAUDI REVISIONISM?
The death of King Abdullah in January 2015 and subsequent elevation to the throne of his half-brother, Salman, marked the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s transition to an offensive-realist foreign policy. While the Abdullah administration’s approach to the Arab Spring and its aftermath evinced a growing assertiveness on both the diplomatic and military fronts, Riyadh was reluctant to act entirely unilaterally, still preferring a concert with regional partners and multilateral institutions, particularly the GCC. Since the ascendance of King Salman, however, Riyadh has increasingly displayed traits congruent with offensive-realist power maximization. As mentioned earlier, such an approach can be expected to produce outcomes including an abnormally high growth in arms acquisitions and military capabilities, the rejection of multilateralism in favor of unilateral actions, zero-sum diplomacy, a mercantile and domineering economic policy, and a propensity to engage in expansionism when possible.53 In sum, this can be expected to produce a more volatile regional political and security climate, with greater potential for conflagration.
The invasion of Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition in 2015 showcased unprecedented expansive and interventionist behavior by the kingdom. This action was designed to reshape the regional security environment by re-establishing a pro-Saudi administration in Sanaa, while neutralizing the indigenous Houthi rebel movement, which was perceived as an Iranian proxy. This action was also motivated by the unprecedented desire to demonstrate the kingdom as a significant military power willing to use force proactively, an image Riyadh had traditionally neither sought, nor could live up to.54
It must be noted that this was not the first major deployment of Saudi forces during this period; an intervention in Bahrain was conducted in 2011 by a battalion-sized contingent of the Saudi National Guard to crush protests related to the Arab Spring. 55 Nevertheless, Yemen was distinguished for a number of reasons. First, the Bahrain action was conducted within the collective-security framework of the GCC inside a member state traditionally considered as a vassal of Saudi Arabia.56 While not entirely an internal matter, such action is not wholly removed from the historical tendencies of the kingdom’s security behavior, which has commonly employed force to supress internal dissent.
The Bahrain intervention was also linked to the issue of Saudi Arabia’s own adjacent domestic Shia minority. With the historical, familial and religious ties between the Eastern Province and Bahrain, policy makers in Riyadh feared that the latter’s unrest could easily spread into the heartland of the Saudi oil industry.57 Riyadh thus perceived the instability in Bahrain through a domestic-security lens and cracked down accordingly, consistent with historical trends. By contrast, the Yemen intervention has been executed in a state that, while within the Saudi sphere of influence, remains historically distinct and without the issues of ambiguous sovereignty seen in Bahrain. The justification for intervention rested on a request by exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi; it did not invoke the framework of GCC collective security, as Yemen remains outside the organization.58,59 Riyadh’s decision to enter Yemen militarily displayed a willingness to become engaged beyond its own borders as the leader in a protracted foreign conflict with expansionist goals, a situation the Saudis had historically avoided at almost any cost.
The sheer intensity and extent of the Yemeni military operation has also diverged from previous Saudi foreign-policy patterns. Riyadh’s efforts in Yemen go far beyond its earlier warfighting, including contributions to the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the 1990-91 coalition against Iraq. 60As previously discussed, when faced with conflict, the Saudis have historically sought to buckpass and avoid significant material and human costs. Yemen, by contrast, has been estimated to cost the Saudis $5-6 billion per month,61 with a military death toll of over 1,000 at the time of writing.62 The destruction has also taken an unprecedented toll on the Yemeni population, unleashing death, famine, disease and the destruction of infrastructure on a scale and intensity previously unseen, and has been described by the United Nations as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”63 Despite a significant international outcry against its actions, Saudi Arabia has continued to press for a decisive victory, disregarding the human suffering, rising burdens borne by its own military, and the regional destabilization it has affected. These costs are far greater than any the kingdom has been willing to incur and inflict in previous foreign conflicts. They demonstrate a far greater political resolve towards aggressive and expansive behavior, designed not simply to achieve an adequate level of security, but to consolidate as much power as possible by seeking to forcibly determine the nature and character of the future Yemeni state.
Evidence of this Saudi foreign-policy shift is also found in the increasingly unilateral and zero-sum diplomatic posture the kingdom has adopted since 2015, along with the corresponding mercantilism it has employed in this arena. This has been particularly conspicuous in a number of high-profile incidents initiated by the kingdom since 2015. The most prominent regards Qatar, where, together with the UAE, Riyadh engineered an unprecedented and likely irrevocable64 split within the GCC, declaring a diplomatic and economic blockade of the small emirate in 2017.65 A full military invasion may have also been averted through the frantic diplomatic efforts of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh al-Sabah and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.66 Saudi actions here were designed to coerce Qatar into abandoning its foreign-policy independence, in particular its diplomatic and economic relationship to Iran and support for Muslim Brotherhood chapters throughout the region. Riyadh expected Doha to genuflect to a Gulf political order centred on Saudi hegemony. The Qatar crisis shows the hallmarks of an offensive-realist approach to foreign policy aimed at power maximization. These include a zero-sum diplomatic posture, a rejection of traditional norms of conflict resolution, aggressive and threatening rhetoric, mercantilism, and even a potential willingness to employ military force against a nonhostile target. While the crisis has clearly failed to achieve Riyadh’s intended goal of forcing Doha to submit to its will, the Saudi leadership continues to articulate an aggressive and expansionist vision for the future of its tiny neighbor, up to and including bizarre reported threats to physically remove Qatar wholesale from the Arabian Peninsula.67 Such actions simply do not correspond to the historically cautious security-seeking approach to foreign policy of the pre-2015 Saudi state.
The 2017 Saudi-Lebanon dispute over the prime ministership of Saad Hariri showcased another break with historical caution of Riyadh’s foreign policy in favor of a more aggressive, zero-sum and revisionist stance which aimed to forcibly alter the political character of a foreign power. On November 4, Hariri was detained and forced to announce his resignation while in the kingdom on a routine diplomatic visit.68 This action was the result of ongoing Saudi displeasure at Hariri’s inability to curb the growing influence of Iran in Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah. By neutralizing Hariri, Riyadh hoped to install a replacement supportive of Saudi interests and hawkish on Iran. Hariri’s compelled proclamation was followed on November 6 by a Saudi claim that Beirut had declared war on the kingdom, despite the absence of an official statement or the material capacity to engage in such an action.69 While clearly designed to provide a casus belli for the Saudi attempt to forcibly shape the heights of domestic Lebanese politics, the clumsiness and contrivance of the claim left international audiences cold.
Although the kingdom has long played a significant role in Lebanon, seeing it as one of the front lines in the struggle against Iran, its influence historically manifested in far more subtle and cautious ways than what was witnessed in the Hariri incident.
While the foreign policy of post-2015 Saudi Arabia is following a logic increasingly in line with offensive-realist tendencies, the actual success of this shift in achieving greater security for Riyadh, particularly with regard to Iran, remains dubious. Most major pivots away from a defensive-realist logic have proved counterproductive to Saudi national interest. Three years after intervening in Yemen, Riyadh’s coalition has only provided Iran with an expanding, low-cost opportunity to align with the Houthi rebels and bloody Riyadh’s nose through the provision of arms and training. What was intended to be a decisive and limited military operation has spiraled into a quagmire that has left the southern Saudi border significantly less secure, damaged Riyadh’s international credibility and prestige, further destabilized Yemen in a manner that has empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and, most ominously, provided Iran growing inroads onto the peninsula.70
Other policies fomented under Saudi Arabia’s emerging offensive realism have also produced counterproductive outcomes. Intended to force a disobedient state into submission and further challenge Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Persian Gulf, the 2017 Qatari crisis has instead reinforced Doha’s diplomatic and economic ties to Tehran. The standoff has also led to growing security bonds between Doha and another Saudi regional competitor, Turkey.71As a further consequence, the coordinated assault against Doha’s sovereignty has also stoked the emergence of a powerful Qatari nationalism that has only increased domestic cohesion behind the Al Thani monarchy.72 The economic blockade itself has had only limited impact on the Qatari economy and has been surmounted through numerous means, including assistance from smaller states in the region like Oman.73 In pursuing its confrontation with Qatar, Saudi Arabia has also significantly damaged its main framework for collective security in the GCC. Bruce Riedel has declared the institution as “today broken as never before” and “lost to petty intrigue.”74
Likewise, the attempt to coerce Saad Hariri out of office and replace him with a satrap willing to enforce an openly pro-Saudi agenda has only served to boost the domestic legitimacy of the prime minister.75 While the Saudi leaders assumed Lebanese Sunnis would blame Iran and Hezbollah for the move, it had the opposite effect, stoking a cross-sectarian, anti-Saudi nationalism.76 The impotence of Riyadh’s attempt to aggressively revise Lebanese governance was demonstrated on November 21, when, following his negotiated release by French President Emmanuel Macron,77Hariri announced from Beirut that he was suspending his resignation. At the same time, Hezbollah has only gained domestic popularity within Lebanon since the incident.78 The militant Shia organization remains heavily entrenched in the country’s politics, while only growing in its capacity as a significant regional military actor over recent years in spite of aggressive Saudi efforts to the contrary, ensuring continual Iranian influence in Lebanese politics.79
As shown in Yemen and Qatar, major decisions in the kingdom’s post-2015 foreign policy have provided rivals with key opportunities to balance against it, weakening Riyadh’s efforts to achieve a more dominant position in the regional balance of power. The increasing instability and violence in Yemen have given Iran a fortuitous opportunity to foil Saudi interests through relatively small investments in the Houthi movement. At the same time, Qatar has provided both Turkey and Iran an important path onto the western shores of the Gulf, expanding their diplomatic, economic and military influence on a crucial Saudi flank.
Riyadh’s emergent prioritizing of power maximization over security equilibrium has also weakened its global diplomatic credibility and prestige, particularly in the West. Perhaps most importantly, these actions collectively have diminished the long-held image of Saudi Arabia as a source of stability in the Gulf, a factor that has been central to the close ties between the kingdom and the United States. This danger of this revisionist trend has been described by the influential U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham as “a wrecking ball to U.S.-Saudi relations.”80While such issues can be repaired over time, the negative effects of the Saudi foreign policy pivot on its partners in the West are far from insignificant and may permanently weaken these relations if not righted.
Since 2015, Saudi foreign policy has shifted away from its defensive-realist roots of security, seeking a posture increasingly consistent with offensive realism. Although this paper has only focused on three instances of this trend, other examples may be found in Riyadh’s 2018 diplomatic feud with Canada, its growing bellicosity with Iran, and its assassination of Washington Post journalist and political reformist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Individually, these incidents could be dismissed as aberrations. Taken collectively, however, they suggest an effort towards power maximization in their attempt to aggressively impose Riyadh’s security and diplomatic will on other states towards a position of greater dominance within its near-to-mid periphery. Rather than striving for a security equilibrium though diplomacy and deterrence, the Saudis now appear to be increasingly attempting to dominate the Gulf and potentially even the wider Middle East.
It is important to note that, while recent Saudi foreign policy has erred towards offensive realism, it still displays some fidelity to the defensive-realist tenets that characterised it for decades. Despite a growing disposition towards unilateralism over consensus building, the kingdom has attempted to foment some collective responses to perceived external-security threats. These have included a general, informal alignment with Israel against Iran,81 as well as close security ties with the UAE and the United States on Yemen and Iran. These relationships, however, are primarily bilateral; when multilateralism is invoked, as in the case of Yemen and Qatar, other states often assume a token role. legitimizing the wider effort. Thus, while defensive realism continues to influence Saudi foreign policy, it manifests itself in a significantly weakened form and is increasingly contested and overshadowed by a new and growing offensive realism, with all the destabilizing implications this carries for the Gulf and the wider region.
1 See Joyce Bukuru, “How Saudi Arabia Kept Its UN Human Rights Council Seat,” 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/01/how-saudi-arabia-kept-its-un-human-…; and Ben Rich, Securitising Identity: The Case of the Saudi State (Melbourne University Press, 2017).
2 Examples include Neil Partrick, Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, 2016), 3-51; and Rachel Bronson, “Understanding U.S.-Saudi Relations,” in Saudi Arabia in the Balance, eds. Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman (C. Hurst and Co., 2005).
3 Robert A. Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science 2, no. 3 (1957): 202-03.
4 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (WW Norton & Company, 2001).
5 Stephen M. Walt, “Realism and Security,” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
6 In the composition of this article, it became evident that numerous scholars appear to employ defensive realism and neorealism relatively interchangeably, while others see them as two distinct strands of realism.
7 Alan Collins, “State-Induced Security Dilemma: Maintaining the Tragedy,” Cooperation and Conflict 39, no. 1 (2004): 28-36.
8 Shiping Tang, “The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis,” Security Studies 18, no. 3 (2009): 594.
9 John J. Mearsheimer, “Reckless States and Realism,” International Relations 23, no. 2 (2009): 242.
10 Sean M. Lynn-Jones, “Offense-Defense Theory and its Critics,” Security Studies 4, no. 4 (1995).
11 Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Cornell University Press, 1987).
12Fareed Zakaria, “Realism and Domestic Politics: A Review Essay,” International Security 17, no. 1 (1992): 192.
13 Lobell,, 165.
14 John J. Mearsheimer, Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale University Press, 2018): 40.
15 Mearsheimer, 2001.
16 Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 3.
17 Tang, “The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis,” 588.
18 Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 34.
19 Mearsheimer, “Reckless States and Realism,” 252.
20 Eric J. Labs, “Beyond Victory: Offensive Realism and the Expansion of War Aims,” Security Studies 6, no. 4 (1997): 11.
21 Steven E. Lobell, “War Is Politics: Offensive Realism, Domestic Politics, and Security Strategies,” Security Studies 12, no. 2 (2002): 166.
22 Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, “Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited,” International Security 25, no. 3 (2000).
23 William B. Quandt, Saudi Arabia in the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil (The Brookings Institution, 1981): 14.
24 Walt, The Origins of Alliances, 287-88.
25 An embargo on Israel had been in place since the state’s establishment in 1948.
26 Robert Lacey, The Kingdom (Avon Books, 1981), 315.
27 Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton University Press, 2016), 190.
28 Stephen M. Walt, “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” International Security 9, no. 4 (1985): 68-70.
29 James P Jankowski, Nasser’s Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 27-40.
30 Walt, The Origins of Alliances, 72-73.
31 F. Gregory Gause, “The Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia,” in The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, eds. Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushhiravan Ehteshami (Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2002), 206.
32 Saeed M. Badeeb, The Saudi-Egyptian Conflict over North Yemen (Westview Press, 1986).
33Jonathan Walker, Aden Insurgency: The Savage War in Yemen 1962-67 (Pen and Sword, 2014), 62.
34 Alexei Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia (Saqi Books, 2000), 372.
35 Asher Aviad Orkaby, The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-1968 (Harvard University, 2014), 6.
36 Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia, 374.
37 Shahram Akbarzadeh and Kylie Baxter, Middle East Politics and International Relations: Crisis Zone (Routledge, 2018), 205.
38 Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 157.
39 Particularly after its escalation to the tanker war phase in 1984, which began to directly impact Saudi export shipping.
40 John B Parrott, “The Response of Saudi Arabia to the Iran-Iraq War,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 10, no. 2 (1986): 55.
41 Quandt, Saudi Arabia in the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil, 21.
42Ray Takeyh, “The Iran-Iraq War: A Reassessment,” Middle East Journal 64, no. 3 (2010): 370.
43 Michael Sterner, “The Gulf Cooperation Council and Persian Gulf Security,” in Gulf Security and the Iran-Iraq War, ed. Thomas Naff (The National Defense University Press & The Middle East Research Institute, 1985), 13-23.
44 Gause, “The Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia,” 57.
45 Madawi Al-Rasheed, “God, the King and the Nation: Political Rhetoric in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s,” Middle East Journal (1996): 361.
46 Abdulaziz Bashir and Stephen Wright, “Saudi Arabia: Foreign Policy after the Gulf War,” Middle East Policy 1, no. 1 (1992): 109.
47 al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, 163-87.
48The World Bank, “Military Expenditure (% of Gdp) Saudi Arabia” (2018), https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS?locations=SA.
49 Walt, The Origins of Alliances, 223.
50 Bashir and Wright, “Saudi Arabia: Foreign Policy after the Gulf War,” 111.
51 Bruce Riedel, Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).
52 Walt, The Origins of Alliances, 21-26.
53 Taliaferro, “Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited,” 123.
54 May Darwich, “The Saudi Intervention in Yemen: Struggling for Status,” Insight Turkey 20, no. 2 (2018).
55 Mohammed Nuruzzaman, “Politics, Economics and Saudi Military Intervention in Bahrain,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 43, no. 2 (2013).
56 John Dyckman, Alan Kreditor, and Tridib Banerjee, “Planning in an Unprepared Environment: The Example of Bahrain,” Town Planning Review 55, no. 2 (1984): 255.
57 Frederic M Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (Columbia University Press, 2013), 12.
58 Although the subsequent intervention would be conducted by GCC forces.
59 Joe Dyke, “Is the Saudi War on Yemen Legal?,” IRIN (2015), http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2015/04/03/saudi-war-yemen-legal.
60 Kenneth Michael Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (U. of Nebraska Press, 2002).
61 Bruce Riedel, “In Yemen, Iran Outsmarts Saudi Arabia Again,” 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/12/06/in-yemen-iran-outsmart….
62 Hannah Hoexter, “More Than 1,000 Saudi Troops Killed in Yemen since War Began,” Al Jazeera, May 28, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/05/1-000-saudi-troops-killed-yemen-….
63 The United Nations, “A Military Assault on Hodeidah Will Almost Certainly Have Catastrophic Humanitarian Impact,” (2018).
64Bruce Riedel, “Is the GCC Dead?,” al-Monitor, June 18, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/06/gcc-dead-saudi-arabi….
65 Mohammed Ahmad Naheem, “The Dramatic Rift and Crisis between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of June 2017,” International Journal of Disclosure and Governance 14, no. 4 (2017).
66 Kristian C Ulrichsen, “Lessons and Legacies of the Blockade of Qatar,” Insight Turkey 20, no. 2 (2018): 15.
67 Hassan Hassan, “Qatar Won the Saudi Blockade,” Foreign Policy (2018), https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/04/qatar-won-the-saudi-blockade/.
68 The official reasoning given was a claimed assassination plot against Hariri by Iranian-backed elements.
69 Tom Perry and Lisa Barrinton, “Saudi Arabia Says Lebanon Declares War, Deepening Crisis,” Reuters, November 6, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-politics/saudi-arabia-says-l….
70 Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, “Al-Qaeda’s Future in a War-Torn Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , September 25, 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/77334.
71 Stratfor, “The Blockade on Qatar Opens the Door for Competition,” Stratfor, 2018, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/blockade-qatar-opens-door-compet….
72Mabon, “It’s a Family Affair: Religion, Geopolitics and the Rise of Mohammed Bin Salman,” 63.
73 Nisha Mathew and Monishankar Prasad, “The Role of Oman’s Diasporic Business Networks in Circumventing the Qatar Blockade,” in Cities and Networks Insights Series (Singapore: National University of Singapore, Middle East Institute Singapore, 2018).
74 Riedel, “Is the GCC Dead?”.
75 Nazih Osseiran, “Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rides Wave of Nationalist Support,” Wall Street Journal, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/lebanons-prime-minister-rides-wave-of-nati….
76 Aurélie Daher, “Lebanon: Regional Patronage with a National Straitjacket,” Politique étrangère (Spring, 2018).
77 John Irish, “Without France, Lebanon Would Probably Be at War, Macron Says,” Reuters, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-lebanon-saudi/without-france-….
78 Mabon, “It’s a Family Affair: Religion, Geopolitics and the Rise of Mohammed Bin Salman,” 60.
79 Martin Chulov, “Hezbollah Makes Strong Showing in Lebanon Elections,” The Guardian, May 7, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/07/hezbollah-makes-strong-sh….
80 Lindsey Graham, “Congress Gets Tough on the Saudis,” Wall Street Journal, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-gets-tough-on-the-saudis-15438801….
81 Jonathan Marcus, “Israel and Saudi Arabia: The Relationship Emerging into the Open,” BBC, April 3, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43632905.
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