It is folly in international relations to understand the relative strategic positions of states merely in terms of a balance sheet of gains and losses, for strategic postures are much more complicated than such amalgamations. This is no different when comparing the strategic positioning of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet, gains and losses cannot be ignored as metrics for evaluating the success and failure of the two countries’ foreign policies or for a serious understanding of where they intend to lead. In fact, what Riyadh and Tehran gain or lose in their competition is an important measure analysts and policymakers use to evaluate how the Saudi and Iranian leaderships may or may not be able to decide developments in the region for the foreseeable future.
As things stand today, Saudi Arabia is on the defensive in Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq, may have already lost in Syria, and is hard pressed to hold the line on its leadership of the Arab and Islamic worlds. By contrast, Iran seems to have succeeded in shoring up a friendly regime in Damascus, securing a dominant position in Iraq and Lebanon, and helping the Yemeni Houthis in their challenge to both legitimate authority in Sanaa and Saudi Arabian security on the Saudi-Yemeni border. Yet, these conditions are fluid and developing; neither has the kingdom thrown in the towel nor is the Islamic Republic sure of its ability to maintain its success. Importantly, Saudi Arabia has a good number of options––from an open relationship with the United States to military and financial capabilities to pursue its goals––while Iran suffers from limited access as a Shia power in the Middle East and constrained economic indicators to act as a regional hegemon.
But what has been critical over the last few years for Saudi Arabian and Iranian policies and effectiveness has been the quality of decision-making in Riyadh and Tehran. While the former has been over-cautious, reactive, and haphazard in its responses to regional developments, the latter has exploited every opportunity to advance its agenda, making sure to follow a set plan, use proxies, and avoid rash decisions whose costs could outweigh their benefits. Further, Saudi policymakers have been slow to adapt to changing conditions on the ground, often resorting to blaming their competitors from across the Gulf for supposedly overstepping permissible boundaries and encroaching on Arab lands.
Two glaring locales of problematic Saudi decision-making and calculated Iranian management are Yemen and Lebanon. Despite obvious differences, the two countries have important similarities such as their weak state institutions vis-à-vis non-state actors, the challenge posed by Iranian-supported militias committed to helping Iranian overreach, and these armed groups’ expanding agenda of opposing Saudi national interests in heretofore safe areas of influence.
Two Yemen Miscalculations
The Yemen crisis has unfolded as a military quagmire for Saudi Arabia and as a humanitarian nightmare for the coalition it leads in the country. While the kingdom began its direct military operations against the Houthi-Saleh alliance in March 2015, when it launched its Operation Decisive Storm, its involvement in its southern neighbor’s affairs is much older, especially since and during Yemen’s version of the Arab Spring protests of 2011. Saudi Arabia led the Gulf Cooperation Council’s effort to effect a political transition from the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime by helping to devise, propose, and implement a Gulf Initiative that stipulated a transfer of power to Saleh’s deputy, Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, and the start of a national dialogue process.
Two specific miscalculations have lain the foundation of the quagmire Yemen has become for the kingdom, each producing its own negative complications. The first was made in 2011 when Saleh was given immunity from prosecution for previous transgressions and allowed to return to Yemen where he resumed leading a large tribal and political constituency. His party, the General People’s Congress, also unpurged of corrupt officials, was permitted to re-organize, contest elections, and participate in the national dialogue on the future of the country. That the hopes and aspirations of the millions who demonstrated in the streets of Sanaa in 2011––especially the youth bloc that saw its prospects vanishing under a Saleh regime––were dashed and that the dialogue was led by the old status quo forces indicated that the kingdom and its allies were not interested in changing Yemen’s dire realities.
Neither Hadi’s stewardship of the post-initiative period nor the national dialogue succeeded in addressing those realities, inluding poverty and underdevelopment, political decay, the Houthi challenge to legitimate authority, southern secessionism, and others. The initiative merely masked a personnel change in Yemen’s leadership as if the source of the country’s Arab Spring protests was only the person of the president and not the institutions of the state he established and led. In the end, even after rebelling against Hadi’s legitimate government and allying himself with the Houthis, Saleh was still courted by the Saudi leadership in 2017, a courtship that led to his assassination on December 4 as he was fleeing Sanaa.
The second miscalculation was the unstudied, unplanned, and ill-advised military intervention in March 2015 against the Houthi-Saleh alliance which had succeeded in 2014 in defeating Yemen’s national army and drove down to the outskirts of the southern city of Aden. As things stand today, some 9,000 Yemenis have died in military operations since the Saudi intervention and about 20 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Indeed, there are international calls for investigating Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war. American lawmakers are also questioning the Trump Administration’s support to the Saudi war effort in Yemen. There probably is hardly any dispute that had Saleh not escaped accountability in 2011 and been either prosecuted or prevented from returning to Yemen, the Saudi intervention may not have been necessary. His alliance with the Houthis––and his extensive relations with Yemen’s tribes, political forces, state functionaries, and the army––provided them with the capabilities to take over the country.
Additionally, the Saudi and Emirati decision to sever relations with Yemen’s Islah Party, long considered an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, deprived the Saudi-led coalition of the valuable assistance the party would have been able to provide against the Houthi-Saleh entente. With Saleh dead and the Houthis in sole control of Sanaa, there might be hope in the latest rehabilitation of Saudi-Emirati relations with the party that could provide a legitimate political force for the unstable Hadi regime. Finally, the UAE’s divergent agenda in Yemen––where it is helping the southern secessionist movement––undercuts Saudi Arabia’s declared goal of restoring legitimacy to a unified country under the leadership of Mansour Hadi.
On the other hand, Iran supported the calls for change from a Saleh regime in 2011, not merely in order to see the Yemeni president relinquish his control but to both curry favor among the country’s young revolutionaries and help the Houthis. At the time, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was erroneously claiming that the Arab Spring protests were inspired by the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Iran also used the period of Yemeni dialogue to provide advice and military training to the Houthis’ militia, Ansarullah, through Lebanese Hezbollah. The Islamic Republic is also accused of providing lethal military assistance to the militia that included developing missiles that lately targeted the Saudi capital Riyadh, a development that strikes at the heart of the basic rationale for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen: that of securing the kingdom from the Houthi threat in the south. It warrants noting that none of Iran’s moves has been particularly genius or costly; in fact, they were made possible by ineptitude and mistakes committed by Saudi decision-makers. As Bruce Riedel, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project succinctly writes, “The bankruptcy of Saudi planning is breathtaking.”
Two Mistakes in Lebanon
While dealing with Lebanon’s political scene is awkward, confusing, and downright annoying, understanding the balance between state authorities and legitimacy and the influence of myriad sectarian groupings is an essential task for foreign officials involved in Lebanese affairs. As Lebanon’s politics became more complicated with the eruption and continuation of the Syrian civil war and Iran’s full-throated commitment to the survival of President Bashar al-Assad, Saudi officials charting the kingdom’s policy there felt justified to announce and implement a couple of questionable calls that may mar Saudi policy for years to come. That both calls were made as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) gained more influence and control over Saudi foreign policy only increases his responsibility for their negative consequences on Lebanon and the kingdom alike.
The first mistake was the Saudi decision in 2016 to suspend $3 billion in military aid to the Lebanese army and the balance of a $1 billion grant to the country’s security forces. The military aid had been pledged to Lebanon by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2013. Its suspension––reportedly in response to Lebanon’s abstaining from condemning attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January 2016––came at a crucial time for the Lebanese army’s military operations on the Lebanon-Syria border to prevent infiltrations by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
No Lebanese explanation was sufficient enough to change Saudi minds but at least three factors were blamed for the announcement. In addition to the declared reason related to condemning Iran, some cited Saudi belt tightening after launching the ‘Vision 2030’ economic restructuring plan and entering the Yemen war, while others referred to the inadvisability of supporting an army whose state had become too captured by Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy militia. Whatever the explanation, however, the move further weakened Saudi Arabia’s friends in Lebanon vis-à-vis the Party of God and deprived the Lebanese army of the necessary weapons to be an essential partner in the American- and Saudi-led war on terror.
The second misstep came as Mohammed bin Salman became the seemingly full-fledged author and implementer of Saudi policy following his ascension to the position of crown prince. In a move characteristic of hegemonic powers’ dealings with vassal states, MbS summoned Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (who also carries Saudi citizenship) to Riyadh and proceeded to strip him of any vestiges of authority, place him under house arrest, deprive him of communicating with the outside world, and force him to read a previously prepared resignation announcement on Saudi television. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Hariri’s Future Movement party, Hezbollah, and the general Lebanese public rejected the resignation and demanded his prompt release. In his resignation speech, Hariri had accused Iran and Hezbollah “of sowing strife in the Arab world” and cited an assassination plot against his person as major reasons for his departure.
Later blithely dubbed “a positive shock” to the Lebanese political system by Hariri himself, the move mobilized the Lebanese street against the Saudi crown prince, and international friends such as France exerted needed pressure that resulted in Hariri’s return to Lebanon and annulling his resignation. Whatever goodwill felt by the Lebanese for bin Salman prior to this maneuver quickly dissipated, and with it much of Saudi Arabia’s clout, despite the kingdom’s importance to Lebanon’s economy. In the final analysis, Hariri and Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, were clear winners of an ill-advised call made without much deliberation, planning, or measure of potential consequences.
The Hope for Better Decision-Making
If gains and losses are metrics for the efficacy and effectiveness of a foreign policy, then the Saudi Arabian record in Yemen and Lebanon points to serious troubles for the kingdom’s fortunes in the entire region. What makes this even more dire are the missteps and failures in other important arenas about which Saudi Arabia cares and where its leadership’s skills are constantly tested, namely Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.
While Riyadh disagreed with President Trump’s declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, its slow and unenthusiastic response to it allowed Turkey to steal the spotlight and convene an important Islamic conference. As the spiritual center of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia should have led the effort to vigorously defend against the designation. As the Syrian civil war approaches an end in which Bashar al-Assad consolidates his oppressive rule, Saudi Arabia pressures the Syrian opposition to accept what Assad’s ally and protector Russia proposes. And as Iraq slips farther away into Iran’s hands, Riyadh finds that it neglected to nurture relations with important political factions there to protect its northern flank from destabilizing events and developments.
Considering the failures, miscalculations, and missteps, there thus is no alternative for a Saudi radical re-evaluation of planning, tactics and methods, and goals. But this evaluation necessitates first and foremost a look at decision-making and its personnel, bar none. What is clear today is that decisions made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have lacked the depth, knowledge, and nuance essential for prosecuting an effective foreign policy that both achieves an ambitious agenda and protects long-term interests. There also is no room for haphazard decisions that are either reactive or lack deep understanding of matters at hand, particularly after forty years of an overly cautious foreign policy under the direction of the late Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Nor is there an alternative to free discussions by able diplomats of what is possible and achievable. What has transpired since bin Salman’s arrival at the royal court has shown that monopolizing decision-making deprives the process of essential information and different perspectives and that hubris may be the bane that afflicts Saudi Arabia’s interests in the future.