Motivated by old and new security anxieties, and above all, by its sectarian competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia is playing a new game in South Asia. In a dramatic shift from prior decades, warming ties with India have already served Riyadh well by steering New Delhi away from a closer partnership with Tehran. Separately, reenergized links with Pakistan offer Riyadh even more potent ammunition to counter Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions.
Although Western analysts tend to view Saudi policies through a Middle Eastern lens, Riyadh's South Asia play is a high-stakes gambit with direct consequences for Iranian nuclear developments, the war in Syria, Pakistan's stability and Indo-Pakistani peace. Fortunately, if Washington is clever and a little lucky, many of Riyadh's moves with Islamabad and New Delhi can be turned to the U.S. advantage.
Throughout its modern history, the insular and fabulously wealthy Saudi monarchy has grappled with domestic and regional security anxieties despite extraordinary military expenditures. At home, the state's official sponsorship of the austere Salafi school of Sunni Islam has created particular problems with the country's Shia minority on the one hand, and with radical and violent Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, on the other. At the same time, the tradition-bound, dynastic politics of the Al Saud family poses an obstacle to the sort of reform that would encourage broad-based economic growth and political participation.