Saudi Arabia and the Middle East Conflict

Not an Enemy of Israel

On the one hand Saudi Arabia is, together with Israel, the most important US ally in the Middle East; on the other, Saudi Arabia lays claim to a leadership role in the Arab and Muslim world, where radical anti-Israel positions are widespread. By Guido Steinberg

Saudi Arabia's King Abdallah (photo: AP)
When it comes to its policy towards Israel, Saudi Arabia and King Abdallah are caught between a rock and a hard place

​​As a result of Saudi Arabia's complicated and ambiguous set of alliances, the Saudi government is permanently under pressure as a result, with some of that pressure coming from domestic sources.

As a result, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly made efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and has itself twice (in 1981 and 2002) offered its own peace plans. But at the same time domestic and regional opinion has repeatedly demanded that Saudi Arabia use its position as the world's most important oil producer to take action in the Arab cause.

Meanwhile, since the failure of the peace process in the year 2000, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly keen to find a peace agreement which would solve its dilemma, especially since its priority in foreign policy began to move to the Gulf Region in 1979. Saudi Arabia needs its security alliance with the United States more than ever now to protect itself from an increasingly aggressive Iran, and only progress in the Middle East conflict will disarm critics of the alliance.

Unique position in the Arab world

Saudi Arabia has let itself be pressured by Arab public opinion into getting involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict only once, in 1973. At that time, as a result of increasing oil revenues, Saudi Arabia had become the leading power in the Arab world. When the USA voted for additional funds for Israel during the second week of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by Saudi Arabia, imposed an oil embargo on the USA and the Netherlands.

The Saudi government had been hesitant to take this step, fearing negative economic consequences. And indeed, the high prices for oil in the seventies were a major factor in the crisis in demand in the eighties which threw the Saudi state into economic and political difficulties which lasted until 2002.

The then King Faisal, who ruled from 1964 to 1975, wanted to avoid taking a clear position against the USA and Israel and he only acted reluctantly on the boycott as a consequence of enormous domestic pressure. In the event, the embargo turned into a fiasco for Saudi Arabia since domestic and regional opponents of the Saudi government failed to be won over by it.

The conflict with Iraq and Iran

Since the seventies Saudi foreign policy has been concentrating on the conflict with Saudi Arabia's two powerful neighbours, Iraq and Iran. Whatever the rhetoric coming out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has felt more threatened by them than by Israel.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal in Washington, US (photo: AP)
Seeking protection against its aggressive neighbours, Saudi Arabia's intensified its ties with the US in the 1980s

​​Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Saud royal family's main fear was of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, but it was also distrustful of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, an attitude which proved justified when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Saudi Arabia's ties with the USA became ever closer during the eighties.

The USA set up a modern military infrastructure in Saudi Arabia which, in 1990, allowed them to deploy several hundred thousand troops and their equipment within a few weeks. The development and maintenance of this infrastructure remains the main element in the American-Saudi security partnership. This obvious dependence on the USA, Israel's most important ally, is a major issue for Saudi Arabia, especially for domestic political reasons.

Unlikely convergence of interests

The Saudi government has tried to solve its dilemma by adopting an anti-Israeli rhetoric while trying to find a solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The then Crown Prince (now King) Abdallah presented his peace initiative in February 2002. He offered Israel normalisation of relations with all its Arab neighbours in exchange for the return of all the land occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

The members of the Arab League adopted the initiative in their Beirut Declaration the following month. Abdallah's initiative made clear once more how keen Saudi Arabia is to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians. King Abdallah has confirmed his country's willingness to contribute towards a solution by inviting Hamas and Fatah to Mecca for talks in an attempt to mediate in the conflict between the two movements.

Saudi Arabia fears that Iran may emerge the leading power in the region, and it wants to stop Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's government's influence over Hamas, and thus over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That explains the unlikely convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel in preventing Iran from extending its claim to lead the Arab world.

Guido Steinberg

© 2007

Guido Steinberg is a researcher with the Research Unit, Middle East and Africa, at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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