x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Riyadh seeks new allies further afield

The best way to be certain of peace is to ensure it has enough friends to stand alongside

This weekend, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is expected to fly into Islamabad to sign an agreement sealing the kingdom’s new defence and security cooperation with the nuclear-armed Asian state. Once concluded, the deal will bring the militaries of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia closer than ever before.

That the kingdom is taking a more proactive stance towards its own security and seeking to both solidify regional alliances – such as with its Gulf neighbours – as well as seeking friends further afield is entirely due to events currently occurring in the region. Riyadh does not seek conflict, and has concluded that the more friends it has the more likely it will be to keep this at bay.

It is no secret that Riyadh is unhappy with the United States over the latter’s response to the Syrian civil war and its sudden tilt towards Iran. It is chiefly because of that displeasure that Barack Obama will fly into the country next month to meet King Abdullah, seeking to mend relations with the country’s closest Arab ally. But he is unlikely to find his hosts in a mood for pleasantries. The kingdom is unhappy that the US, after so many years as the pivotal power in the region, now appears to be washing its hands of the conflict in Syria. And with violence from the conflict spreading to Jordan – which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia – and to have also overflowed to Lebanon – which threatens Saudi interests in the country – the war in Syria is very much Saudi Arabia’s problem too.

What the expected new agreement with Pakistan means is harder to read. But the subtext is clear: that if the US cannot offer a full guarantee of peace and security, there are others who can help. That does not, as some have speculated, mean that Riyadh is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons – it is, after all, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the kingdom cannot be expected to remain idle while its rival across the Arabian Gulf openly enriches uranium.

In a carefully worded op-ed in The New York Times in December, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK wrote: “The West has allowed [Iran] to continue its programme for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponisation.” One might conclude that Riyadh has decided that the best way to be certain of peace is to encourage an environment with an oversurfeit of friends.