Opinion and Editorial

Saudi Arabia: The kingdom’s geopolitical preoccupation

Matein Khalid
Filed on February 1, 2005

FEW nations have been as preoccupied with external security as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Blessed with one fourth of the proven world’s oil reserves, the kingdom is the regional financial superpower of the Arab world, the central bank of oil and quintessential swing producer within Opec.

The Saudi oilfields have attracted external subversion ever since King Abdulaziz united the tribes of the Najd, Hijaz and the Eastern Province in his kingdom in1932. King Abdulaziz fought the Ikhwan zealots in the 1930’s, King Saud faced Nasser’s anti-monarchist brand of pan-Arab socialism and Egyptian military intervention in the Yemeni civil war, King Faisal survived abortive coup attempts and conspiracies instigated by Baathists. King Khalid’s reign witnessed the Iranian revolution, the killing of Sadat and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah have navigated geopolitical traumas as diverse as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, an abortive coup in Bahrain, the first Gulf war, the Intifada, the September 11 attacks, collapse in oil prices, smear campaign against the kingdom in the American media, a chill in relations with Washington and, above all, Bin Laden’s campaign to delegitimise and overthrow the House of Saud. The world has become a dangerous place for the traditional monarchy, which rules the birthplace of Islam and the home of its two holiest shrines but derives its international security from its historic alliance with the US — a special relationship initiated on a warship in the Suez in 1945 between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz.

The House of Saud’s Washington connection has outraged Arab extremists and radicals for two generations even though every Saudi king since Faisal bin Abdulaziz has done his best to plug in to the West’s phenomenal economic and technological colossus. Yet, there have been recurrent themes in Saudi foreign policy that have remained constant in the reign of all five Saudi kings. Saudi Arabia took its role as the conscience of the Islamic world and the bulwark against atheist Soviet communism seriously enough to bankroll the Afghan Mujahideen with billions of petrodollars and supported Islamist parties from Pakistan to Sudan. Saudi Arabia’s ‘riyalpolitik’ was a significant factor in Sadat and Assad’s decision to launch a coordinated Syrian-Egyptian campaign against Israelis in the October 1973 war. The Islamic dimension in the kingdom’s foreign policy, whose embodiment was Faisal’s repeated public desire to pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque, does not allow Riyadh to accept any Israel-Palestine settlement that does not liberate Jerusalem from Zionist occupation.

Saudi foreign policy has been remarkable in its consistency and its reliance on diplomacy to mediate inter-Arab disputes. After all, the peace settlement that ended the Lebanese civil war was mediated in Taif, the royal family’s hill resort in the Hijaz. Prince Abdullah attempted to mediate Saddam’s grievances against the Al-Sabah sheikhs of Kuwait in the fateful summer of 1990 even as two Iraqi Republican Guard divisions crossed the international border into the Gulf emirate. Saudi Arabia never resorted to military force in its various territorial disputes with Yemen, Iraq or other Gulf states. Even though the country boasts one of the most formidable high-tech weapon arsenals in the region, it seeks to be a status quo player rather than a revolutionary power, as Kissinger would put it.

The architects of Saudi foreign policy - foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal, ambassador to Washington Prince Bander bin Sultan, ambassador to London Prince Turki, director of foreign intelligence Prince Nawwaf - are some of the most experienced diplomats and statesmen in the Arab world. Prince Saud studied economics at Princeton, was Shaikh Zaki Yamani’s deputy at the Ministry of Petroleum and has been foreign minister since 1975. Prince Bander, who flew F-16 warplanes for the Saudi Air Force and lobbied Congress for years, has been the longest serving ambassador in Washington with impeccable contacts in the White House and Capitol Hill.

Prince Turki, Clinton’s classmate at Georgetown, was the kingdom’s guardian against Soviet subversion during the height of the Cold War. I can’t think of a foreign policy team in the Mideast as brilliant and as experienced in diplomacy as the four princes.

The seismic shift in post 9/11 international relations has meant a paradigm shift in Saudi foreign policy. Riyadh has placed a new premium on its relations with France, Russia, China, and Britain as its relations with Washington came under the 9/11 strain. Hence, the new $4 billion gas exploration contracts to Lukoil, Totalfina, Sinopec, Repsol and Shell in the Empty Quarter. With its explosive birthrate, unemployed graduates and threat from extremists, Riyadh can no longer play high stakes poker in the oil market and risk the sort of crude oil price crashes that happened in ‘80s and ‘90s because the linkage between recession and political instability is now evident. The Saudis will also have to recalibrate a new security policy and architecture now that the US has positioned its fifth fleet in Bahrain, its air force base and central command in Qatar, its military bases across the Muslim world in an arc from Turkey to Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia has also decided to open up its huge economy and capital markets to foreign investors, shedding its image as a hermetic host to foreign ideas and capital. The WTO accession, the crackdown on extremists, the rapprochement with the Ayatollahs in Teheran, the strategy to forge ties with the new economies of India and the Pacific Rim, the assertive role in trade within the GCC, the staunch support for pro-Western regimes that range from Musharraf’s Pakistan to Hashemite Jordan to Mubarak’s Egypt.

Saudi foreign policy is both subtle and sophisticated. The kingdom’s role in the Arab-Muslim world and on the larger world stage has changed. Yet the search for security remains the kingdom’s most primordial geopolitical preoccupation, as it was when Abdulaziz’s warriors conquered the Arabian Peninsula for the first time since the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate seven centuries ago.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker and analyst

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