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Carnegie: What to Make of Saudi Hand-Wringing

Author: Frederic Wehrey
October 15, 2013

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"This absence of clear unanimity in the Gulf, combined with the momentum of U.S.-Iranian talks, leave Riyadh few options. Moving forward, it is likely to follow in the broad wake of U.S. policy, but with a greater preference for hedging. It may pursue multiple, overlapping policy initiatives as a form of insurance, some of which may clash with U.S. strategies and goals."

These are troubling and uncertain times for Saudi diplomacy. A string of regional upsets and friction with the United States has cast the kingdom into rocky, uncharted waters. Washington's support of the Islamist government in Egypt and its response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria elicited outrage and accusations of U.S. unreliability and even betrayal from Riyadh. Then came the slight warming in U.S.-Iranian relations—highlighted by the unprecedented phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. That mild rapprochement brought to the fore an old specter: an U.S.-Iranian breakthrough that marginalizes the Gulf states and erodes their long-standing position as beneficiaries of U.S.-Iranian hostility.

On the editorial pages of Saudi newspapers, columnists have sounded familiar themes with new levels of intensity: The Gulf is being shut out of regional negotiations. The United States was duped on Syria and Iran. The Gulf needs to adopt a more muscular, unilateral approach to safeguard its own interests, and it should cultivate new security patrons to compensate for U.S. capriciousness, perfidy, and retreat from the region.

But what does this latest round of hand-wringing, protest, and introspection really mean in terms of new directions in Saudi foreign policy?