Saudi Arabia's Foreign Policy under King Abdullah

Growing Challenges, Limited Room to Manoeuvre

Since King Abdullah ascended the throne five years ago, Saudi Arabia has distanced itself from the United States and pursued a more active regional policy than in the past. According to Middle East expert Guido Steinberg, however, despite this change in policy, the kingdom has not been able to stop Iran becoming the leading power in the region

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (photo: AP)
Before becoming King, Abdullah was considered to be a religious conservative and heavily pan-Arabic in his outlook; this has only partly proven to be the case in the five years of his rule

​​ When King Abdullah succeeded his deceased half-brother Fahd as Saudi Arabian monarch five years ago, many observers of international politics – and apparently many in the US administration too – were sceptical. Abdullah was considered religiously conservative and more pan-Arabic and less pro-American in his outlook than his half-brother, who remained an advocate of his country's very close ties with the US throughout his 23-year reign.

Since the 1990s, Abdullah's critics have been afraid that he might try to replace the alliance with the US with closer ties with neighbouring Arab states like Egypt and Syria.

A number of other scenarios highlighted the fact that Abdullah might pursue a more aggressive policy towards the peace process in the Middle East and a substantial rapprochement with Iran. Proponents of these theories repeatedly pointed to the fact that in August 1990, just after Iraq had occupied Kuwait, Abdullah apparently voiced vehement opposition to King Fahd's decision to call American troops into the country.

Although the worst fears of Washington's strategists were not realised, Saudi Arabia has under Abdullah's rule distanced itself from the US and pursued a much more active regional policy than it has in the past, a fact that has led to ill-will between the Saudi kingdom and the US on a number of occasions.

Ironically, this development seems to have less to do with the King himself and his foreign policy convictions and much more to do with the Saudi disappointment about American policy in the region and the conviction that Saudi Arabia must fill the vacuum left by America's loss of influence following the debacle in Iraq. Riyadh is largely helpless in the face of Iran's rapid rise as a leading power in the region.

Iran's path to supremacy

Abdullah's accession in the late summer of 2005 took place at a difficult time. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in Iran in the summer of 2005 at the latest, Riyadh has woken up to the reality that Saudi Arabia's regional policy is in serious crisis. The Saudi Arabian leadership is afraid that Iran is trying to secure its supremacy in the Gulf region – and in the Near East in particular – with the help of its nuclear programme.

Former US president Bush and King Abdullah (photo: AP)
The Iraq War as a bone of contention: much to the Saudi leadership's dismay, Washington's Iraq campaign unwittingly assisted Tehran in its ambitions and destabilized the region

​​ It is a fact that Tehran has been trying for decades to be seen as the dominant power in the Gulf region and always tries to exert as much influence as possible in those areas inhabited by Arab Shiites, i.e. in the Gulf states, Iraq and Lebanon.

Again and again, this pretension to supremacy has led to conflict with its Saudi Arabian neighbours. The combination of Iran's nuclear programme (which the Saudi leadership is convinced is primarily intended for military purposes), Ahmadinejad's aggressive rhetoric, and Iran's increased influence in the region has virtually provoked the government in Riyadh into a more active regional policy.

Distancing itself rhetorically from the US

Yet there was also another reason for Saudi Arabia's concern, namely the US policy in the region, from which the new king has distanced himself – at least rhetorically – on a number of occasions. The cause of this concern was the impression that the US government had failed in the two areas that are of greatest importance to Saudi Arabian foreign policy, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fight for hegemony in the Gulf.

As far as Abdullah is concerned, the Bush administration should have played a much more active role between the Israelis and the Palestinians in order to stop the escalation of violence after the start of the second intifada at the end of 2000. The other reproach made by the Saudi leadership is that by forcing the regime change in Iraq, Washington unwittingly assisted Tehran in its ambitions and destabilized the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo: AP)
Two kinds of nightmare: As a rising power in the Gulf region, Iran constitutes a serious threat to Saudi Arabia

​​ Overall, the Iraq War provided an important inducement to Saudi Arabia to adopt a more active policy. Riyadh was extremely worried to see a Shia-dominated government coalition with close ties to Iran assuming power in Baghdad in spring 2005.

The fact that a victory of the Shia militia became increasingly likely in the confessional civil war that subsequently broke out, only made the situation worse from the Saudi point of view. As far as the Saudi Arabian leadership is concerned, Arab Shiites are the natural allies of Shia Iranians. The fact that the US, Saudi Arabia's most important ally, had in Abdullah's view virtually handed Iraq, which had until then been dominated by Sunnis, to the Iranians was greeted with a complete lack of comprehension and resulted in enormous pressure to take action.

Solidarity with Iran's opponents

From 2005 onwards, Saudi Arabia's most important regional policy objective was to curtail Iran's efforts to achieve hegemony not only in the Gulf region, but also in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Syria. Saudi Arabia was now Iran's greatest adversary in the Arab world.

Ismail Haniya and Mahmoud Abbas (photo: AP)
Ismail Haniya and Mahmoud Abbas: According to Guido Steinberg, the Mecca Agreement and Saudi Arabia's attempts to redress the balance between Fatah and Hamas have caused tension between Riyadh and Washington

​​ In this dispute, Saudi Arabia primarily sought the solidarity of Iran's opponents (such as Egypt, Jordan and the small Gulf states) and players like the Fatah movement under Palestinian President Abbas and the Lebanese March 14 Alliance. At the same time, Saudi Arabia tried to limit Iran's room to manoeuvre by defusing domestic conflicts in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The limitations of such a policy became very apparent in the case of the Palestinian territories, where Riyadh helped negotiate the Mecca Agreement in February 2007. The result of this agreement was that Hamas and Fatah formed a joint government of national unity.

However, the Mecca Agreement and Riyadh's attempts to redress the balance between Fatah and Hamas turned out to be a source of conflict with Washington. Although the US government shared Saudi Arabia's anti-Iranian motives, it was rigorously trying to isolate Hamas. This was the exact opposite of what Riyadh was trying to achieve and, as a result, the US government undermined the plans of the Saudi Arabian leadership. At the Arab League summit in March 2007, Abdullah criticized the American boycott of the Palestinian authority.

Just how put out Abdullah was is illustrated by the fact that he spoke about the Americans' "illegal occupation of Iraq". The US stuck to its strategy regardless. In the months that followed, Riyadh was forced to watch helplessly as the US destroyed the fruits of Saudi Arabia's attempts to mediate. First, Washington encouraged Fatah to seize power from Hamas. Then, in June 2007, Hamas went on the offensive and violently seized exclusive control of the Gaza Strip.

The weaknesses of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy

Despite all Saudi Arabia's initiatives since 2005, the kingdom has not been able to halt the rise of Iran. One reason was that Saudi Arabia had no suitable response to Iran's nuclear programme. Although Saudi Arabia wants to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it faces a dilemma.

GCC Summit meeting (photo: AP)
Summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council: King Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Doha: According to Guido Steinberg, although Saudi Arabia is now Iran's greatest adversary in the Arab world, Iran's steady rise has revealed the weaknesses in Saudi foreign policy

​​ It is reported that Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, told President Bush in May 2006, "We have two nightmares about our relationship with Iran. One is that Iran will develop a nuclear bomb, and the other is that America will take military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb."

It is hard to say which of the two scenarios constitutes the worst nightmare for the Saudi leadership. Although there is growing evidence that Riyadh would prefer a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, the Saudi leadership is well aware that the Gulf states would be the first victims of any Iranian reprisals. In this way, Abdullah's policy showed signs of helplessness.

There are a number of reasons for the failure of Saudi Arabia's regional policy under King Abdullah. These reasons have much to do with the fact that because of its military and demographic weakness, Saudi Arabia cannot act as a counterbalance to Iran. It would have needed strong allies, but its old competitor for the leading position in the Arab camp, Egypt, could not assume the role of partner as a result of its own domestic problems.

It ultimately became evident that Saudi Arabia cannot impose its regional policy interests against the will of the US government. This was made all too clear by the matter of the government of national unity for the Palestinian territories.

Elderly ruling elite

Prince Faisal (photo: AP)
An ageing elite: King Abdalluh is 87 and all his potential successors are well over 70. Pictured: Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal

​​ This is where King Abdullah comes into play. The king is now 87 years of age. Not only that but the consequences of the fact that the Saudi Arabian leadership is aging with him have been becoming increasingly clear since 2005. Officials from the Gulf region have complained that important politicians in Riyadh cannot be reached for days on end.

The situation is not likely to change much under any of Abdullah's possible successors either. The crown prince and minister of defence, Sultan, is already 85, and the next in line for the throne, minister of the interior, Naif, is 77. Ironically, many Saudis consider the governor of Riyadh, Salman (74), to be their greatest hope.

Given the challenges the country could face in the coming years if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, this is problematic. Saudi Arabia needs to completely regenerate its ruling class as soon as possible.

Guido Steinberg

© 2010

Guido Steinberg is a doctor of Islamic Studies and a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. From 2002 to 2005, he was the Federal Chancellery's advisor on international terrorism. His book Im Visier von al-Qaida. Deutschland braucht eine Anti-Terror-Strategie (In al Qaeda's sights. Germany needs an anti-terrorism strategy) was published recently.

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Edited by Lewis Gropp/

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