Saudi Arabia's changing foreign policy

David Ignatius brings an important point to his important audience:

Over this year of Arab Spring revolt, Saudi Arabia has increasingly replaced the United States as the key status-quo power in the Middle East — a role that seems likely to expand even more in coming years as the Saudis boost their military and economic spending.

Saudis describe the kingdom’s growing role as a reaction, in part, to the diminished clout of the United States. They still regard the U.S.- Saudi relationship as valuable, but it’s no longer seen as a guarantor of their security. For that, the Saudis have decided they must rely more on themselves — and, down the road, on a wider set of friends that includes their military partner, Pakistan, and their largest oil customer, China.

I wrote about this trend a few months ago, when the received wisdom still tended to be (outside of specialist circles) that Saudi Arabia was just sulking petulantly about the Arab Spring:

They may be spearheading the counter-revolution, but the Saudis are not just a status-quo force anymore. Like other states, they are restructuring to the new reality — preventing change in Bahrain, but backing it in Libya and, perhaps soon, in Syria. Having moved on from their anger at the Obama administration's abandonment of Ben Ali and Mubarak, they realise that for things to remain the same (for them), everything must change.

Two weeks ago, at a meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Geneva that I attended, Prince Turki outlined his proposal to deal with the region's most urgent issues through two broad arcs: reviving the Arab Peace Initiative (ie a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace rather than a separate Israeli-Palestinian one) and the decades-old idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (ie tackling the Israeli and Iranian nuclear issues together, rather than ignoring the former and focusing on the latter.) The proposal was interesting not so much on its details as what it implied: a much more multilaterally-driven agenda for Middle East diplomacy. No more waiting for Washington to act first.

I would add that the now official rise of Prince Nayef accelerates this trend of a more pro-active Saudi Arabia, as the Arab League's decision on Syria suggests. This also means Saudi Arabia may be moving away from its role in lowering oil prices over the last year, particularly after its dramatic increase in spending. From the FT:

Khalid al-Falih, chief executive of state-owned Saudi Aramco, said on Monday that pressure on Riyadh to raise its output capacity had “substantially reduced”, the clearest indication yet that the world’s top oil producer is not pushing ahead with an assumed expansion plan to 15m b/d by the end of 2020. Including the oil fields in the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Riyadh can produce up to 12.5m b/d.

The comments put a cap at least temporarily on a $100bn expansion program that started in the early 2000s when Saudi was able to produce about 8.5m b/d. The halt comes in spite of tightness in the oil market due to ongoing production disruptions in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.