Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision to spearheada coalition military intervention in Yemen in March 2015 was a symptom of amajor upset in the regional status quo. This represented the first time thatthe Saudi Kingdom took the lead in projecting military power beyond its borders. SaudiArabia was a traditional, tribal country that, since the time of its founding,had relied upon methods of compromise, consensus building and negotiationrather than confrontation as the means of defending the Kingdom. Thus, theintervention in Yemen represented a stark departure from the risk-averse,consensus driven norms in Saudi Arabia.
The decision to confront Iran’s clients militarilyon the battlefields of Yemen’s civil war can be attributed to two changes inthe regional status quo. The first was a change in Iran’s regional andinternational status and the second was a change in Saudi Arabia’s leadership.With the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) orthe “Iran nuclear deal”, on July 14, 2015, Iran received international recognition as a nuclearthreshold state and took a monumental step toward ending its isolation from theWest. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, Washington’s opening to Iran conveyed a broader indication that the US wasgradually acquiescing to Iran’s designs on the region. Moreover, the Saudisviewed the nuclear deal as something which could tilt the balance of power inthe Persian Gulf toward Iran.
There was a sense in the Saudi halls of powerthat it was time for Saudi Arabia to take matters into its own hands.The implementation of the Iran nuclear deal roughlycoincided with a “changing of the guard” in Saudi Arabia. With the death of King ‘Abdullah, aged 90, in January 2015, the Saudi crown waspassed to his brother, Salman, aged 79.
Upon ascending to the throne, the newking appointed his son, Mohammad bin Salman, defense minister and president ofthe newly formed Council of Economic and Development Affairs.1Mohammadbin Salman was widely viewed as the power behind the throne of his father andthis perception was reinforced by his appointment as Crown Prince and heir tothe throne in June 2017.2KingSalman’s appointment of his son to the second highest position in the Kingdomsounded a death knell for the long-established, tribal political custom inSaudi Arabia in which the heir to the throne is chosen not by royal decree, butby the consensus of the members of the Saudi ruling clan. Moreover, thedecision also upended the long-standing tradition in which the Saudi throne waspassed from elderly brother to elderly brother, in order to preserve thestanding of the sons of Ibn Saud, the King’s founder. The Saudi King’s decisionto break with the time-honored conventions of power-sharing and leadershipsuccession can best be understood as a measure that was calculated to addressthe regional and domestic challenges that the Kingdom will be faced with in thenot too distant future. On the economic front, Mohammad bin Salman has unveiled “Vision 2030”, an ambitious program ofreform aimed at ending the Kingdom’s dependence on oil.
Besides diversifyingthe economy, he also aims to modernize the country, increase the participationof women and “return” the country to “moderate Islam”.3Onthe foreign policy front, bin Salman has acquired a reputation for breakingwith a deeply ingrained tradition of restraint and pursuing a much moreaggressive policy vis-à-vis Iran.As mentioned, he is viewed as the driving force behind the militaryintervention in Yemen and more recently, behind the economic and diplomaticboycott of Qatar.
The Qatarcrisis erupted two weeks after the Saudis staged a show of American-Sunnisolidarity against the Iranian regional axis. On May 20, 2017, the Saudisassembled the leaders of more than 55 Muslim, mostly Sunni, countries inRiyadh, to hear a speech by President Trump on the topic of counteringterrorism and Iran, its main sponsor, and then issued a declaration on behalfof all in attendance about the intention toestablish a Middle East Strategic Alliance against terrorism under the auspicesof Saudi Arabia.4Then in Juneof the same year, Saudi Arabia coordinated a freeze by nine of those countrieson diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar, purportedly on account ofits too cozy relationship with Iran and with terrorist groups. From the Saudi perspective, Qatar has maintained the advantages of itsmembership in the GCC while at the same time maintaining an open channel ofcommunications with Iran.
Besides maintaining ties with Iran, Qatar has alsosupported certain Islamist groups which Iran also views as its own clients andas instruments by which to extend its influence into the heartland of the Arabworld. Qatar’s uncooperative foreign policy was also, on a very basic level, adenial of the Saudi’s self-perception as the rightful leader of the GCC. SaudiArabia has been trying for years to align the foreign and security policies ofthe GCC states to counter Iranian ambitions in the region, but Qatar’s ties with Iran and with Iran’s clients havecontinuously undermined the Saudis’ ability to mount an effective anti-Iran