In a notable departure from the norm, the conduct of Saudi foreign policy has transformed from something out of sight, out of mind, into a business done in the full light of day. Traditionally, affairs were managed behind closed doors (though always with a fair dose of cloak-and-dagger), but a combination of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy stance and emboldened, outspoken royal family members has seen caution thrown to the wind. Saudi feels let down by its American ally, and royals such as Turki al-Faysal and al-Walid bin Talal have not been coy about expressing their dismay at the lack of a cohesive American policy for the region, and President Obama has come in for some particularly withering criticism. Turki is often considered an unofficial spokesperson for royal views, given the easy deniability his opinions afford, yet al-Walid has no such reputation (though he is known to speak his mind), giving some indication of how broadly held and uncontroversial their comments are at the top.
Since the spring of 2011 the Kingdom has led a counter-revolutionary charge against the so-called Arab Spring, and has been deeply involved in events in Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, and Intelligence Chief Bandar bin Sultan has been the vanguard of the movement. Despite his black sheep status and shuffling constantly in and out of favor, his skills are regarded as indispensable by the king and he is given a fair amount of leeway. Nonetheless, he takes little cognizance of bounds and his freewheeling actions are the cause of some embarrassment, though the extent of his activities is vastly overblown. Sensationalist media depicts him alternately directing snipers on the streets of Cairo and handing out chemical arms to rebels in Syria (the fact that the latter story has been by now discredited seems no obstacle to its circulation, lately appearing again in the Huffington Post).
Nonetheless, affairs have not been going well, as Egypt remains mired in chaos, with no end in sight, despite Saudi backing, and the desired outcome to the Syrian civil war - a military intervention to remove Bashar al-Assad - looks less likely by the day. Frustration bubbled to the surface after Obama opted not to bomb Assad's forces, and on the Iranian nuclear issue, there is dismay at the prospect of a western rapprochement with Tehran, as the six-nation talks with Iran show some prospects for success.
The royals were willing to throw caution to the wind to contain Iran (whose regional ambitions they fear more than the prospect of a nuclear weapon), and the Muslim Brotherhood (even at the expense of elevating tension with Turkey, which supported the Brotherhood in Egypt). al-Walid bin Talal, for example, in an interview with Bloomberg on November 22, suggested that Arab states would privately welcome an Israeli military strike on Iran if Geneva negotiations failed, and there is recurring talk of clandestine Saudi-Israeli talks on the subject (Bandar is said to have met with Israel's Mossad intelligence agency chief, Tamir Bardo, in Aqaba, Jordan). If Bandar is at the forefront, he has the king's backing, and can count the Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal and Turki al-Faysal as allies. Many of the royals, in fact, are equally motivated by a desire to see Iran contained, at whatever the cost. At the same time, however, there are hints of a mounting opposition from within the royal family to the muscular foreign policy being pursued, and here the issue intersects with domestic family politics.
As matters now stand, King Abdallah is the last king who will be able to choose his own successor. Future monarchs will be chosen by an Allegiance Commission (bay'ah), comprised of representatives of the various royal lines, which will meet in secret to decide. (The bay'ah met once previously, after the death of Crown Prince Sultan, but it seems to have been merely a formality in that case.)