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Saudi Arabia’s quest for strategic autonomy

  • Published
    12th Apr, 2023

The present condition of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy with changing dynamics and shifting to an Expansionist policy can change the situation for countries in South Asia as well as in Central Asia.

  • Saudi Arabia is a nation with a foreign policy which has always centred on Iran.
  • It is now reaching out to old rivals, holding talks with new enemies and seeking to balance between great powers.

How is Saudi foreign policy changing?

  • For years, the main driver of Saudi foreign policy was the kingdom’s hostility towards Iran.
  • This has resulted in proxy conflicts across the region.
  • As Saudi Arabia is India's fourth largest trading partner and more than 18% of India's crude oil imports are sourced from Saudi Arabia.
  • It becomes important to look at its foreign policy as a benchmark for India’s changing concerns in West Asia.

Global influence:

The Saudi economy is the largest in the Middle East; the world's eighteenth-largest economy by nominal GDP and the seventeenth-largest by PPP.

Saudi’s expansionist approach:

  • Recently, Saudi Arabia has announced a deal, after China-mediated talks, to normalise diplomatic ties with Iran.
  • Soon after, there were reports that Russia was mediating talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which could lead to the latter re-entering the Arab League before its next summit, scheduled for May 2023 in Saudi Arabia.
  • Recently, the Saudi-Omani delegation travelled to Yemen to hold talks with the Houthi rebels for a permanent ceasefire.
  • All these moves mark a decisive shift from the policy adopted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
  • This is happening at a time when Saudi Arabia is also trying to balance between the U.S., its largest arms supplier, Russia, its OPEC-Plus partner, and China, the new superpower in the region.

Reasons for Saudi’s shift:

  • China has offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh; the Saudis found it as an opportunity and seized the deal.
  • Iran would continue to drive Saudi Arabia’s security concerns and strategic calculus.
  • But Saudi Arabia’s response to the Iran problem has shifted from strategic rivalry and proxy conflicts to tactical de-escalation and mutual coexistence.

What are the implications for the region?

  • The challenge before Saudi Arabia is to retain the course of autonomy without irking the U.S. beyond a point.

Impacts on India:

  • Saudi’s closeness with China:
  • The unexpected diplomatic rapprochement with Iran, brokered by China has highlighted the renewed pragmatism of Saudi Arabia, a leader criticised in the past for erratic decisions that have led the ultra-conservative kingdom into an endless war in Yemen, an aggressive blockade of neighbouring Qatar and a bitter rivalry with Iran, its regional nemesis.
  • Also, Saudi Arabia strengthens its bilateral relations with China, its main trading partner.
  • Russia and Saudi Arabia:
  • Ties between the two countries expanded following the launch of the OPEC+ oil production deal in 2016 and King Salman bin Abdulaziz's historic first visit to Moscow in October 2017.


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