What Does Strategic Paralysis Look Like?

What Does Strategic Paralysis Look Like?

Economically, geopolitically, and socially, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at a precipice. With a failed foreign policy and an unclear economic outlook, the house of Saud cannot stand with firmness and cannot fall without total destruction. 

By Michael Bonner and Reza Akhlaghi

Re-published with Permission from The Hill Times , Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On Tuesday, by a unanimous vote, the U.S. Senate passed a bill allowing families of September 11 victims to sue foreign governments which commit acts of terrorism on American soil. The bill paves the way for thousands of Americans to take to court the government of Saudi Arabia for its role in the 9/11 attacks. This development deserves significant attention from Canadian policy-makers. We ought to see Saudi Arabia for what it is: a moribund Wahhabist kingdom, which happens to be the main transmitter of violent Islamic extremism throughout the world.

Today the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in a state of strategic paralysis. The chief causes of this are: the Arab Spring and its bloody aftermath; the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal; the Russian intervention in Syria; the expensive failure of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen; unfavorable energy markets; and a diminishing American presence in the Middle East. Saudi leadership is now deeply concerned about the outcome of these problems, all of which have prevented the Saudi leadership from realizing many of their strategic objectives.

A dose of reality

The Arab Spring and its aftermath sent shockwaves through the Kingdom, and raised serious doubts about its future and those of its Gulf allies. Accordingly, Riyadh spent billions of dollars to forestall an insurrection against the ruling House of Saud and the country’s Wahhabist religious elite. An even more troubling development for the Saudis was the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iranian nuclear deal. The nuclear deal ushers Iran back into the global economy and reasserts its geopolitical and cultural weight in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia. In the Levant, the massive Russian air campaign destroyed much of the anti-Assad forces and their infrastructure, as well as those of the Islamic State. ISIS set back Saudi-Turkish designs for a post-Assad Syria and threw into confusion the rebels backed by Riyadh and Ankara. Today, Riyadh’s much-ballyhooed strategic partnership with Turkey is in ruins as its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—an enabler of the Islamic State and implacable enemy of the free press—grapples with a farrago of internal and regional crises and leads his country in its embarrassing transition from democracy to the rule of one man.

Saudi warfare in Yemen has not achieved its strategic objective, which was to defeat the Houthi rebels and reinstate former president Mansur Hadi. Instead, as the UN observes, the war in Yemen has resulted in more than 6,000 casualties and widespread destruction in the Arab world’s poorest country. Riyadh’s policy in Yemen has no redeeming features, especially since it includes support for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), simply because they are an enemy of the Houthis.

On the energy front, unfavorable conditions in the hydrocarbon markets have curtailed the Saudis’ ability to maneuver geopolitically. Ironically, this is an outcome of Riyadh’s own energy policies. To stave off financial meltdown, the Kingdom has tapped into its foreign reserves, begun cutting subsidies including decades-old fuel subsidies, and sent thousands of temporary foreign workers back to their countries.

As the prospects of ousting Assad vanished in 2014, Saudi leadership decided to play the energy card against Assad’s cardinal allies, Tehran and Moscow. Riyadh targeted Iran and Russia by flooding the market with cheap oil, driving down global oil prices to the point of collapse. At the time, this seemed like a clever move not only against Iran and Russia, but also against American producers of shale oil, a formidable rival to Saudi oil. But the negative impact did not stop with American shale oil; it also hamstrung Alberta’s energy sector—a testament to the recklessness of Saudi energy policies.

What Canada needs

Economically, geopolitically, and socially, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at a precipice. With a failed foreign policy and an unclear economic outlook, the house of Saud cannot stand with firmness and cannot fall without total destruction. Its fall will bring down with it global energy markets as well as all the Arab states that surround it.

Canada must consider carefully the dynamics that we have described and make policy choices based on a realistic assessment of them. In our opinion, Canada’s interests would be best served without ties to Saudi Arabia.


Michael Bonner is an historian of Iran, a communications consultant, and a former senior policy advisor to a Cabinet minister.

Reza Akhlaghi is managing director at Foreign Policy Concepts, and a policy consultant.


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