From the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which stated that Washington regarded ambitious European countries with plans to colonise the Americas as potential foes, to the 2015 Obama Doctrine that redefined US foreign policy as an act of collaboration rather than confrontation, successive American presidents affixed their names to a series of promulgations that bridged gaps between faith and practice.
Over the weekend, President Barack Obama defined his doctrine to the New York Times as engagement while preserving capabilities, even if “people don’t seem to understand” it that, to put it mildly, shocked some. In the aftermath of the recent “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” Obama’s explanations fell flat especially when he was asked how he protected “Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia”.
He responded that these countries faced very real external threats, though he added that more serious internal pressures existed — “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” Obama continued: “And so part of our job is to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defence capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [Daesh or the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] to choose from.’ ... I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries ... That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
Whether Obama is justified to make wild generalisations about America’s “Sunni Arab allies” will now be debated across the region with gusto. What he may wish to take under advisement, nevertheless, is the emergence of a new doctrine, one that is as valuable as his own, and that will permanently change the area.
By virtue of its custodianship over Islam’s holiest shrines and because of its commitments to lead the Muslim World, it fell on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to assume the burden of leadership. Riyadh thus committed itself to defend both faith and security, which were long-standing, but were permanently etched in the nation-state that emerged after 1932. In fact, every ruler that rose to the Saudi throne after the founder affirmed Riyadh’s quest for self-reliance to protect the country’s territorial integrity that, by definition, translated in a similar preference for all neighbouring nations. In other words, the Saudi monarchy now shouldered by King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, opted to defend the nation-state, not militias or renegade forces that pretended to vent internal dissatisfactions.
Of course, Arab monarchies created various institutions to accommodate legitimate political rights even if these were not comparable to the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, which belied the dissatisfaction bandwagon. Towards that end, and like his predecessors, King Salman believed in gradual transformations that harvested the talents of an increasingly educated population, though each ruler insisted on retaining as well as preserving indigenous traditions.
An equally important feature of the ‘Salman Doctrine’ is to form and lead strong coalitions against regional foes that threatened internal stability. Riyadh perceived the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as its core environment, supplemented by Arab and Muslim cluster-alliances as necessary. There were, to be sure, differences over what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance could manage to do, and while the Sultanate of Oman reserved the right to stay out of several GCC economic and security planks, Muscat was not as alienated from this core alliance as generally assumed. It preferred to play a mediation role, which it was encouraged to do because none of the GCC countries sought war and destruction as their ultimate goals, though each member-state, including Oman, was committed to protecting and defending the existing nation-states.
A second important feature of the ‘Salman Doctrine’ is to confront challenges and, if necessary, to increase military commitments. Ironically, leading western powers prevented Arab leaders from intervening and sending forces to solve regional problems ostensibly because none could be trusted or, worse, no Arab State would be allowed to muster the wherewithal for fear that it would turn this might against Israel. In the post-2011 era, when serious domestic and regional threats emerged, leading Arab powers could no longer afford to abide by such constraints. Riyadh was now determined to crush Yemeni rebels and restore the legitimate government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sana’a. It was determined to end the terrible human sufferings in Syria and elsewhere at a time when traditional human rights champions preferred to watch from afar.
The third characteristic of the ‘Salman Doctrine’ is its rejection of the Munich Syndrome that seeks to appease repeated aggression. It took nearly a century after Abdul Aziz restored the Saudi monarchy for his successors to adopt assertive steps, but few should doubt that Riyadh was determined to protect and defend its core national security interests. What King Salman displayed was serenity as he implemented policies that stood up to regional bullies. It was the type of engagement that relied on the country’s core capabilities — its faith and legitimising institutions.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the recently published Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.