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Paul McLoughlin

Saudi foreign policy: a double edged sword

The Syrian opposition is being dominated by Salafi groups [AFP]

Date of publication: 10 July, 2015

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Analysis: After forty years as foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal put Saudi Arabia on the map, but the path left a bloody legacy that could haunt the kingdom in the future.

The impact of Prince Saud al-Faisal's paradoxical foreign policy will be felt long after his death.

Faisal was the face of Saudi Arabia on the global stage for four decades and his policies have been shrewd, pragmatic, and contradictory.

He left his post in April as the world's longest serving foreign minister knowing that Saudi Arabia was in a more dominant position than it was four decades earlier. 

However, power came at a price and it now faces a myriad of new threats to its regional dominance.

First is Iran, which for three decades was enemy number one to both Riyadh and the Washington.

In the coming days, Tehran should conclude a deal with the West, China and Russia that will end a crippling embargo on the country and usher in a new period of prosperity and exposure for its people.

At the same time, Iran has also been carving out its own sphere of influence to rival Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria.

Saudi Arabia is faced with a more unorthodox threat in the Islamic State group. In one year, the extremists have turned Syria and Iraq into an apocalyptic wasteland and challenged Saudi-backed rebel groups. 

Believing in no borders apart from its own and that the "caliph" rules supreme, no country - not even Saudi - is able to control the militants. 

Added to this, IS have made the overthrow of the al-Saud monarchy one of their ultimate goals and their popularity appears to be growing among young Saudis.

Backyard warfare

Even in Faisal's final month in office his government made a gamble, which could cost him his legacy.

Saudi Arabia's military campaign against "pro-Iranian" forces in Yemen was meant to humiliate Tehran, but the Houthi and pro-Saleh troops look far from defeated.

The campaign has highlighted the ineffectiveness of the hugely expensive Saudi military in some areas, and it has been unable to prevent militants firing rockets back into its territory.

With a "Ramadan ceasefire" declared Riyadh has come out red-faced with most of its objectives not achieved and the Houthis continuing the rule most of Yemen.

When Faisal took over as foreign minister in 1975, the hermit kingdom was just beginning to use its oil revenues to carve out influence in the world.

The oil price shock of 1973 was the first sign of Saudi Arabia's potential when it launched an oil embargo against the US following Washington's support for Israel during its war with Egypt and Syria.

Riyadh's economic ploy sent oil prices shooting upwards to unprecedented levels, while stocks and shares plummeted. It shattered the illusion of US and European "untouchability".

Wahhabi influence

Religion, particularly Saudi Arabia's puritanical form of Islam, became a cornerstone of its foreign policy and a way of satisfying radicals at home.

     Saudi Arabia's puritanical form of Islam became a cornerstone of its foreign policy and a way of satisfying radicals at home.


State-sponsored Salafi missions have reached every part of the Muslim world. Salafi groups, mosques, charities and textbooks continue to be exported to Muslim communities from Europe to Indonesia.

Key targets of these missions have been the sufis and moderates in South Asia and the Arab world, and some societies – such as Pakistan - saw Salafi ideas creeping in due to Saudi Arabia's proselytising zeal.

However, Saudi Arabia was to find a new enemy with "Islamic" credentials equal to its own.

Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was identified as the biggest threat to the Saud family. Despite the threat posed by Gulf countries and Iraq to his newly born republic, the ayatollah continued to rouse Muslims urging them to rise up and overthrow "corrupted" kings and dictators.

The revolution led to two immediate consequences inside Saudi Arabia, which threatened the ruling family.

One was an uprising in Saudi's Shia-majority eastern province who were inspired by the ayatollah's revolutionary zeal and tired of decades of oppression.

The second was by a group of fundamentalists who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca late 1979 under the military guidance of the messianic figure, Juhayman al-Otaibi.

He believed that by seizing the holy site he would bring about the start of the apocalypse, which of course was never realised but did frighten Saudi's ruling classes into acting.

Both revolts were brutally suppressed, but while Riyadh catered to Wahhabi extremists - by banning cinemas, music stores and photos of women - the Shia continued to be oppressed and marginalised.

When Iran and Iraq fought a war of attrition, Saudi Arabia threw in its lot with Saddam Hussein and financed his military campaigns to the tune of billions.

Holy war

Despite Saudi Arabia criticising the "radical" and "violent" excesses of Iranian revolution, Riyadh saw no irony in using Islam and oil money to arm and inspire often brutal anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups in Afghanistan.

Riyadh said it would match what the US paid into the mujahedeen "dollar for dollar" and US-Saudi spending ran into the billions.

Saudi channelled arms and fighters to one of the poorest countries in the world and championed the mujahedeen cause.

Afghanistan became a meeting place for young Salafis from across the world and a testing ground for "Salafi jihadism".

Some of these Afghan Arabs - led by Osama bin Laden - would form al-Qaeda from the bands of foreign and local fighters who based themselves in Pakistan.

Although the al-Qaeda leader turned his ire on the al-Sauds, funds from the kingdom continued to reach the extremists.

In leaked cables, Hilary Clinton described Saudi Arabia as a "critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban… and other terrorist groups" as late as 2009.

Yet despite Saudi diplomats, including Faisal, publically distancing Riyadh from al-Qaeda and other Salafi groups, two key events highlighted its continued ties with the "Salafi-jihadi" tendency.

In the power vacuum that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia saw a chance to extend its influence into the country and give its old foe Iran a bloody nose.

Sunni and Shia extremists targeted mosques, market places and streets during the Saudi-Iranian proxy war, which left hundreds of thousands dead.

The same battle is being fought out in Syria a decade later. Saudi-financed Syrian rebels are battling regime soldiers, Hizballah fighters and Iranian militants and special forces.

     The past three years of the revolution has seen the side-lining of secular rebels by extremist groups and the suppression of activism.


However, the result of this has been jihadi domination of the rebel camp. It has left many Syrians believing that their revolution has been hijacked by Saudi Arabia who has no interest in bringing democracy to Syria.

Practically all rebel groups now speak of establishing "sharia" in Syria - rather than "rule of law", "inclusive democracy" and "human rights".

This year has shown that Saudi Arabia is not safe from the extremists, and IS-linked attacks on Shia mosques in the kingdom have shattered the peace its citizens had recently enjoyed.

However, Riyadh continues to support dictators in the Arab world such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, which has caused it to lose the moral high ground against tyrants such as Assad.

It has also lost the respect of once sympathetic Muslims.

A schism between secularists and Islamists in the region has never appeared wider due to the turmoil in Syria, Iraq and Libya. 

Saudi Arabia's Salafi speakers who tour the region are viewed with suspicion by many and seen as extensions of Riyadh's "soft power". 

They are seen as both a threat to cohesion in religiously mixed countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt - due to their oratory skills and persuasion - and ridiculous following a series of bizarre fatwas issued by the same scholars.

Despite its efforts to influence youth in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia's obsession with Iran - which has seen Riyadh statesmen even work with Israel - has shown the kingdom to be an insular, suspicious, and warlike state.

Although for the past forty years Saudi Arabia has attempted to reach out to the world, its methods have often been cumbersome and self-obsessed.

Its policies are in some ways reminiscent of the Ikhwan militants of the early 20th century who had a vehement hatred for non-Wahhabi Muslims and spread their message - what we might call, today, Salafi extremism - by the sword.

Meanwhile neighbouring countries pursue foreign policies that show the progressive side of their regimes, to bring in tourists, expertise and investment.

Yet Saudi Arabia remains committed to the same foreign policy it began forty years ago - fighting its enemies abroad and appeasing radical Wahhabis at home.

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