A huge Saudi flag flies over the approach to Diriyah, the first capital of the al-Saud dynasty and the site of one of five massive national development projects that are remaking the socioeconomic and even the physical geography of Saudi Arabia. Local pride in these strenuous nationalist enterprises is palpable. But alongside the excitement and self-confidence in the country’s internal trajectory, there is a parallel sense of geopolitical anxiety and bafflement. Reemerging as a global actor after decades of relative isolation, Saudi Arabia has thrown open the shutters to find that the world outside its windows has changed.
Ever since Barack Obama upended America’s stance in the Middle East, realigning the United States with Iran and consigning the Cold War American security structure to the dustbin, regional allies have been scrambling—first to understand what hit them, and then to try and make accommodations to survive the chaos unleashed by the American empire. After the better part of a century founded on the rock of a mutually beneficial, rational alliance with the United States, Saudi Arabia now finds itself without a geopolitical anchor or compass, but with no choice other than to chart a new course.
Syria was the fulcrum on which the American reorganization of the region, contrary to the interests and wishes of the Saudis and other traditional U.S. allies in the region, turned. First Obama recognized the war-torn country as an Iranian “equity” and worked with Russia to block the moves of Tehran’s rivals in the Syrian theater, thereby pitting U.S. policy against that of the Saudis, the Gulf states, and Turkey. With Russia parked on its border with tacit U.S. cover, Turkey had to adjust its relationship with the Russians while dealing with Kurdish separatists inside Syria who now operated with open American backing. Similarly, Israel now had to factor Russian interests into its calculation in order to interdict Iranian troops and weapons moving from Syrian airfields and ports to threaten Israel from the Golan and Lebanon.
The Saudis are projecting onto China the rationale and the rationalism of their old arrangement with the United States, which they always hoped would continue.
On the eve of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran—that is, at the moment of peak Iranian expansion and triumphalism in the region—the Saudis were confronted with a threat that came closer to home: Iranian backing for the Houthi war in Yemen. In fighting the Houthis, the Saudis were acting not only out of self-interest by protecting their own borders and national security, but also protecting a key energy chokehold from coming under the thumb of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. They were acting, in other words, as a pillar of the post-World War II American alliance system, according to the common playbook that both the Saudis and the Americans had faithfully been using for the better part of the previous century.
American opposition to the Saudi military operation against the Iranian-backed Houthis, however, turned out to be just as vehement as it was with regard to the intervention of U.S. regional allies in Syria, if not more so. As the civil war in Yemen dragged on, the Saudis found themselves facing Iranian cruise missiles and drones, some launched from Iranian territory, that targeted Saudi airports and oil facilities. Left unchecked, such attacks clearly posed an existential threat to the Saudi state, thereby providing a potent reminder of the fact that the country on which the Saudis had historically relied on for protection against such threats—the United States—was now positioning itself as having interests on both sides of the conflict.
After the Iranians attacked strategic oil installations in September 2019, then-President Donald Trump did offer retaliatory options to the Saudis, who instead opted to absorb the hit, fearing a wider escalation to which American commitment would be sketchy at best. Sure enough, while Trump stood by the Saudis as Democrats introduced anti-Saudi resolutions in the Senate and as members of his own party criticized the kingdom, he then lost reelection. One of the very first actions the incoming Biden administration took—within days of taking office, in fact—was to remove the Houthis from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
No one in Riyadh should have been surprised. Hostility toward and contempt for Saudi Arabia was a hallmark of Joe Biden’s campaign platform, and a reflection of the prevailing attitude among Democrats that also resonated with some Republicans, a portion of whom continued to see the Saudis as a fount of radicalization and as the “cause” of 9/11. In March 2022, the Iranians pushed further, via the Houthis, targeting Saudi Aramco installations in Jeddah.
It’s not difficult, then, to understand why, facing a resurgent Iran, and absent any clear U.S. backing, Saudi Arabia wants to close the book on Yemen. The post-World War II arrangement with America, while by no means over, is broken, as American policy toward Iran remains on the realignment path set by Obama. An inward-focused Saudi Arabia needs a period of quiet and stability in order to proceed with its massive domestic restructuring venture, Vision 2030.
The Saudis, in other words, are playing for time. A war that regularly results in missile attacks inside the kingdom is not something that the Saudi leadership can afford or is likely to win. Their goal is therefore some form of an agreement with Iran that will allow the Saudis to focus elsewhere. To achieve that goal, the Saudis turned to China.
On Tablet’s recent visit to the country, shortly after the Chinese-brokered deal was sealed, our Saudi interlocutors made the point that they did not view China as a security guarantor that could replace the United States. Still, Saudi Arabia needed to buy time, as one well-placed Saudi analyst explained, and an agreement under Chinese auspices could well achieve that objective.
Explanations from Saudis we spoke with of how such an agreement would buy them the time they need often sounded like exercises in solipsistic rationalism: The Chinese are not ideological, they care about the secure flow of oil. The Iranians are dependent on them. It stands to reason, therefore, that Iran will not wish to upset China, and that the latter will therefore be able to uphold the agreement.
The Saudis are clearly projecting onto China the rationale and the rationalism of their old arrangement with the United States, which they always hoped would continue. Yet that former arrangement was backed by America’s overwhelming regional military power on air, sea, and land, which neither the Chinese nor their Russian proxies come anywhere close to wielding.
Nevertheless, it is unclear that the Chinese will need to police Saudi Arabia’s own Iran deal anytime soon. With its position in Yemen secure, Iran can afford to lay back, pocket its gains, and watch as Saudi Arabia and others pour resources into rebuilding the war-torn country, which is now dominated by its proxy. And with America set on its realignment path, the vulnerabilities of Iran’s Gulf neighbors remain, should the need to exploit them arise down the road.
Since the Chinese-brokered deal was signed, there has also been a rapid change in the Saudi posture toward another Iranian satrapy: Syria. The kingdom has agreed to readmit the Assad regime into the Arab League, as part of a broader process of normalizing relations with Damascus.
What is curious about both the reconciliation agreement with Iran and the Saudi policy shift in Syria is how this behavior conformed to what Team Obama-Biden has been pushing Saudi Arabia to do for the past decade. Indeed, the administration could not contain its giddiness at the reconciliation with Iran, regardless of its Chinese sponsorship. As far as it was concerned, Saudi Arabia needed, as Obama had long demanded, to “adapt to change,” and learn to “share the neighborhood” with—or “integrate,” in the updated parlance—Iran. And now, behold, it was doing so.
The same went for Syria. Senior administration officials, like the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, have been encouraging the Arab states to reach out to Assad, especially after the recent earthquake that hit northern Syria. The Saudis accommodated a request they previously would have scorned.
I asked some of our Saudi hosts whether this marked a return to an older, pre-Mohammed bin Salman approach, when the kingdom would throw good money after bad, including into hostile Iranian holdings, in line with the parameters that Team Obama-Biden have set for the kingdom—now within a new political and security architecture centered around the U.S.-Iran relationship. In three separate encounters, my interlocutors were dismissive of this possibility. They pointed to the kingdom’s policy in Egypt, where the Saudis have dropped the old blank-check approach, and now require clear deliverables and reforms. No more free money. And that’s in Egypt, a close ally. Never mind Syria or the Levant more broadly, which has been written off as an Iranian sphere of influence.
A recent news report citing pro-Syrian sources claimed that the Saudis had offered to pay off Assad to curb the trade of a cheap amphetamine pill popular in the Gulf. That story, and its sourcing, appears to reflect Assad’s wish, and his typical extortionist posture, more than anything else. A senior Saudi official quickly denied the report as pure fiction. It remains to be seen whether this Saudi financial posture toward the Levant in particular endures, especially when the Biden administration presses the Saudis to pay up.
One area in which the United States has already been almost pathologically enthusiastic about pressuring Riyadh into underwriting Iran’s regional empire is Lebanon. For three years now, Biden administration officials have not relented in trying to get the Saudis to resume signing checks to fund the “regional integration” project, including by underwriting structurally pro-Iranian pass-along projects like funding the Lebanese Armed Forces or infrastructure projects. The Lebanese, like Assad, are salivating over the possibility of renewed Saudi funding. The French, who are deeply invested in Lebanon, are also working hard to convince the Saudis to spend money. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the administration will use the pretext of combating drug smuggling from Lebanon, for example, to renew pressure on the Saudis to underwrite the Lebanese security sector—a priority pet project of the Biden team.
The Saudi position remains one of disinterest. The Saudi view has been that Lebanon is an Iranian holding; there are no Saudi stakes there. This view seems to be sticking, for now at least.
One possible explanation for Saudi steadfastness on the Lebanese question struck me while we were in Jeddah. All around the so-called Yacht Club and Marina, a series of brand new swanky restaurants and shops have been built, with the apparent effect of making Beirut redundant. They were all bopping, full of music and young people smoking hookah. Who needs to relive memories of old-time Beirut, long accessible through a Hezbollah-controlled airport and a highway peppered with placards of Ali Khamenei and Hassan Nasrallah, when Saudis have their own version, complete with functioning electricity and minus the smell of burning garbage? It makes sense that old emotional attachments don’t quite resonate anymore, especially for a younger generation that never actually experienced Beirut as anything other than a hostile hellhole.
One particularly interesting, well-connected Saudi insider I spoke with contrasted what he dubbed the arc of misery—from Lebanon in the west to Syria, Iraq, and all the way to Iran in the east—with what he described as the arc of stability running from north to south: Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia. What distinguishes these three countries is that, unlike the Levant, they are real states. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have the added advantage of also being geographically large states. Even as the Saudis have balked at doing so elsewhere, in March they deposited $5 billion in Turkey’s central bank.
So what about Israel? After winning the most recent election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted a historic interview with the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel, in which he repeated what has become his mantra: Peace with Saudi Arabia is the prize he’s after. Much has happened since then, including an American pressure campaign against Netanyahu—who is yet to even be invited to Washington. U.S. pressure has been amplified by Iranian low-intensity warfare against Israel through Palestinian instruments. In turn, the U.S. pressure campaign has made a formal partnership with Israel a less attractive proposition for the Saudis.
Perhaps the most realistic answer I received in the kingdom to questions about the likelihood of any formal Saudi-Israel alliance was that, while contacts and cooperation with Israel will continue, it’s perhaps best that they remain short of an official agreement for now. This response, while not reflecting any official position, had a ring of truth to it. After all, what would be the point of an American-sponsored deal with Israel, if the United States continues to realign with Iran and is preemptively broadcasting its acceptance of Iran having nukes so long as they’re not “fielded”?
This feeling is expressed with the bitterness of a scorned wife, who sees her husband throw away their hard-earned savings for an infatuation with a floozy psycho.
Unless Israel demonstrates the independent ability and will to wipe out the Iranian nuclear threat, then it is simply an extension of U.S. regional policy, which officially tolerates and even facilitates Iran’s nuclear program. Israel cannot deliver for Saudi Arabia what it wants from America when Washington is set on realignment with Iran.
And how will all the rationalist analysis about Chinese behavior stand up if Iran does get the bomb? My interlocutors had no clear answer, other than to acknowledge this eventuality as the elephant in the room, or to fall back on well-known official positions that all bets would then be off, and that the kingdom would acquire its own nuclear program.
Ultimately, the Saudis’ deepest geopolitical wish is for a time machine that brings back an America that no longer exists to run the region through its traditional allies in the pursuit of sane goals like power, profit, and stability. This feeling is expressed with the bitterness of a scorned wife, who, after decades of marriage, sees her husband throw away their hard-earned savings for an infatuation with a floozy psycho, leaving her with the children.
As a consequence, Saudi Arabia is quite naturally focusing inward on the Saudi national project, while politely ignoring the occasional awkward moments when her American ex-husband shows up outside her window to hurl curses or demand that she bake his favorite apple pie. If America no longer wants its alliance system, what can we do? We’ll step aside. We’ll look for a modus vivendi in Yemen, but we’ll hand that deal to an eager and willing Chinese broker. The Levant belongs to Iran now. It’s not our business. Our future is elsewhere. (The Palestinians were never even mentioned.)
From facilitating Russia’s return to the Levant, to increasing China’s stake in Iran and now with the Saudis, the regional trajectory has remained the same since 2013, when Barack Obama inverted the American alliance structure in pursuit of a deal with Iran. What we saw in Riyadh and Jeddah was another legacy of Obama’s realignment: a Saudi state that can no longer stake its future on American support and must set out on its own as a midlevel geopolitical player to make the best alliances it can, in order to secure its future. After a brief and tenuous interlude during the Trump years, Obama’s vision for the Middle East appears to have won out—at America’s expense.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.