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Saudi Arabia's King Shakes Up Region With Assertive Foreign Policy


Saudi Arabia's king has been on the throne for just a few months, but he's already shaken up the region with his foreign policy. King Salman launched an air campaign in Yemen against Shiite rebels known as Houthis. He's also increased support for anti-government rebels in Syria. The moves appear to challenge Iran's expanding influence in the region, which the Saudis have long done from behind the scenes, but no longer. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us from the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: And Deb, beyond the fact that Saudi Arabia has a new king, what accounts for this newfound assertiveness?

AMOS: It reflects ambition, anxiety and a power vacuum. The usual regional powerhouses, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, are in chaos. And the region is deeply unstable. Everybody's looking for leadership. There's also plenty of anxiety. The Saudis face multiple threats - low oil prices, the militants of ISIS and what they see as encirclement by Iran. The Iranians back proxies in Baghdad, in Damascus and on the southern border in Yemen. And that's why the Saudis organized this coalition of Arab states to launch these airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. They took over the Yemeni capital earlier this year. I talked to Jean-Francois Seznec. He's an academic. He's a Gulf specialist. And here's how he describes the Saudi objective in Yemen.

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: I think the purpose of the Yemen operation is not so much to beat the Houthis. I think the Saudis are trying to prove to themselves and to the world that they have some kind of military force, that, OK, it may not be perfect; but at least they have a lot of airplanes, and they can bomb the hell out of people.

AMOS: So what Seznec is saying is this is a projection of power.

MONTAGNE: And how is this projection of power playing out there in Saudi Arabia and also the neighborhood?

AMOS: Well, you know, regionally, the Saudis are backed by nine Arab states and Yemen. And this is all about standing up to Iran. Domestically, I've seen giant billboards in the capital backing the decisive king. Those are put up by local companies, and you can see it on social media. Saudis applaud the Yemen campaign. The nationalism here is striking. You know, there's no public opinion polls here, so I talked to Ali al Shihabi. He recently wrote a book on the kingdom, "Between The Jihadi Hammer And The Iranian Anvil," and here's how he described the Saudi mood.

ALI AL SHIHABI: There was a concern among public opinion that why are we so weak in perception. So I think it was very well received by the Saudi public that suddenly the kingdom bared its fangs. The perception before was that Saudi Arabia was a very timid player, and all it would do was write checks.

AMOS: You know, Shihabi says this is a new posture for the Saudis. They may make mistakes, but the new king has set the tone.

MONTAGNE: Of course, the Saudis have been a key ally of the U.S. What do you know about how U.S. officials view these latest steps?

AMOS: This new muscular stance by the Saudis, as Washington well knows, comes in part as a reaction to the looming U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis are traditionally dependent on the U.S. for security, but they fear that this new relationship with Iran comes at their expense. I think still, the Saudis depend on U.S. intelligence, on arms sales. The U.S. is the number one supplier of weapons to the kingdom. So the Saudis are not likely to do anything to jeopardize their longtime relationship with Washington. But Washington is having to adjust to this new muscular policy in the region.

MONTAGNE: Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.