Why is Saudi Arabia becoming the major power in the region?

Adel Al Toraifi
May 6, 2007
Saudi-US Relations Information Service

When the recent fight broke out between Fatah and Hamas militants in Gaza, the whole Middle East was affected by the brutal and unprecedented struggle over power in the Palestinian territories. Egyptian efforts to curb the deadly carnage failed and for the first time in the history of Egyptian mediation Hamas accused Cairo of siding with its opponents by supplying arms and ammunition to Fatah factions. The internal Palestinian war stopped only after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called upon both parties to negotiate a unity government in the city of Mecca. Surprisingly, both parties agreed within hours. For Fatah it was the only option to avoid the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, created by the Oslo Peace Process. As for Hamas, it sought to seize the opportunity of Saudi recognition due to what had been a cautious Saudi policy towards the rise of Hamas power after the 2006 elections.

The Mecca agreement signed between the Palestinian parties in February 2007 is one example of how Saudi Arabia is becoming a major regional power. Although Saudi power and diplomacy have clearly been effective since the early seventies, the last three years have brought great changes to the definition and dimension of Saudi power.

Historically, Saudi power in the region has experienced ups and downs and it is possible to frame these into three main intervals. The first reflects the creation of a modern kingdom in the heart of the Arab peninsula that encompasses the two Muslim holy places, Mecca and Medina. Due to its expansive landscape and relatively large population it played a highly influential role among its neighbors. Although Saudi power did not extend beyond the Gulf, when the Arab nationalistic wave spread across the Middle East and several monarchies were overthrown in a series of revolutions and military coups, the Saudis faced a major challenge. Consequently, until the end of the sixties Saudi resistance to Nasserism pushed the monarchy towards reliance on its western allies. The second phase in Saudi Arabia’s regional role can be attributed to a number of major events; first, the Arab defeat in 1967 by Israel, which spelled the decline of the Arab National movement of Nasser, and second, the rise of oil prices in the early seventies, which triggered the formation of a strong wealthy state, and the exercise of Saudi financial power as a heavy-duty tool in its foreign policy.

The Nixon administration observed this transformation and promoted a Middle East doctrine asserting the necessity of supporting moderate regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to counter Soviet interference in the Middle East. Therefore, dependency on America by Saudi Arabia and Iran grew significantly during the seventies and by the early eighties three major petroleum countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran) played a larger role in Middle East affairs while a weakened Egypt struggled to maintain its position.

The eighties provide a good example of Saudi effectiveness in the region. At first, the fall of the Shah to an anti-American regime alerted the Saudis to oppose the Shia Islamist revolution by helping to arm Iraq and counter the Mullahs ideologically. In addition, the Saudis moved against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and led a pan-Islamic resistance to the communist occupation, which served American and western policies. From controlling oil prices worldwide to exercising its financial wealth in the region and abroad, the Saudis were able to hold an unprecedented position in the Middle East, and appeared to be an important mediator in Arab and Islamic affairs, brokering monumental peace treaties such as the Taif accord (1989) and the Afghan peace talks (1993).

However, Saudi power experienced a setback throughout the nineties. The initial reason for this was the first Gulf War (1991) when the Americans and Saudis orchestrated the formation of an international coalition to liberate Kuwait and stop Saddam Hussein’s aggression towards his neighbors. Saudi Arabia’s invitation to American and western troops was opposed by Arab nationalists and Islamists across the Middle East, and inflicted inconceivable damage on the Saudi image among ordinary Arabs who were opposed to American foreign policy. However, the setback in the rise of Saudi influence became most evident when King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Although Saudi foreign policy remained the same, the weakness of the ruling Saudi king had an effect on the country. The immediate outcome was that Saudi policymakers found themselves more reluctant to interfere in regional affairs unless they were driven to it. In other words, they drew back from initiating steps and fostering agendas and instead priority was given to national politics.

King Abdullah was handed the foreign and economic files around the end of 1997. In the region he was known and respected by many leaders but his popularity did not extend beyond his fellow citizens, and in the West he was mistakenly observed as a pro-Arab nationalist and a critic of the West. Things worsened when the second intifada (2000) erupted following the failure of peace talks. Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab countries, like Egypt and Jordan, was criticized for not putting more pressure on their American ally. Although the Saudis did argue seriously with the Bush administration over the devastating situation in the Palestinian occupied territories these efforts where overshadowed by September 11th. The Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on America using young deluded Saudis had a catastrophic impact on the Saudi-American relationship and in many ways limited the Saudi role in the region. For more than three years the Saudis faced significant challenges, specifically American pressure to initiate changes in the social and education system, an increased terrorism threat within the country and several national problems like reform calls, poverty and unemployment, all of which required serious attention.

King Abdullah took over in August 2005, after the death of King Fahd, and carried out a comprehensive reform plan that included political, economic and educational changes. However, more significant is the rise of King Abdullah as a regional leader of special status. Certainly, the fall of Iraq as a power and the rise of Iran as a threat to the region have helped to enforce the Saudi position in the Gulf region and in the rest of the Arab world. But that does not explain Saudi Arabia’s current role nor does it answer the growing popularity of the Saudi ruler.

Since the late sixties, when certain influential Arab leaders, like Nasser of Egypt and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, passed away, there has been great demand within the Arab nations for a symbolic hero, a father figure leader. Saddam Hussain tried to establish himself as the new pan-Arab leader, as did other heads of state of his generation, without success because the inter-Arab conflicts and turmoil within their own countries swept away their ambitions. King Abdullah seems different. By being a simple, direct statesman he has escaped being characterized using negative stereotypes and has escaped criticism because he was not present during the difficult days of the eighties and early nineties.

Today, he enjoys the virtue of being a leader without a troubling past. Hence, across the Middle East he is gaining considerable acceptance, and even during the hard days of last July when Israel retaliated against Hezbollah attacks, the Saudi king stood firm in condemning Hezbollah’s actions and later Israel’s disproportionate response. Although Saudi Arabia was attacked and criticised by anti-Israeli protesters, who raised flags and displayed posters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, King Abdullah was not targeted at all. In fact, he was later praised for bringing together Iraqi religious leaders for a peace dialogue in Mecca and for curbing the Palestinian civil war.

The last Arab Summit in Riyadh presented a clear view of how Saudi Arabia is reviving not only its regional role and power, but also becoming the only Arab country capable of challenging Iranian ambitions in Iraq and Lebanon. With Egypt lagging behind owing to critical domestic problems, Saudi Arabia appears the single player in Arab affairs. This, however, has brought enormous pressure to bear on Saudi Arabia to intervene in almost every conflict in the Middle East from Iraq to Darfur, and the Saudis are already juggling too many issues at once.

However, two main differences can be seen in the new Saudi ascendancy: first, they are acting completely independent of any pressure, namely the United States, and this can be observed from the fact that the Saudis are speaking to and even dealing with states that America refuses to deal with. Currently, they are conducting intensive meetings with the Iranians; they still talk to Syria despite their own resentment; they are conducting a mediation mission between different Lebanese factions and moreover they have received Hezbollah officials despite last year’s confrontation. What is even more surprising is that America is increasingly relying on Saudi regional power. With its continuous stumbling in Iraq, America is looking to Saudi Arabia to ease the tensions in many situations. This might explain why it patiently swallowed King Abdullah’s description of the American presence in Iraq as an “illegal occupation.” Some might say that America has come to realize that he no longer speaks for himself alone but rather as a leader of the Arab states.

The second change in Saudi power is that it no longer relies on its religious status or its wealth, but on its own prestige and soft power. With around fifteen highly anticipated visits of dignitaries and heads of state, excluding the last Arab Summit, since the beginning of this year Saudi Arabia has surpassed every other Middle Eastern capital as the main destination of outside visitors to the region seeking to strengthen relations with the rising star of the desert. Furthermore, with the Arab Peace Initiative gaining momentum around the world, the Saudi king is becoming more determined to help resolve current conflicts within the region.

The future of Saudi power is not yet clear, but many argue that it could last longer than it did previously. Iraq seems to pose a great challenge, which the Saudis are very cautious about dealing with. However, with deaths reaching nearly one hundred every day, according to recent UN figures, the Saudis may need to engage in aiding America in Iraq and pressuring its neighbors to stop their costly interference. If America decides to encounter Iran soon, Saudi Arabia’s unique position could be significantly affected. The 1990 Gulf war is a good example. The Saudis are eager to resolve the Iranian issue diplomatically and avert American attempts to escalate the situation with Tehran. Nevertheless, some critics in the region still accuse Saudi policies of being responsible for creating a seemingly polarized environment. However, the Saudis reply that they are merely reacting to what is happening rather than opting to change anything. The good news is that King Abdullah is not in search of a grand legacy. He is simply doing what he thinks is right, and this is what makes his country’s power special.

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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