Saudi Arabia’s resumption of operations in Yemen after government clashes with the Houthi rebels had erupted again in January is presented as a geopolitical security measure, to maintain the “rightful” president of Yemen. Yet, its actions towards its southern neighbor are a by-product of Riyadh’s soaring hyper-nationalism, which has propelled the Kingdom’s foreign policy adventurism.
Such fervor has expanded under the auspices of Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who became Saudi Crown Prince in 2017. Since then the young prince has cracked down on regime opponents and activists, while aggressively purging Saudi royal figures, ministers, and businessmen under an “anti-corruption” campaign, to craft a new image for the Kingdom. Social media and advertising campaigns have been crucial in consolidating this reformist face of Saudi Arabia.
Though this nationalism is seen as a fresh phenomenon, “Saudi First” narratives have driven the country’s expansionist global policies since its foundation in 1932.
Though this nationalism is seen as a fresh phenomenon, in contrast with the Kingdom’s traditional ultraconservative image, “Saudi First” narratives have driven the country’s expansionist global policies since its foundation in 1932. Indeed, Riyadh had pursued its own foreign policy ambitions to counter the emergence of Egypt’s Arab nationalism, which Gamal Abdul Nasser had promoted during the 1950s and 1960s.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has traditionally perceived the country as “part” of its own territory, seeking to merge it into the Kingdom and influence its politics, to make it more dependent on Riyadh’s control. It had sought a counter-revolution against the Egypt-backed Republican revolution in northern Yemen in 1962 and financed the growth of Salafism in the country from the 1980s. While on the surface an expansion of “Islamist” hegemony, it stands in contrast to “secular” Arab nationalism. In reality, it is simply an extension of Saudi soft power using religion as a tool for its own “Saudi First” agenda.
However, from 2015 onwards, under the reign of King Salman, Eman AlHussein has argued that a reformist and more secular-leaning nationalism has gradually developed and is now flourishing. The current global wave of populist nationalism, where many states prioritize their own national interests, has indeed driven MbS into prominence. As the “poster boy” for this hyper-nationalist country, MbS has hardened Riyadh’s traditional foreign policy concerns and taken more erratic action toward Yemen, Qatar, and Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” meant to establish itself as an economic powerhouse while creating new avenues of investment and reducing its dependency on oil, has further reaffirmed this nationalism. It aims to diminish the typical impression of Saudi Arabia as an ultra-conservative kingdom and instead create a new “modern” image to attract investors.
This surge in nationalism has also driven the country’s heavy militarization, to empower it as a dominant regional force.
This surge in nationalism has also driven the country’s heavy militarization, to empower it as a dominant regional force. It became the world’s largest arms importer from 2014 until 2018, increasing its sales by 192 percent compared to 2009-2013. There also has even been speculation that Riyadh is developing its own nuclear capabilities to combat Iran.
Though Saudi Arabia has said its nuclear development plan is peaceful, and that it likely seeks to acquire nuclear technology rather than an actual bomb at this point, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
While Riyadh’s nationalist shift has turned Iran as an even greater enemy of the Kingdom, this demonization of Tehran has expanded to Yemen. Saudi Arabia viewed the Houthi insurgency in September 2014 as a proxy expansion of Iran intended to destabilize the region.
Seeking a counterrevolution against Yemen, MbS intervened in March 2015 as the Saudi Minister of Defense at the time. He is therefore rightly considered the architect of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.
Though a catastrophic intervention for Yemen’s stability and Saudi Arabia’s image, “Operation Decisive Storm” instilled a greater sense of nationalist fervor within the Kingdom, which in turn has further encouraged its war efforts. Now Riyadh refuses any form of withdrawal to avoid publicly accepting defeat and losing face.
This nationalist fervor is clear with Saudi attitudes towards Turkey. The Kingdom’s change of the term Ottoman Empire to “Occupation” in textbooks shows its animosity towards Ankara under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Riyadh perceives as yet another regional rival.
Meanwhile as Saudi Arabia crushes all dissent of its regime at home, its hyper-sensitivity to criticism has driven its interactions with other states – regionally and worldwide.
As Saudi Arabia seeks to position itself as the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and building on past tensions, it was determined to isolate and demonize Qatar.
Furthermore, as Saudi Arabia seeks to position itself as the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and building on past tensions, it was determined to isolate and demonize Qatar. Doha’s diverging and independent foreign policy alignment had driven Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain to enact a blockade since June 2017, to bully Qatar into keeping in line with the rest of the GCC.
Presenting itself as a stable force against Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, Riyadh is merely utilizing nationalist rhetoric to justify its opposition towards its neighbor. Such sentiment has triggered greater GCC divisions.
Riyadh’s desire to preserve a positive global image has driven it to take irrational actions towards its Western allies as well. In August 2018, Saudi Arabia faced a significant diplomatic spat with Canada after the Canadian Foreign Ministry on Twitter expressed concerns over Riyadh’s arrests of several civil society and women’s rights activists. Saudi Arabia retaliated by expelling Canada’s ambassador and ending business ties, criticizing what it called Canada’s “overt and blatant interference in its internal affairs.”
Such nationalist rhetoric could harm Riyadh in the long-term; it has already somewhat undermined its diplomatic image. Along with its aggressive ventures against Yemen and Qatar, other atrocities like the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018 has harmed its PR campaigning efforts to present a new Saudi Arabia.
The crippling attack on its Aramco oil facilities last September somewhat pressured Riyadh into a more diplomatic position towards Iran and Yemen’s Houthis. Clearly the attack came as a shock to the Kingdom, showing its policies were backfiring and could endanger the Saudi economy.
The pursuit of its hyper-nationalist and aggressive stance in the region and beyond could further isolate the Kingdom and be prejudicial to its image.