What’s Going On In Saudi Arabia?

by Thomas W. Lippman

An Arabic-speaking friend who has been doing business in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf for decades and seems to know everyone there invited me to lunch the other day.  He wanted to know if I could make sense of developments in Saudi Arabia over the past six months.

I almost laughed — he knows more before he gets out of bed in the morning than I ever will. But it was a measure of the collective bafflement of people whose business it is to know what is going on in the kingdom that my friend turned to me.  His was the sixth such request I had fielded recently.  The others were from diplomats at two foreign embassies, representatives of an international industrial conglomerate and a giant oil company, and an Obama administration official who has access to classified material.

It was flattering to be sought out by such people, who normally would be sources for me rather than the other way around. I would have liked to help them if I knew the answers, but the conversation was not reassuring.  All this highlights how much Saudi Arabia, traditionally cautious and understated, has thrown knowledgeable people into confusion by its actions and decisions over the past several months.  It is no secret that the leaders of Saudi Arabia have been upset with the United States over several policy differences in the past year; it’s less clear if the Saudi leaders understand how difficult it has become for their friends outside the kingdom to discern where they want to go and how they plan to get there.

The fundamental objectives of Saudi strategic policy are well known: contain Iran, put an end to the Assad regime in Syria, stamp out the Muslim Brotherhood, fight Islamic extremism, forge coherence out of the squabbles within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and encourage the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.  What’s harder to discern is how the kingdom’s actions and decisions over the past six months have advanced this agenda.

This period of turbulence seems to have begun with the decision last November to reject the seat on the United Nations Security Council that the kingdom had sought for years.  The Saudis said the U.N. had failed in its duty to stop the carnage of Syria’s civil war and to bring about a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.  It is true that those conflicts remain unresolved, but it was and is hard to see how Saudi Arabia’s decision made any difference.  The Syrian war had been going on for some time, and the plight of the Palestinians dates to 1948; were the Saudis unaware of that while they were avidly pursuing the seat they rejected?

In the months since then, Saudi-watchers have been confronted with one surprising development after another.  These include, in no particular order:

  • The dismissal of Prince Bandar bin Sultan as director of intelligence.  He had previously been removed as director of Saudi efforts to help the Syrian rebels, who are not winning the war, and he had failed in an apparent attempt to persuade Russia to abandon Bashar al-Assad.  He had also been ill.  Which, if either, was the real reason?
  • The withdrawal by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain of their ambassadors to Qatar, a split within the six-member GCC that seems to have arisen over differences in policy toward Egypt. The Saudis and Emiratis in particular have been supporting the military government headed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a relentless foe of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Qataris have been critical of the Egyptian military’s ouster of an elected Brotherhood government headed by Mohammed Morsi.  Qatar’s public position is that it does not support the Brotherhood as an organization but stood by the outcome of a valid election.  After the ambassadors were pulled, the four countries announced an agreement to end their dispute, but the ambassadors have not returned to Doha.
  • An invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to visit Saudi Arabia.  Given the Saudis’ penchant for blaming Iran for all the region’s troubles, and their vigorous opposition to the U.S.-led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, this initiative came as a surprise.  Not long before, Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to Iran, Abdul Rahman al-Shehri, went to visit former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an advocate of improved bilateral relations, and was photographed kissing his hand.  What does that portend, if anything?
  • The elevation of Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, who had been dismissed as director of national intelligence when Prince Bandar got that job, to the previously non-existent position of “deputy crown prince.”  Was this a preemptive strike by King Abdullah to ward off possible dissension within the royal family over the line of succession, or did it indicate that consensus has already been achieved and the family had lined up behind Muqrin?  The official announcement of this royal decree contained a tantalizing bit of information: it said Muqrin had been elevated with the approval of “an overwhelming majority of more than three-fourths” of the Allegiance Council, the group of 35 princes created by King Abdullah to deal with the succession question.  That means the decision was not unanimous. Who voted no, and why?
  • A shakeup of senior military leadership and of positions in the Defense Ministry.  The most interesting piece of this was probably the replacement of Prince Salman bin Sultan, half-brother of the ousted Bandar, as deputy minister of defense. Analysts in the Gulf described the changes as the replacement of hard-liners on Syria and Iran by more moderate personalities, but because the Saudi decision-making process is entirely opaque and the people involved never talk about it to outsiders, it may be quite a while before we can discern the significance of this, if any.
  • Staging an enormous, elaborate display of the kingdom’s military forces, complete with ballistic missiles, combat jets, and an estimated 130,000 troops, at Hafr al-Batin, in the northeastern corner of the country near the borders with Iraq and Kuwait.  It was impressive, but what was the message, and who was the target audience?  Senior Saudi defense officials were quoted in the local press as saying the kingdom has no intention of attacking anyone and was simply showcasing its preparedness.  Perhaps so, but why now?

This list is not complete, but it is instructive. People outside Saudi Arabia who try to follow the kingdom’s affairs, and I include myself among them, should remind ourselves at all times how little we really know. This is not a country where the king and senior princes have to explain themselves, and they usually don’t. Even when they do, their explanations may or may not be the whole truth. It’s not as if a committee of the legislature could subpoena them. What all these pieces add up to may become clear over time — or maybe not. Meanwhile we should be wary of drawing conclusions.

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. It is obvious that Saudi Arabia is in total confusion, both domestically and internationally.
    This country has not evolved from the last century, neither socially nor politically. It has just built more modern buildings and spent their money lavishly. The warning came with 9/11 as most of the terrorists were Saudis. The Saudi government did nothing to deal with this internal problem. Now they feel they are getting dumped by the USA less interested in their oil. They feel threatened militarily by Iran and they feel that Turkey is taking over the leadership of Sunni Islam in the region.
    No wonder they are agitated and are taking wild decisions. Contrary to Turkey, Iran and Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria, Saudi Arabia has no strong nationalist leader.

    They are now gradually accepting that Iran would be a better friend that Turkey as Shia Iran can’t be in the competition for Sunni leadership.
    They are realizing that Qatar is a dangerous, hypocritical and ruthless enemy within. It funds Sunni destructive revolutionary forces so it can later fund the reconstruction of the destroyed cities and set the ground for an economical hegemony on some poor Arab countries. Saudi Arabia is now trying to dislodge Qatar’s agents in Egypt and Libya and not allow them in place in Lebanon.
    The Saudis are also realizing that Syria is no real threat to them, quite the contrary as the Syrian army is fighting the same enemies supported by Turkey and Qatar. Therefore they are gradually changing their stance about Syria and abstain to give significant support to the Syrian rebels
    For decades, they have snubbed Russia under the pretext that the Soviet Union was atheist. Now it is
    time they move towards a Christian Russia who has a sizable moslem population as they have realized with the Syrian situation that Russia is a much more reliable friend that the opportunistic and erratic USA who dumped their ally in Egypt and welcomed a Moslem Brotherhood leader.

    I guess we will see this happening in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy
    – Gradual end of the cold war with Iran
    – Decrease support for overthrowing Bashar Al Assad
    – Increase closeness with Russia
    – Distancing from the USA
    – Deterioration of relation with Qatar

    As for their domestic problems, it is much more difficult as they are stuck in their religious conservatism that generates more problems than it solves.

  2. “This is not a country where the king and senior princes have to explain themselves, and they usually don’t. Even when they do, their explanations may or may not be the whole truth. ”

    and therein lies a good portion of the explanation for their erratic behavior. Because they don’t have to explain themselves, because they are surrounded by fawning yes-men, because they never have to face scrutiny of their policies within the country whether to a parliament or to the press, they have become their own worst enemy. In open societies and democracies presidents and decision-makers are not regarded as infallible and beyond question. Their policies are openly scrutinized and criticized. When/if those policies fail the bad decisions don’t magically disappear. Those failures are discussed afterward and to some extent influence future decisions. Though we can argue our system has many failings and we don’t fully practice all that we should, from scrutinizing leaders to questioning the cooperative role of the media in terrible foreign policy blunders they seem to keep happening, still, relatively speaking it’s far beyond the closed, mafia-like leadership practices of the Saudis. If their decisions and moves don’t make sense to us it’s because they really don’t make sense to them either. They zig and zag haphazardly and sometimes compulsively in search of what kind of traction they can get. There is no public debate, no postmortems, no cost analysis of these arrogant and half-chewed decisions. When all else fails, they drink from the “poisoned chalice” and reluctantly accept the only alternative they are realistically able to handle, such as giving up on removing Israel and learning to live alongside it, learning to stop fearing Iran and making peace with it, giving up on their dream of creating that Mediterranean corridor to Europe by removing an Assad who poses no threat to them. All that and learning the only reason they are in power is because the West wanted so and to never talk of all their grand failures.

  3. Interesting the contrast between the story and the above 2 comments. Learn something new each day.

  4. I am a Saudi myself, and have lived in the US for my MBA studies, and lived most of my Saudi. So I get both worlds. I agree with Raadmand’s reasoning. I would add that there are other reasons why this might not be easily understandable for an outsider:

    -our politicians and strategists are really amature and do things on impulse without following any established rules or doctrines
    -we are a very contradictory society that has evolved in a very short time which left us struggling on many fronts trying to understand what Islam means in this age, adding to it the following point
    -Saudi government doesnt f* care about Islam. They only care about extending their reign. Only. Everything is done in order to extend their rulership. Everything they do is in the hopes it would buy them loyality. Internaly, with influencials in soiecty and tribes, and externaly with other states and media. Thats one reason the real politics of Saudi Arabia is never covered in the likes of the New York Times.
    -Saudi government is a battle of many parties and agendas, some of them are not from Al Saud family but people very trusted by them and act on their behalf. An example is the personal secretary of the king, Khalid Al-Tuwaijri (official job title: President of Royal Court) who is actually contributing to a lot to the politics and major decisions on the King level.

  5. The entire point of the article is how no one can know what’s going on in Saudi, including high level diplomats and Washington post veteran Mideast journalists but we already have two armchair experts in the comments telling us they know EXACTLY what’s going on in the back rooms of several of the worlds most secretive governments.

    Never change comments section. Never change.

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