Mohammed bin Salman and the “Rational Irrationality” of Saudi Foreign Policy

Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman’s foreign policy decisions reflect a peculiar logic that makes perfect sense in context: his desire for status and recognition as a strong leader and successful reformer trumps Saudi national interests.
Maysam Behravesh
Maysam Behravesh is a senior political analyst at Persis Media and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Lund University, Sweden. Follow him on Twitter @behmash.
Mohammed bin Salman and the “Rational Irrationality” of Saudi Foreign Policy
Image extracted from photo by Ron Przysucha - U.S. Department of State from United States

In a meeting of ministers ahead of the Arab League summit in Tunisia on March 31, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf predictably highlighted Iran as the major source of threat facing Arabs while member states were struggling for a coordinated response to the U.S.’ recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“One of the most dangerous forms of terrorism and extremism is what Iran practices through its blatant interference in Arab affairs, and its militias . . . the Revolutionary Guards in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, which requires cooperation from us to confront it,” al-Assaf said.

The tirade came only a few days after the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, that began on March 26, 2015, to restore ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power.       

This kind of demonizing attitude has been a constant refrain of Saudi foreign policy since January 2016 when the Saudi embassy in Tehran was set ablaze by a group of state-backed hardliners—in retaliation for the execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr—and bilateral relations were severed.  

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign policy decision making seems to be driven by a so called “rational irrationality” that prioritizes his quest for recognition as a strong and smart leader at the expense of Saudi national interests. And at the heart of this state of affairs, to quote a Saudi affairs expert is “the question of succession.”

Iran 

While Iran’s regional rivals, led by Saudi Arabia, rightly perceive its growing influence as destabilizing, it is often neglected that Tehran has made repeated overtures for a rapprochement with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed by Saudi leaders.

Given bin Salman’s promise in a May 2017 interview to “take the fight inside Iran,” Riyadh is also believed to be behind militant activities by extremist or separatist groups across the country.

Given bin Salman’s promise in a May 2017 interview to “take the fight inside Iran,” Riyadh is also believed to be behind militant activities by extremist or separatist groups across the country. From the Islamic State group’s terror attacks of June 2017 in Tehran to the Ahvaz shooting assault in September 2018 to the suicide car-bomb attack against a Revolutionary Guards convoy in February 2019, Iranian authorities have invariably pointed the finger of suspicion at Saudis.

Even in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder in early October 2018 and amid the international outcry over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s complicity, the Islamic Republic curiously kept silent, hoping to soften the Saudi attitude towards bilateral ties. In response, Saudis and their Bahraini allies placed the Revolutionary Guards on their blacklist of “terrorist organizations” on October 23, 2018.

This sustained attachment to enmity is irrational, as it elicits a similarly counterproductive propensity and creates a spiral of hostility that jeopardizes the national interests of both sides.

In an almost unprecedented diatribe against Riyadh, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei described Saudi Arabia as the “worst state in the region and perhaps in the world,” threatening that if they build a nuclear capability with American assistance, “it will fall into the hands of Islamic combatants in the not-so-distant era.” This was a big escalation, suggesting that Tehran has the potential in the long term to empower Yemen’s Houthi rebels into an offensive force that could similarly take the fight inside Saudi territory.

“The statement reflects Khamenei’s unease about Saudi efforts to unite the Arab world against the Islamic Republic,” Sajad Abedi, a senior analyst at Iran’s National Defense and Security Think Tank, told Inside Arabia. The institute is closely affiliated with the Iranian Supreme Leader’s office.

But there are other cases of rational irrationality in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy behavior under bin Salman.   

Yemen

Sustained military intervention in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies has not only killed tens of thousands of people and brought the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of starvation, it has also incurred Riyadh enormous economic and reputational costs. Yet most observers believe the intervention has failed “on almost every measure” and ultimately turned out to be a “disaster.” Moreover, there is no realistic sign that persistence with the military campaign will result in decisive or even relative victory in the long run, let alone in the near future.

The war is conservatively estimated to cost Saudi Arabia at least $200 million a day, or $5-6 billion a month, straining a cash-strapped government’s budget at a time when bin Salman is pursuing ambitious economic development and diversification plans under Vision 2030.              

According to UN sources, one Yemeni child under the age of 5 dies every ten minutes from entirely preventable war-related causes.

“Yemen is undeniably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by far,” said David Beasley, Executive Director of UN’s World Food Program (WFP), in September 2018. According to UN sources, one Yemeni child under the age of 5 dies every ten minutes from entirely preventable war-related causes while over 24 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and over 14 million are at risk of starvation, a 27 percent increase since last year. While Iran’s complicity, direct or indirect, in the catastrophe, is not to be overlooked, the Saudi-led coalition has indiscriminately targeted Yemen’s civilian infrastructure and economy over the course of the war and is widely perceived as the chief culprit.

At the risk of causing estrangement, Tehran has pushed Houthi insurgents hard to evacuate the western port city of Hodeidah—the gateway for most of international food aid sent to Yemen—as part of a UN-sponsored truce negotiated in Stockholm in December and expected to pave the way for a broader peace settlement.

Morally untenable as it is, the Yemen campaign has also affected the Saudi-American alliance, provoking the Republican-led Senate and now the House to pass an unprecedented War Powers Resolution for the first time in U.S. history to end U.S. support for the military intervention. The measure is expected to be vetoed by President Trump.   

Saudis cannot let go of Yemen so easily because they have not achieved their objectives, and there is no vision for what peace or an end of conflict would look like,” Sanam Vakil, a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University and a research fellow at Chatham House, told Inside Arabia.

Crown Prince bin Salman seems to fear that such a Saudi withdrawal might tarnish his image and authority at home and among allies and cast him as an imprudent and incompetent leader. This would, of course, run counter to his efforts to project himself as a heroic and historic reformer of Saudi Arabia.       

Qatar

Qatar represents another instance of MbS’s rational irrationality in foreign policy decision-making, where tenacious pursuit of a misguided and counterproductive policy serves personal aims in his leadership bid but undermines collective interests.  

Initiated in June 2017 to punish Qatar for its alleged support for terrorism and close ties with Iran, the all-out blockade has failed to change Doha’s behavior and bring it in line with the Saudi-led Sunni bloc.

“MbS was presented to Saudis as a great successful leader, but ending the blockade on Qatar and stopping the war on Yemen at this point means that he has failed miserably in his first two big tests in the Gulf. Declaring this fact is not tolerable for him,” Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst, told Inside Arabia.

Qatar is no ally or close friend of the Islamic Republic’s, but from an entirely rationalist perspective, the Saudi-led siege has arguably complicated the Trump administration’s plans to forge a regional alliance against Iran.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s scandalous murder in Istanbul and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s house arrest and resignation televised from Riyadh are two other abortive attempts by bin Salman to reinforce his authority and project an image of strength.

A trace of this monopolistic quest for recognition could be seen in the detention and trial of such women’s rights activists as Loujain al-Hathloul shortly before MbS lifted the ban on female driving in the kingdom, a cause the jailed activists were campaigning for.

In early March, reports surfaced of the young Crown Prince’s intentions to make a “potential move” against his father King Salman while the latter was paying an official visit to Egypt in late February. He was later alleged to have been stripped by the King of some “financial and economic authority” following a growing unease that has been building up between son and father in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal.

While bin Salman’s rational irrationality in domestic and foreign policy decisionmaking ostensibly has its limits, it is likely to continue until the young prince feels safe and secure as Saudi Arabia’s uncontested ruler amid challenges to his bid for succession to the throne.