For the past 50 years, Saudi Arabia has been endlessly engaged in defending and expanding its position in the Middle East. This is, in part, a function of its self-image as the guardian of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest shrines in the Islamic world, but it also reflects its dominant role as the world’s largest repository of oil and as one of its largest producers. Ironically, these two factors behind the Kingdom’s foreign policy have made, at times, uncomfortable bedfellows, particularly when set against its domestic politics and foreign attitudes towards them. Yet, at the same time, one of these factors – oil – has also on occasion been the driver of the other.

A Conservative Regional Power?

Reluctant British support during the First World War had enabled ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud to construct the Kingdom as a political entity. However, it was American oil interest in the early 1930s and the explicit promise of American military protection in return for the free flow of oil, confirmed when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met the Saudi King at the Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal in mid-February 1945, that marked its advent as a regional power. For the United States, the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, was a “stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” as an internal State Department memorandum expressed it in 1945,[1] which the United States would not ultimately allow any other power to control. Saudi Arabia became, in effect, one of the two pillars of American policy in the Gulf — alongside the Shah’s Iran, which the Saudis saw as their rival — for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

For Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the alliance meant that it, in turn, could resist other potential hegemons in the Middle East such as Nasirist Egypt, which it forced into defeat and military withdrawal from Yemen in late 1967. Saudi support for Royalist forces there in the 1960s, who opposed Egypt’s endorsement of and military aid for the Nationalist rebellion against the Imam highlighted an aspect of Saudi policy which has since become increasingly important. This was its essential conservatism, sustaining an established political order against the radicalism that the end of colonial domination in the region had introduced, despite the fact that it was a Wahhabist state. This, expressed as a commitment to Islamic orthodoxy as well as to established order, has been the bedrock of its approach to the wider world. It has, moreover, been successful in marginalizing radicalism in the region, at least until the new century dawned. Ironically, the policy has had a radical side as well, for Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of initiatives to revive Islam within Central Asia, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Essential American Ally

Despite American support for Israel, Saudi Arabia has seen this essential conservatism as part of its engagement in America’s objectives for the region, at least up to the end of the 20th century. Thus, combining this wider engagement with its determination to act as the dominant power in the Gulf, it resisted Iraqi pretensions after both the 1958 Revolution and the Ba‘thist coup ten years later which eventually brought Saddam Husayn to power. It also viewed with alarm the Iranian Revolution in 1979, concerned both about Iranian claims to revolutionary religious hegemony and about the threat this implied to American regional control. Yet, typically, when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was created in 1980 as a mechanism designed to exclude both Iraq and Iran from regional security, Saudi Arabia saw the new organization as a vehicle for its own regional dominance — as it has now become in economic and political terms, even if its relevance to regional security was undermined by both the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Indeed, the 1980s saw the Kingdom and its American patron thrown ever closer together. By the time Washington changed its diplomatic posture towards Iraq in 1984, Saudi Arabia had become, alongside other Arab Gulf states, the paymaster for Iraq’s military confrontation with Iran. The Kingdom also articulated its antagonism to the Soviet Union, whose ideology was based on atheism and socialist radicalism, through mobilizing support for the mujahidin in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979. With covert American financial and military support, Saudi Arabia encouraged tens of thousands of Muslims to join the ranks of the Afghan resistance, albeit with ultimately catastrophic consequences when committed Muslim extremists were dispersed throughout the Middle East after the Soviet withdrawal.

Those consequences achieved their horrific apogee on September 11, 2001 with the al-Qa‘ida attacks on New York and Washington. Immediately afterwards, relations between the two allies nosedived, as the American media and politicians held Saudi Arabia in some way responsible for these events, largely because a majority of those who had conducted the attacks turned out to be Saudis and because Wahhabism was held to predispose young Muslims to anti-American extremism. The coldness in relations was underlined two years later when Saudi Arabia failed to play a major role in the American-led invasion of Iraq, unlike the role it had played in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. At the same time, the United States took the opportunity to move its military command headquarters to Qatar. Since then, Saudi Arabia has taken a highly nuanced attitude to American experiences in Iraq and has not embraced the new government in Baghdad, largely because of the dominant role played by Iraq’s Shi‘a majority and Iraq’s close relations with Iran.

The Current Situation

The distancing in US-Saudi relations continues, particularly after the accession of King ‘Abdullah to the Saudi throne in 2005 — although he had been the effective leader of the country since 1996 when King Fahd suffered a disabling stroke. The new King is anxious to see an end to the chronic problems of the Middle East, chief among them the ongoing crisis with Israel. Therefore, in 2002 Saudi Arabia proposed a peace plan based on Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 frontiers and the creation of a Palestinian state — a proposal which received generalized support throughout the Arab world and, latterly, from the new Obama Administration. However, Saudi sensitivities towards the United States, inflamed after September 11, 2001, remain raw, and the Kingdom has not been prepared to facilitate American initiatives to bring Israel to the negotiating table by spontaneous concessions to the Jewish state.

Over the past decade, especially after the American-led invasion of Iraq and the ascent to power in Iran of radical conservatives around Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly concerned about the threat of a new wave of radicalism in the Middle East. Together with Jordan and now with Egyptian backing, it has spearheaded the conservative response in what has been called the New Arab Cold War. This sets conservative and moderate states against the “Shi‘a arc of extremism” — radicals such as Iran, Syria, the Hizbullah movement in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza (particularly after the latter’s electoral victory in January 2006). This has created some strange linkages, such as moderate reluctance to intervene in the crisis caused by the December 2008 Israeli Army invasion of Gaza, despite long-standing support for Palestinian aspirations. Now that Saudi Arabia’s relations with Syria have improved, perhaps these tensions will dissipate as well.

The Future

Much will depend on the attitude to be adopted by the Obama Administration towards Arab-Israeli peace and towards Iran, the latter now identified by Riyadh as its major regional challenge. Despite Iranian protestations that its nuclear plans are peaceful in nature, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies fear the implications of a new nuclear power in the region and are initiating plans for nuclear power of their own. At the same time, the Kingdom does not intend to knuckle under American demands for increases in oil production in order to force world prices down. Nor will it abandon its leading role inside OPEC or its uneasy partnership with Iran over the future of the global oil market which it forged in 1998 when the King, then Crown Prince, made the first high-level official Saudi visit to Tehran.

Now, 30 years after the Iranian Revolution that revived the rivalry for spiritual and political leadership in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia still confront each other across the Gulf, divided by ideology but united by a shared concern over their control of oil and gas as the driver of the world economy. Both strive for the attention of the world’s sole hyperpower, despite its waning resources. Yet both are also distrustful of its embrace, one because of its revolutionary purity and the other because of the bruising consequences of radicalism at the start of this decade. However, since neither can embrace the other as an ally, both must seek external partners to give their hegemonic ambitions meaning. For Saudi Arabia, in short, the United States is the inevitable partner, whatever moral antagonism remains.


[1]. Cited in Joe Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), p. 34.