Evolving Challenges to Saudi Arabia’s Status Quo in the Middle East

Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) at a meeting
Credit: Jim Mattis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabia is considered an established regional power in the Middle East. It has a preeminent position in the Arab League alongside Egypt, and the chief power in the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It is considered the homeland of Islam as it hosts Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The country also considered the cradle of Arab culture, language, and civilization. Saudi Arabia is also among the world’s top military spenders and a regional military power. In 2020, it spent $57.5 billion on defence, making it the sixth highest spender globally. Saudi Arabia is also a considered an energy superpower, with 298 billion barrels of oil reserves comprising 17.2% share of the global total. Saudi Arabia also was the top oil exporter in 2020, exporting $113.7 worth of crude oil, which made up 17.2% of all oil exports that year. Given these advantages, Saudi Arabia is considered a status quo power which seeks to preserve the regional order in the Middle East. 

Saudi Arabia: A Myopic Focus on Iran

However, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is largely influenced by its domestic policy towards its restive Shia minority. An estimated 15% of Saudi’s Arabia’s population is Shia, concentrated in the country’s oil-rich but economically-poor Eastern Provinces. Since the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the Sunni Saudi monarchy has made moves to marginalize and pacify the Shia minority in an attempt to homogenize the country. These moves range from economic isolation, destruction of Shia places of worship, restrictions on Shia religious practices, and discrimination on education and career opportunities against its Shia minority. 

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was instrumental in bringing the grievances of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority to the fore. Partly inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s firebrand speeches demanding the ouster of the Saudi monarchy, Saudi Shias staged a 7-day uprising in 1979, citing various grievances such as the failure to modernize the Eastern Provinces and the contrast between the opulence of the Saudi monarchy and poverty of the Shia minority. These fears were again reflected in the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr in 2016, who was accused of inciting sectarian conflict, secession, and being an Iranian agent.  The Saudi monarchy fears that Saudi Shia minority will eventually secede, take much of the country’s oil wealth with them, and side with Shia Iran. By extension, Saudi Arabia sees the Middle East through the lens of its long-term conflict with Iran, with an anti-Iran agenda being a key feature of Saudi Arabia’s regional foreign policy. 

However, this focus on countering Iran in the Middle East leaves out two other emerging regional powers: Turkey and Qatar. Each of these players have their own interests which Saudi Arabia cannot readily frame through the lens of countering Iran. 

Turkey: A Revivalist Power

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were firmly within the US-dominated security architecture in the Middle East. Turkey’s interest was to have the US and NATO has a shield against Soviet invasion, while the latter two viewed Turkey as a springboard into the Middle East. Also, Saudi Arabia took Iran’s place as the US’ top ally in the Persian Gulf after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated Turkey’s main reason to subordinate itself to the US and NATO and gave it incentives to unilaterally pursue its regional interests in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Middle East. 

Also, Turkish President Recyip Erdogan has made Neo-Ottomanism a key ideology of his foreign policy. This refers to the revitalisation of Turkish influence in the Middle East, with the aim of making Turkey the dominant regional power. It is characterised by a revival of a Greater Turkey built on the civilisational model of the historical Ottoman Empire, and backed by Turkish economic, political, and military might. 

In line with its geopolitical and regional ambitions, Turkey has supported the Arab Spring protests calling for the overthrow of the Gulf monarchies, much to the displeasure of Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also in a proxy conflict in the Middle East, with both supporting opposing sides in Sudan, Libya, and Syria. In turn, Saudi Arabia has tried to isolate Turkey geopolitically by pouring economic and cultural investments and signing a defence cooperation agreement with Greece, a traditional adversary of Turkey. In addition, Saudi Arabia has recently established diplomatic relations with Cyprus, another adversary of Turkey. Cyprus already views Saudi support as “indispensable” in countering Turkey’s activities in their disputed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Qatar: Punching Above its Weight

Qatar must contend with the challenge of its own smallness, as its small territory and, miniscule population gives it little strategic depth. The country is located between feuding regional giants Saudi Arabia and Iran. It also has native-minority and migrant-majority population. But what Qatar makes up for its smallness, it makes up for having the world’s highest gross domestic product per capita (GDP per capita) due to its huge natural gas reserves, and punching far above its weight in terms of regional ambitions. 

Qatar wants to modernize its religious image and forge a national identity apart from Saudi-based Salafi roots, effectively having an independent foreign policy. To that end, Qatar established relations with organisations and states that are critical of Salafism and Saudi Arabia, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Turkey, and Iran. Such actions have earned the collective ire of the GCC, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. The GCC states moved to punish Qatar by imposing a three-year blockade, which arguably failed to weaken Qatar, but instead made it more independent of the GCC. 

Further, while Qatar cannot stand up for long against much larger Saudi Arabia, it can effectively resist the much smaller UAE, which has Saudi backing. With the UAE having the backing of Saudi Arabia, and Iranian support not guaranteed, Qatar may have found a willing security partner in Turkey. Also, Turkey may have seen the value of Qatar’s financial support for its domestic needs and regional ambitions.

Analysis

Saudi Arabia is now facing multiple challenges to the Middle East status quo which has largely been in its favour. While Iran has been the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia’s regional dominance, Saudi Arabia cannot ignore the growing challenge that Turkey and Qatar pose to its position. 

Saudi Arabia can no longer employ longstanding anti-Iranian and historical Arab-Persian rivalry narratives in ensuring the regional status quo, as Turkey is gradually becoming a credible challenger to Saudi Arabia’s established dominance. As such, Saudi Arabia may resort to stoking historical enmities that Turkey has, such as establishing relations with Greece and Cyprus, and possibly establishing official diplomatic relations with Armenia. Armenia is in a similar position with Greece and Cyprus, as it has historical enmity and territorial disputes with Turkey and may find Saudi financing useful to bolster its own security in its shared border with Turkey and in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Also, the emerging regional multipolarity between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran may preclude the development of regionalism in the Middle East. The Middle East is notable for being a region that does not have any representative regional bloc, unlike the EU or ASEAN. Further, one of the main causes of the failures of regional organizations is that regional powers try to dominate regional organizations for their benefit.  The growing rift between the Saudi-dominated GCC and independent-minded Qatar is a clear sign of this trend. 

As a result of the lack of a stable representative regional institution, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are less inclined to depend on each other to address regional issues and have more incentive to draw in extra-regional players such as the US, China, and India to pursue parallel interests with mutual benefits. However, these extra-regional players have their own conflicting interests, which can enmesh regional states in their rivalries, adding more layers of instability and anarchy in the Middle East.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Gabriel Honrada is a PhD student studying International Relations at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. He focuses on security and military affairs.

Daniyal Ranjbar is a PhD candidate of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in the specialty of International Relations, focusing on sanctions policy.