Saudi Arabia's Deterrence Strategies Against Iran: A Balancing Act of Diplomacy and Military Enhancement

Saudi Arabia is adopting a comprehensive strategy combining diplomacy, external security partnerships, and military development to counter Iranian threats, vital for the success of its Vision 2030 economic and societal transformation plan.

Nov 21, 2023 - 05:24
Nov 26, 2023 - 19:35
Saudi Arabia's Deterrence Strategies Against Iran: A Balancing Act of Diplomacy and Military Enhancement
Photo above: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (L) speaks with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan (2nd R) on June 17, 2023, in Tehran, Iran. Photo by Matin Ghasemi/Borna News/Aksonline ATPImages/Getty Images.

Saudi Arabia, in the face of increasing threats to its national security from Iran, is exploring a multifaceted approach to bolster its deterrence capabilities. This strategy is crucial for the success of the Kingdom's ambitious Vision 2030, an initiative focused on economic restructuring and reducing oil dependency. The Kingdom's main deterrence options include diplomacy, external protection, and enhancing military capabilities. The Middle East Instiute has curated a study and list of what the Washington, DC-based think tank believes are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's main deterrence options against the growing Iranian threat they face.

1. Diplomatic Efforts: Despite the challenges posed by differing threat perceptions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, diplomacy remains a key strategy. Learning from historical examples like the Egypt-Israel peace process, Saudi Arabia understands the potential of diplomacy in averting conflict. Recent engagements with Iran, including talks in Baghdad and a Chinese-sponsored accord to normalize relations, reflect Riyadh's evolving stance on negotiations, despite uncertainties about Iran's commitments​.

2. Seeking External Protection: Saudi Arabia has contemplated securing official security guarantees from external allies like the United States or China. However, the likelihood of formal defense pacts with these nations is limited. China, despite mediating the Saudi-Iranian normalization deal, is unlikely to commit to significant security responsibilities in the region, given its strategic partnership with Iran and reliance on oil imports from both nations​.

3. Military Capability Enhancement: Recognizing that self-reliance is essential, Saudi Arabia is committed to transforming its defense establishment. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) spearheads efforts to overhaul the Saudi defense forces, focusing on building a robust defense foundation beyond merely procuring equipment. This comprehensive transformation aims to convert the Kingdom's defense budget into actual combat power, aligning with the broader societal and economic changes envisioned in Vision 2030​.

4. Ballistic Missile Development: An emerging aspect of Saudi Arabia's deterrence strategy is the development of ballistic missile capabilities, potentially enhancing its short-term deterrent posture. Collaboration with China in advancing its missile program indicates Riyadh's determination to establish a more assertive defense stance. However, this approach entails risks and costs, both reputational and tangible​.

In summary, Saudi Arabia's strategy to counter Iranian threats is a complex blend of diplomatic efforts, seeking external alliances, and enhancing military capabilities. This multi-pronged approach reflects the Kingdom's recognition of the nuanced dynamics of regional security and the importance of a balanced, comprehensive strategy in safeguarding its national interests.

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