As the Middle East undergoes historic changes, Saudi Arabia continues to gradually shift its foreign and defense policies to reflect both new realities in its region and changes in the global landscape. The two main components of this shift include an ongoing effort to deter Iran and enhance stability among its regional allies through a sizable buildup of its conventional military forces, including a proposed record $90 billion arms sale from the United States, and a broadening of its economic and political ties with emerging global powers such as China and India. Ties between Saudi Arabia and its longtime backer the United States remain close but have experienced serious strains in recent years as a result of the Iraq War, the recent political changes in the region and broader geopolitical shifts.
Barring unforeseen instances of internal turmoil or external shocks such as another war in the region, Saudi Arabia is quite likely to continue making measured adjustments to its foreign and defense policies in the coming years. Incremental evolution is more likely than dramatic revolution for Saudi foreign affairs as long as the country avoids an internal leadership crisis and maintains its oil wealth as a cushion to buffer against changes spreading across the region.
Events this year in Bahrain and Yemen required more rapid responses than the Saudi government is accustomed to delivering. Nevertheless, a few core foundational pillars of Saudi foreign policy remain the same: utilizing its oil wealth in efforts aimed at advancing internal and regional stability; working to promote the country’s leadership role in the Islamic world; building its conventional military forces to deter Iran; and advancing a multifaceted “soft power” approach that includes employing its economic resources and Islamist ideology to spread its influence throughout the region and the world.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry defines four “circles” vital to its interests: the Gulf region, the Arab world, the Islamic world and the international arena. In the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has played an important leadership role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional organization founded in 1981 aimed at enhancing economic, security and political cooperation among six Arab countries of the Gulf region. In response to the popular uprisings of 2011, Saudi Arabia has increased its efforts to lead the GCC responses, most notably in its intervention in Bahrain and its leadership in mediating Yemen’s political crisis, both in the spring of 2011. Saudi Arabia’s drive to build its conventional military forces and weapons purchases are largely motivated by its threat perceptions of Iran in this circle.
Saudi Arabia has been a leading country in the Arab League, playing an important diplomatic role outside of the Gulf states. As the world’s largest oil producer and the largest economy in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is an economic powerhouse that provides jobs to millions throughout the Middle East and South Asia and donates billions of dollars each year to neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia has sporadically played an active role in the Arab-Israeli conflict: It has mediated between warring Palestinian factions and proposed a comprehensive framework for Middle East peace known as the Arab Peace Initiative.
Saudi Arabia is an important leader in pan-Islamic organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference. As the site of the two holiest cities of Islam, Saudi Arabia is the host and organizer of the pilgrimage made by millions of Muslims each year to Mecca and Medina, giving it a unique position in the Muslim world. The country’s extensive charitable contributions and support of Islamic causes around the world also represent a form of Saudi “soft power” that provides much-needed assistance throughout the world, but which at times has also backed Islamist extremist movements. Finally, as a member of the G-20 and a leader in the Organization of Petroleum the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Saudi Arabia plays an important role in shaping global economic trends.
Saudi Arabia’s considerable resources should place it in a strong position to advance its national security interests, but the country in recent years has fallen short in meeting its objectives. During the past 10 years, Saudi Arabia has witnessed the spread of Iran’s influence throughout the region, most notably in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Also over the past decade, Saudi Arabia has experienced attacks and internal security threats from terror networks, such as al-Qaida, which have received support from within Saudi Arabia, although the Saudi government seems to have dealt with these internal threats in recent years.
Other examples of the limits of Saudi influence have emerged from the ongoing popular uprisings in the Middle East, which have already led to the ouster of leaders with close ties to the Saudi leadership, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bahrain, another close Saudi ally, faced a major challenge from its domestic political opposition earlier this year, and the unrest was quelled only after active Saudi military intervention. Meanwhile, the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative has failed to achieve tangible results, and the Middle East peace process remains largely moribund.
On top of these challenges abroad, Saudi Arabia faces tensions at home. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer at a time of record sustained oil prices, allowing the country to accumulate a record $480 billion in foreign assets by the middle of 2011. But despite this considerable wealth, Saudi Arabia faces significant economic inequalities among its people, generating enough popular discontent to prompt the Saudi government to provide a $130 billion stimulus package in the spring of 2011 to increase salaries and fund new housing projects. It remains to be seen whether these moves will be sufficient to address the demographic, economic and political pressures stirring within the country.
As it deals with challenges at home, Saudi Arabia looks to a regional landscape that is probably in the early stages of a long period of transformation. The perceived threat from Iran prompted Saudi Arabia to upgrade its weapons systems and increase the size of its conventional military forces, a weapons buildup that began at the middle of the past decade and which is likely to continue through the rest of this one. The popular uprisings in neighboring countries have moved Saudi Arabia to become more interventionist this year than it has been previously, sending military forces into Bahrain, playing a mediator role in Yemen and offering emergency economic assistance to Bahrain, Egypt and Oman, among other countries. In the case of Bahrain and other Gulf neighbors, the Saudi government tended to view the opposition movements pushing for political change through the lens of its threat perceptions of Iran.
Checking Iran’s Aspirations in the Gulf Region
Saudi Arabia’s top national security priority today, beyond maintaining stability within its borders, is checking the rise of Iran in a struggle over the balance of power within the Gulf region. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has shaped Saudi Arabia’s national security strategy for decades, and containing Iran’s role in the region has been a core Saudi objective since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The country’s current drive to upgrade its conventional military force is largely centered on containing and signaling to Iran as well as defending against any possible hostile actions by Tehran.
The Saudi imperative to contain Iran is driven by concerns over the balance of power and influence between the two countries, rather than by a sectarian clash between Sunnis and Shiites (.pdf). In the past decade, Saudi Arabia has increased the size of its military forces by 50 percent, from about 162,000 personnel in 2001 to nearly a quarter of a million in 2010 (.pdf). But more important than the increases in military manpower are the massive investments Saudi Arabia has made in high-quality combat aircraft and land-based missile defense systems, among other programs aimed at checking the Iranian threat and sending a message to Iran about Tehran’s nuclear program. Over the past three decades, Saudi Arabia has purchased billions of dollars worth of weapons systems from a number of countries. For example, in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia purchased intermediate-range “East Wind” ballistic missiles from China, originally designed to carry a nuclear payload but modified to carry conventional weapons before China transferred the weapons to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has also maintained close cooperation with important countries with nuclear weapons, including Pakistan and the United States, and Saudi Arabia’s conventional weapons purchases continue to move forward as the country seeks to enhance its defenses.
In 2010, the Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress of a proposed sale of $60 billion (.pdf) of military equipment and services to Saudi Arabia over the next 10-15 years — sales that would include fighter aircraft, attack and utility helicopters, and upgrades of existing Saudi weapons and aircraft . In addition to those proposed sales, Saudi Arabia is discussing an additional $30 billion in arms purchases from the United States to upgrade its naval systems, making the total military purchases from the United States close to $100 billion in the coming years.
The Saudi military possesses large quantities of current and previous generations of U.S. and European weapons. Its strength is concentrated largely in the air force, which operates 349 combat capable aircraft. Of these, 84 are F-15 fighters and 86 are dual-role F-15S and Eurofighter Typhoon fighters, with another 60 or so Typhoons on order. An additional 85 Tornado ground attack aircraft are available for strike missions. Variants of all of these aircraft are in frontline service with the U.S. and U.K. militaries.
Saudi Arabia’s land forces are divided between its regular army and the national guard, each with an estimated strength of about 75,000. The regular army has more than 100 M1 Abrams tanks, as well as 400 Bradley fighting vehicles, along with 855 artillery pieces and 12 Apache attack helicopters. The Saudi Arabia national guard (SANG) has nearly 1,500 LAV-type armored vehicles, but its primary mission is to ensure regime security. This division creates a potential weakness, since the SANG is designed to keep the regular army in check.
The Saudi navy is smaller than Iran’s, but has more large surface combatants — four frigates and three destroyers versus a large number of patrol boats for Iran. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s smaller number of ships must cover more water — the Red Sea in addition to the Persian Gulf — than Iran’s naval forces.
Despite the impressive hardware, Saudi Arabia’s military remains heavily dependent on outside support. A dedicated U.S. program manager advises and assists the SANG in its modernization and organizational efforts, while Britain also fields a small advisory mission to the SANG. Training for new F-15s to be purchased by Saudi Arabia will be conducted by the U.S. Air Force at a base in Idaho.
Much of the Saudi arms buildup is aimed at dealing with the perceived threat from Iran. Last year, classified U.S. government cables leaked by WikiLeaks unveiled the depth of Saudi concerns about the Iranian threat, particularly the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons. According to media reports on the leaked cables, Saudi King Abdullah asked the United States to conduct a military attack against Iran in an effort to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi officials have publicly raised doubts that the policy of trying to isolate Iran diplomatically and through a series of sanctions will work quickly enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s long-term program and ongoing efforts to boost its military capacity and defenses, the impact of the buildup on checking the rise of Iran’s regional influence has been minimal. In the past decade, Iran has seen its regional influence further expand into Iraq, along Saudi Arabia’s northeast border. The military purchases planned for the coming decade in some ways appear as a last-ditch scramble to deal with the strategic consequences of a regional landscape that has already transformed.
In addition to its strategies for military containment of Iran, Saudi Arabia has been working to build a coalition of countries around the world, particularly Muslim-majority countries, aimed at isolating Iran. The thrust of this effort is reportedly diplomatic, although in some instances Saudi officials have asked governments to provide security assistance to deal with issues such as the unrest in Bahrain, a Shiite-majority country ruled by Sunni leaders closely aligned with Saudi Arabia. The head of Saudi Arabia’s national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, reportedly requested Pakistan’s security assistance in trying to help quell the popular uprising in Bahrain in the spring of 2011. But thus far, the change in the region that has most altered Saudi Arabia’s threat perceptions has been that in Iraq, which Saudi Arabia perceives largely through the lens of its strategic competition with Iran.
The 2003 Iraq War and the strategic consequences of ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime from power have had a major impact on Saudi threat perceptions. In the 1980s, Iraq was viewed as a bulwark checking Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent 1991 Persian Gulf War awakened Saudi Arabia to the threat posed by the Saddam regime, motivating the kingdom to make the controversial decision to allow U.S. and other foreign troops to use Saudi Arabia as a base for military operations.
But the 2003 Iraq War altered the regional strategic landscape in ways that are still unfolding, leading to a government in Baghdad that has been more open to Tehran and adding to the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More than eight years after the start of the Iraq War, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iraq remain fraught with concerns about how closely aligned the Maliki government is with Iran. Saudi Arabia has quietly tried to support actors within the Iraqi political system they see as closer to its interests, but for now, Saudi Arabia has not succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq.
What sort of Iraq emerges from the current political transition as well as the strategic orientation it adopts will have major consequences for Saudi Arabia. So far Saudi Arabia has not viewed the outcomes in Iraq as favorable to its own strategic interests.
Responding to the 2011 Middle East Uprisings
In addition to the changes in Iraq and the rising threats from Iran and its nuclear program, the popular uprisings and revolutions spreading throughout the Middle East are forcing Saudi Arabia to reassess its priorities and engage with neighboring countries in different ways, depending on the particular bilateral relations and interests involved.
In the case of Bahrain, where the Saudi government viewed the protests as connected to its threat perceptions of Iran, the Saudi response was swift and forceful. On March 14, units of the Peninsula Shield Force of the GCC, including more than 1,000 Saudi troops and 500 Emirati police, entered Bahrain at the request of the government. The forces sent by Saudi Arabia reportedly helped secure key government buildings while Bahraini security forces worked to quell the protests.
The fact that Saudi Arabia moved in a visible and prominent way to help a neighboring country deal with domestic dissent and protests demonstrates how much of a threat it perceived coming from the unrest in Bahrain. The instability next door was too close for comfort, and the Saudi regime wanted to head off any possibility that the protests in Bahrain would inspire similar protests inside Saudi Arabia. In addition to sending security forces, Saudi Arabia backed a GCC pledge of $20 billion in economic assistance to Bahrain and Oman to be provided over the next 10 years — an effort to help shore up support in the region and head off any additional popular unrest in Gulf countries.
In neighboring Yemen, Saudi Arabia has played a prominent role in trying to mediate between domestic political factions while continuing to advance its own interests in keeping instability from spreading across its borders. For much of the spring of 2011, Saudi officials tried unsuccessfully to persuade Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Saudi Arabia initially backed Saleh early on in Yemen’s protests and violence, but as the instability grew and Saleh seemed incapable of preventing his country from slipping into a deeper conflict, Saudi Arabia became more vocal in its efforts to facilitate a transfer of power. After Saleh was seriously injured in an attack in early June, he went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, where he remains. As of the middle of the summer of 2011, the situation in Yemen remains unresolved: the political stalemate continues and the threats from terrorist networks persist. Saudi Arabia — like many other countries around the world — remains confounded by the pathway forward there.
Unlike its more prominent role in trying to mediate a resolution to Yemen’s internal conflict, Saudi Arabia’s role in addressing the ongoing unrest in Syria has been much quieter and its public stance on events in Syria more muted. The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is closely aligned with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, and Saudi-Syrian ties have been strained since the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and businessman who was also a Saudi citizen. Saudi Arabia seemingly has strong strategic reasons to seek a change in government in Syria, but it has not staked out a clear position on the turmoil there, preferring instead to take a backseat to Turkey and some European countries.
Saudi Arabia has backed NATO’s military intervention against Moammar Gadhafi’s government in Libya, in part because supporting the intervention entailed little cost. Most countries in the Arab world encouraged and supported the military action, and Saudi Arabia had its own problems with Gadhafi. The Libyan leader had allegedly plotted to assassinate King Abdullah in 2004, and in 2009 he publicly insulted the Saudi monarch, calling him a liar and denouncing him as a “British product and American ally.” However, the Saudi rationale for supporting the Libya war does not appear to be part of any broader strategic calculation. Again, the costs for Saudi support were minimal, and a possible leadership and government change in Libya would not have the same consequences that regime change in Iraq had for Saudi Arabia.
Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, represents perhaps the most strategically important country currently undergoing a political transformation in the region. Saudi Arabia was vocally critical of the way that the United States dealt with the removal of Mubarak. King Abdullah reportedly tried to persuade U.S. President Barack Obama to support allowing Mubarak to remain in power to manage the political transition, and the Saudi leader also reportedly offered to replace any assistance that the United States might have withheld from Egypt had Mubarak not stepped down.
After Mubarak’s ouster, the Saudi government increased its efforts to try to support Egypt economically during the transition, providing about $4 billion of emergency aid and loans. Saudi leaders continue to work with Egypt’s military leaders to maintain cooperation on defense and security issues while Egypt moves through its political transition (.pdf). Saudi Arabia has an interest in ensuring that Egypt’s next leaders are as closely aligned with Saudi Arabia on regional issues like Iran as the Mubarak government was, and one concern in Riyadh is how Egyptian-Iranian ties may evolve with new leaders coming to power in Cairo.
Finally, one new approach that Saudi Arabia is developing with other members of the GCC is to extend offers of possible membership to countries like Jordan and Morocco. In May, the GCC invited the two countries to apply for membership in the organization as a means to enhance the stability of the current rulers in those countries. The move was also aimed at sending a message to countries like Iran and the United States about the role GCC countries hope to play in a changing Middle East. It remains to be seen how attractive these offers for possible membership will be to the other monarchies in the region and whether the possibility of GCC membership and any financial and security assistance benefits that might come with it will be enough to help these countries stabilize and deal with the overwhelming economic, political and demographic pressures they currently face.
As the Middle East uprisings continue to unfold, Saudi Arabia will adapt. At a time of uncertainty across the region, it is difficult to predict what may happen in the long term. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia will continue to work to influence the outcomes in the popular uprisings throughout parts of the Middle East, modulating its response on a case-by-case basis according to its bilateral relations, its interests and the degree of leverage it believes it has in each particular country. The region is now more than six months into a period of transformation that may take years to completely unfold, and Saudi Arabia will continue to seek to use its considerable resources and quiet diplomacy to influence the shape and pace of that transformation.
Saudi Arabia, despite its oil wealth, economic power and unique position in the Muslim world as the country where the faith of Islam was revealed faces some of the same challenges and dilemmas that other countries like the United States and Europe are facing in trying to develop responses to the popular uprisings in the Middle East — deciding where, when and how to try to influence change in individual countries and assessing how much real leverage it has inside the complicated political dynamics of each affected country. This has resulted in a reactive, ad hoc and largely tactical approach to the changes in the region.
Challenges from Within and the Coming Succession
Although Saudi Arabia has thus far been largely immune to the waves of protest and calls for political change sweeping across the region, the oil-rich country is facing internal pressures for change of its own, although not as organized and vocal as in other countries. It also faces an inevitable change in leadership with an aging king and successor who have both had recent health problems. Tensions between generations in Saudi Arabia may surface when the current king’s rule comes to an end. In 2006, King Abdullah created a new family council called the Allegiance Commission, a 35-man body charged with selecting the next crown prince after the current one, Prince Sultan. However, the process by which this commission will select future Saudi leaders is opaque.
The leadership in Saudi Arabia has recognized the threats it could face from within if pressing economic, social and demographic problems are not addressed. Earlier this year, after returning to Saudi Arabia following several months of medical treatment and recovery out of the country, King Abdullah announced a series of domestic spending measures dedicated to addressing problems like unemployment and insufficient housing. The total stimulus package on the Saudi home front this year amounts to about $130 billion, a sizable amount in a country with a population of less than 30 million. As a result, Saudi Arabia has thus far been able to maintain internal stability, and some observers predict that the Saudi regime will remain in a strong position to weather the regional changes and political transformations in neighboring countries. But this depends in large part on how well the Saudi government responds to the concerns of its own people at a time when a leadership change is on the horizon.
Saudi Arabia Continues to Expand Its Ties Globally
As it faces the regional threat from Iran, new challenges from the political changes in the region and internal pressures, Saudi Arabia has continued to adapt its global presence as well as to diversify and deepen its relationships with emerging powers around the world.
As the proposed arms sales from the United States demonstrate, the Saudi government remains closely dependent on its strategic partnership with Washington. Still, the bilateral relationship has become slightly more distant and less closely aligned in the wake of the region’s political upheaval. These changes in the U.S.-Saudi relationship had already begun in the previous decade, with the attacks of Sept. 11 and the 2003 Iraq War having created new strains. As longtime expert Robert Lacey noted, “If [the Sept. 11 attacks] took the ‘special’ out of the U.S.-Saudi ‘special relationship,’ the U.S. invasion of Iraq killed it stone dead — for the time being, at least.”
As a result of the recent changes in the region and the broader transformations underway in global geopolitics, Saudi Arabia has worked to expand its bilateral ties with emerging powers like China and India. Over the past 30 years, economic ties and trade between China and Saudi Arabia has grown substantially — China’s economic growth requires additional sources of energy, and about a quarter of China’s oil imports come from Saudi Arabia. Chinese oil companies have joined in cooperative efforts with Saudi oil firms to develop refineries in China, and the economic and commercial interests shared by the two countries are likely to grow. In addition, the two countries have looked for ways to signal expanded bilateral ties through moves like plans to sign a civil nuclear cooperation deal, announced in the spring of 2011. Finally, both Saudi Arabia and China on their own terms and in their own cases have each opposed efforts by the United States and other Western countries to promote democratic political change in the region — in 2004, for instance, both countries opposed the G-8’s Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative to advance such political reform (.pdf). Nevertheless, in the latest wave of uprisings throughout the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and China have not developed a common agenda.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh in February 2010, the first by an Indian prime minister in nearly 30 years, signaled the consolidation of a new era of bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia. During the past five years, the two countries have worked closely to map out a strategic partnership on a wide range of issues, including security, defense, economic and energy ties. Saudi Arabia has also worked to enhance bilateral ties with Russia, looking to that country as another supplier of military equipment and weapons.
Saudi Arabia’s national security approach continues to gradually adapt as the Middle East experiences historic transformations. Nearly six months into the region’s popular uprisings, Saudi Arabia finds itself trying to keep up with the fast-moving events and respond to the changes.
The highest priority for Saudi Arabia has been to preserve internal stability, and it has acted swiftly to maintain a degree of stability within its borders and in neighboring countries including Bahrain and other GCC states. It continues to view Iran as its principal threat and immediate rival, and this has shaped Saudi perceptions about many of the protests and calls for political change in the region. The Iranian threat has also continued to motivate Saudi Arabia to seek major arms deals with countries like the United States and Russia.
In seeking to shape regional dynamics, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to have the GCC play a more active role beyond its immediate region. Saudi Arabia has also moved to use its oil wealth to help its closest allies in the region quell internal violence, and it will continue to try to shape outcomes in places like Yemen and Egypt.
But for all of its oil wealth and conventional military power, Saudi Arabia continues to fall short in advancing its own interests. Despite Saudi worries about Iran’s rising influence, it has yet to serve as a check against Iran throughout the region. The Iranian government’s abuses against its own people have done more to undermine Tehran’s credibility in the Middle East than any moves by Saudi Arabia have. Similarly, despite Saudi Arabia’s repeated calls to support the Palestinian cause, Riyadh has not crafted an effective strategy with other Arab governments to help achieve a lasting peace agreement in the Middle East as envisioned by the Arab Peace Initiative first introduced by Saudi Arabia nine years ago. In fact, smaller countries like Qatar have at times rivaled Saudi influence in addressing certain regional crises, such as in Lebanon.
At a time of sustained high oil prices, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, has considerable financial resources to make its influence matter in the region and the world. The question remains whether the country has a coherent strategy to deal with the fast-moving changes spreading across the Middle East.
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.