- Saudi Arabia in Flux:Plus ça change …?
During the final years of the presidency of Barack Obama, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have become increasingly fractious, with President Obama referring to a number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, as “free riders … reluctant to put skin in the game.” After months of debate surrounding the publication of 28 pages of material that had previously been redacted from the 9/11 Commission Report and then with the passing of a controversial bill in Congress that allows the families of the victims of September 11th terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, tensions between the Kingdom and the US are increasing.
As conflict in Syria escalates and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) continues to dominate global news, beneath the surface, Saudi Arabia is heavily involved in regional affairs. As Obama himself noted, [End Page 673]
The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians — which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen — requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.1
Again, this observation would be a cause of much consternation to many across Saudi Arabia. In the face of a changing Middle East, tensions between regime and society have opened up schisms that have been increasingly been framed along sectarian lines. While there is nothing inherently violent about sectarian divisions, the politicization and securitization of these identities has provided opportunities for a range of prominent actors across the Middle East to pursue their geopolitical aspirations. Following the revolution in Iran in 1979, the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh, which had bubbled yet never boiled took on an increasingly sectarian nature, granted as a consequence of attempts to secure their respective positions across the region along with claims to leadership over the Islamic community (umma) and ensuing claims to legitimacy.
In the ensuing 37 years, the rivalry between the two states has shaped much of the Middle East. Over the past several years, the Kingdom has become embroiled in conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Iraq, albeit in different contexts. Yet, there is a surprising paucity of high-quality literature on the Kingdom, given its role and importance in regional and international affairs.2 Specifically regarding the literature on the Kingdom’s foreign policy, several works have focused upon Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iran in the years following the revolution in Iran and the invasion in Iraq.3 However, efforts to understand such foreign policy conduct is tricky, given a lack of access to decision-makers across the Kingdom, along with the seemingly inextricable three centuries relationship between the Wahhabi ‘ulama and the Al Sa‘ud dynasty.
Underpinning much of this literature are concerns about security and with it, nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. In late 2015, a deal was signed between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) and Iran to resolve the nuclear crisis, and on January 16, 2016, the deal was implemented, causing a great deal of consternation in Israel and across the Arab world, particularly within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yet perhaps none was quite as concerned as Saudi Arabia. Indeed, if one considers material from US diplomatic cables, the extent of Saudi concerns about Iranian foreign policy can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s calls for the United States to “cut off the head of the snake;”4 moreover, the breakdown of trust at Iranian involvement in Iraq was also documented in other cables released by WikiLeaks.
Norman Cigar’s Saudi Arabia and Nuclear Weapons is one such tome that seeks to add to debates about strategic culture within Saudi Arabia. Like many authors, Cigar seeks...