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World Saudi Arabia's return to an aggressive foreign policy

King Salman surprised observers last year by moving quickly to position the kingdom even closer to the xenophobic Wahhabi religious establishment.

Uncredited/AP

Saudi Arabia is charting a new course in foreign policy.

King Salman, 80, on the throne for not quite a year, seems bent on returning the kingdom to the aggressive dogmatic ways that characterized the early days of his father's kingdom almost a century ago.

"Saudi Arabia under King Salman has become an assertive regional force, prepared to back its interests with hard power," said David Hearst, editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye.

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Rejecting U.S. and European calls for human-rights reforms, King Salman surprised observers last year by moving quickly to position the kingdom even closer to the xenophobic Wahhabi religious establishment. These clerical leaders preach an intolerant form of Sunni Islam that denounces Shiites and other so-called heretics.

At the same time, the King gave extraordinary powers to two members of the next generation of royal princes. Dismissing a half-brother who had earlier been named to succeed him, King Salman made as Crown Prince his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, 56, a man known for waging a ruthless campaign against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other domestic threats (including simple protesters). The King then named as Deputy Crown Prince his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old Defence Minister known for his unbridled ambition.

It was Prince bin Nayef who oversaw the mass executions of 47 convicts on Saturday, including that of a dissident Shia imam whose death sparked a foreseeable outrage in Iran and among Shia communities throughout the region.

And it was Prince bin Salman who launched last year the aggressive air and land war against Zaydi Shia rebels who had deposed a pro-Saudi government in Yemen. Previous Saudi interventions in Yemen "were clandestine, covert affairs," noted Bruce Riedel, a former CIA operative and Middle East adviser to four U.S. presidents. No more.

This action was "by far the most assertive foreign policy move in the kingdom's recent history," Mr. Riedel said in an essay written for the Brookings Institution in September. "King Salman is projecting Saudi military might in an aggressive manner unprecedented since the days of his father Ibn Saud in the 1930s. The stakes are high," he cautioned.

But the war in Yemen is not going well for the Saudis, who seem mired in a stalemate despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars a month to conduct largely an aerial campaign. If the Saudi-led Arab coalition is not going to retreat, it must prepare the cash-strapped kingdom for a major campaign against Yemen's Shia rebels.

Add to that the fact that Iran, the region's dominant Shia power, has been on a roll the past few months and one can understand just why the Saudis decided it was time to throw a match in the region's tinderbox.

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The nuclear limitation agreement reached in July with the UN Security Council has given Tehran a new lease on life. With the prospect of international sanctions being lifted, Iran already is entering into fresh relations with several countries in Europe.

Its ability to soon sell even low-cost oil to foreign consumers will provide the country with badly needed funds and allow Tehran to share some of those funds with various militant groups it supports in the region.

Jumping the gun, Iran already is testing a new class of long-range missiles, capable of easily reaching any target in Saudi Arabia.

And the war in Syria, being waged by Saudi-backed rebels against the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad, has begun in the past few weeks to go Iran's way, thanks to the intervention of Russian forces last fall in support of the Assad regime.

A political solution to that conflict is not good enough for Saudi Arabia. The Assad regime, Riyadh believes, must be turfed from office once and for all and the majority Sunnis be allowed to form a government. To that end, the peace process, scheduled to resume on Jan. 25, needed to be halted – hence, the execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr.

"Salman is a risk-taker," said Mr. Riedel, who believes Saudi Arabia wanted this Iranian reaction. Severing ties with Iran, he says, will likely scuttle those talks.

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At the same time, the Saudi leadership must be mindful of dissent on the home front; not just from Shia dissidents in the Eastern Province, but from the majority Sunni population who are beginning to feel the pinch from the deflated price of oil. Saudi subsidies that often are doled out to win popular support are being withdrawn and taxes are being raised to try to address the shortfall in available public funds.

Wary of popular resentment, the royals may well be encouraging regional conflict with Iran and its clients in order to unify the country against the enemy and in support of the King.

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