During the era of the mid-eighties when I frequented Saudi palaces, drank tea and feasted on Mansaf with politicians and al-Saud loyalists, the royal palace of King Fahd relied often on an advisor named Ali bin Musallam. Sheikh Ali, as he was referred to out of respect, is a Saudi Ismaili from the Najran region whose intellect, astuteness, and craftiness helped al-Saud avert many international jams. I remember him as a sharp-tongue Saudi, full of confidence and bravado.
Musallam earned the respect of the royal court even though the Ismailis of the time blamed him for failing to use his powers to protect their faith.
Between Bandar bin Sultan as the Saudi Ambassador to the US and Ali bin Musallam in the royal court, Saudi Arabia averted many international disasters and rode the waves of great military success (Desert Storm War). Syria, today, has its own Mohammad Nasif Kheir Bek whose shadowy cunning has saved the Assads from many disasters.
Saudi Arabia of today, in my opinion, lacks the cunning of a Musallam. Its foreign policy is predictably boring and one-themed if one discounts the bold move taken by Prince Faisal al-Saud when he refused the UN seat on the National Security Council. Mostly, the foreign policy relies on a dictum of carrots with more carrots to follow if the first batch fails to satiate the greed. Saudi Arabia, for all the religious power it has, is incapable of standing-up militarily to smaller countries because its vast lands were united with sparsely roving tribes. Less than 1% of its lands are cultivable.
Strategically speaking, Saudi foreign policy and government expenditures crisscross each other often. When the Kingdom fails to reach a policy solution with its allies or foes, it relies on acquiring weapons or services from that ally to resolve its problem. That one-dimensional approach needs a facelift, not because of supply and demand, but because strategic thinking in the 21st century has become a more difficult task. Strategic Studies Institute sums it up this way:
“Good strategy development requires the military professional to step out of the planning mindset and adopt one more suited for strategic thinking. In the strategic mindset, the professional military strategist embraces the complexity and chaos of the strategic environment and envisions all its continuities and possibilities in seeking to create favorable strategic effects in support of national interests.”
Saudi Arabia needs to step out of its carrot program and begin the process of evaluating why and how it has gotten itself in the corner and with her the tens of millions of Arabs who have come to rely on her intuitive patience. The Arab public cannot defeat the Iranian Mullahs or their evil alone (Demonstrated this amply in Syria); nor does it seem Arabs are able to rely on Saudi Arabia to save them from an emerging evil to our East. All we can do is help the Saudis expand their vision, drop their failed tactics, and embrace a different approach that relies more on cunning and craftiness than on carrots.
If such organism of craftiness cannot be inbred from local talents (a clone of Ali bin Musallam), then it is incumbent upon al-Saud to acquire such talent from a large existing pool of brilliant strategic thinkers in the West. The promise of millions a year in compensation with more to come if the strategy is successful is far more lethal against Saudi enemies than the billions Saudi Arabia is wasting buying weapons left and right with few to operate them and knowing well they are the most expensive scarecrows in the world. Think of how valuable Imad Mughnieyeh was to Hezbollah. Probably more valuable than all the missiles in its possession.
Saudi Arabia needs to erect its own top secret strategy center whose job is the study and evaluation of Iran and whose solutions deal with how to defeat the Mullahs of Iran by helping the Iranian people the way the Mullahs are helping Assad. And for heaven’s sake, trust westerners and non-Saudis to expand your horizons. The narrow filament of loyalism has not served Saudi Arabia well so far.
If Saudi Arabia is to win this battle, it is through strategy, not carrots. It is through playing chess, not Dominoes.