SAUDI ARABIA AND THE POLITICS OF RELIGION
The role picked up by Saudi Arabia of defending Sunni orthodoxy has led the country to developing a foreign policy influenced by such a religious premise. Without technically being one, when it comes to foreign policy, the Saudi regime is more like a theocracy than like an oligarchy. In practice and in the context of the Arab and muslim world, foreign policy and religious proselytism walk hand in hand. In Saudi Arabia, both are favored by the huge financial resources provided by the reign. They both support one another, but at the same time each influences and limits its counterpart.
In general terms, Saudi foreign policy and, as a consequence, its national security policy are based on two main pillars:
the political and strategic cooperation with the United States (on an international level),
the role played by the Gulf Cooperation Council (on a regional level).
To these two elements we have to add the already mentioned religious policy, the impact of which is mainly on a regional level.
Over the last 70 years, the relationship with the United States has been a constant in the reign's foreign policy. Since the 14th of January 1945 when U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and king Abdul Aziz signed a secret agreement, the USA have taken over the strategic defense of the Saudi reign in exchange for oil supplies (Ryad currently trades 25% of global black gold). Washington provides Ryad with security, weapons, political support in the quarrels with other regional powers and receives in exchange, besides from energy supplies, the support for any action or initiative they might undertake in both the muslim and arab world.
Think of the Saudi bases supplied to the U.S. for their attack on Iraq in 1991, the support provided – always against Saddam Hussein – for the attack in 2003 and the assistance granted for operation “Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan. The Saudi Arabia-United States relationship has been so close and so apparently indissoluble until religion has started influencing Saudi foreign policy and has lead to frictions (for instance, there has been increasing hostility to having U.S. bases on Saudi soil and there have been terrorist attack).
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), founded in 1981 and composed by the countries bordering the Arabian gulf (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrein, Qatar and Oman), promotes and applies military, commercial and political cooperation among member countries. This does not mean there are no contrasts or disagreements among the members of the GCC. Firstly the hegemonic role Ryad tries to impose is put into question. Saudi Arabia would also want to enlarge the Gulf Cooperation Council to other countries, recently Jordan and Morocco were both invited to join. Overall, the GCC fulfills the minimal coordination and cooperation role that the repeated turbulences in the region request.
Iran's Ahmadinejad and Saudi King Abdallah
The Iranian rival and Syria
Saudi Arabia's main rival, both as a regional power and as a religious power, is Iran. A power and religious struggle confronting Sunnis and Shiites. Shiism and Sunnism are Islam's two main theological currents in historical competition amongst them. Saudi foreign policy should be observed and analyzed along the lines of this political, military and religious dualism.
Currently the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has taken the form of a proxy war, like the one ongoing in Syria. The fact that Iran could soon have an atomic bomb worries Ryad more than Tel Aviv. The Saudis feel their hegemony over the Persian Gulf could be at stake in what is a sectarian war between the two main branches of Islam. We should all remember that during Saddam Hussein's war against Iran in 1979 it was Ryad who was financing the Iraqi dictator. The Saudis also fear that the shiite minority in the Eastern Province could soon become the fifth column undermining the Saud dynasty (15% of Saudi are shiites).
The future balance in the Middle East is at stake over the fate of Bashar al Assad's alawite regime (in Saudi eyes the alawites are an heretic sect close to Shiism). The current leadership in Syria is supported by Tehran, while the rebels – or at least some of their groups – benefit from Saudi support. The loss of influence suffered by Ryad in Lebanon (with the killing of Sunni leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005) and in Iraq following Saddam Hussein's overthrow (with a new shiite leadership supported by Iran in power) could be compensated – at least in Saudi hopes – by the toppling of the alawite regime and the rise of a new Sunni leadership in Damascus. But even in this case, Saudi foreign policy and religion collide both on a tactical and strategic level. This is because in the Syrian crisis advantages and draw backs of any political initiative often overlap and elide. A good dose of prudence is needed, something religious fanaticism often doesn't have.
In helping out the Syrian rebellion Saudi Arabia should also take into account U.S. worries. Money and weapons should not go to those groups linked to islamic radicalism and to what is now a jihad. But Saudi Wahabi movements and organizations – even outside institutional channels – seem to be behaving otherwise. In other words, they act outside Saudi official national interest and out of its context. They provide resources, fuel and support extremists in practical collusion with those groups linked to Al Qaeda. If Saudi foreign policy and religious lobbies diverge, the real issue is that the reign's authorities can do very little to block this process.
Lastly, probably the main obstacle faced by Saudi foreign policy in Syria is on the national security level. The war against Assad has brought together masses of radical islamists coming from several countries in the region and a good portion of them are Saudis. These war veterans are a menace to the reign's stability. Non official statistics have estimated that as many as 15 thousand veterans have returned home following the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The prospect of having a new generation of jihadists returning from Syria is not something the Saudis are looking forward to.
The discord with the Brotherhood
There is also another problem in Syria. And that is the possibility, not that remote as a matter of fact, that following Assad's fall the Muslim Brotherhood, which thanks to the massacres in Homs and Hama suffered in the 80s are considered the sole true opposition to the Baathist regime, could take over.
The relationship between Wahabism and the Muslim Brotherhood have not been that idyllic lately. They both preach a radical form of Islam and are thus potentially in competition with one another. They also compete through the various charitable organizations, hospitals and schools that are spread all over the arab world with equal support and financial weight. When King Fahd was at the helm, Saudi Arabia granted asylum to the leadership of the Brotherhood, at that time persecuted by Gamal Nasser in Egypt, in the name of pan-islamic solidarity. But the Saudis had never allowed them carry out any activities or proselytism in their country. Ever since toppled Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has renewed his ties with Iran (together with the Sudanese branch of the Brotherhood), the Saudis have increasingly looked to the Muslim Brotherhood with suspicion.
The Saudis perceive the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood as potentially dangerous because it advocates a political Islam, a concept opposed by the wahabis. An Islam that is not used to legitimate those in power, but it is used to exercise power.
The Arab Springs
Even in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where the Arab Spring has paved the way to the rise of Islamic rulers, their relationship with wahabism has not improved. The former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali is now hosted in Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak was a staunch ally of Ryad in the Middle East. For one main reason: the Muslim Brotherhood. The evidence of such a claim is that when Morsi was toppled, Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to pledge economic support (5 billion USD) to the new military rulers. Also other GCC countries like Kuwait (4 bln USD) and the United Arab Emirates (3 bln USD) behaved similarly.
It is true that the Saudi stance reflects the reluctance to even remotely accepting the possibility of an Arab spring. Which translated means the overthrowing of those in power in the name of Islam and the introduction of democracy.
Aside from Syria, part of the Saudi anti-Iranian struggle, the other revolutions in the Middle East are not looked upon with sympathy by Ryad. It wasn't only for Tunisia and Egypt, but also for Libya where the Saudis hardly accepted the international military intervention toppling Muammar Geddafi. In the region's social turbulences, at the end of the day Saudi Arabia was on the side of restoration – as in Yemen and Bahrein – rather than revolution. In Bahrein, for example, they sided with a Sunni emir ruling over a country inhabited by a shiite majority.
After all, the Sunni dilemma is the trade off between the propagation, even at a political level, of a religious orthodoxy (thus modifying their foreign policy accordingly) and the fact that the exportation of radicalism could backfire home and undermine the stability of the reign. We should not forget that 15 out of the 19 911 attackers were Saudi.
The match with Qatar
The last instance of religious competition affecting Saudi foreign policy is currently the confrontation with Qatar. And this is all played on the Sunni field. Qatar does not have the Saudi influence or military strength in the Arab world. But it does have money, owns one of the most influential Tv channels in the world, hosts a U.S. base on its territory and has good press in the West. It is lead by an ambitious emir. And Qatar also has the advantage – if compared to all other countries in the Gulf – of not having a Shiite community on its soil. As a matter of fact, the little State in the Gulf is to all effects Saudi Arabia's alter ego in the role of U.S. strategic partner on the Arabian peninsula. Qatar has also recently hosted talks between the USA and the Afghan talibans. Also in this case, the foreign policy of both countries is played along religious lines: Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Saudi Arabia opposes them. Doha supports Hamas, Ryad is for the PLO. The same happens with the rebel factions fighting Bashar al Assad.
Religion is a key component of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. A unbreakable binomial orienting the choices of the Saudi regime in the Middle East. A foreign policy founded not only on Wahabist dogmatism, but that can also rely on the tools on the ground provided by this Sunni orthodox branch of Islam: wahabi preachers and imams with their proselytism, the charitable organizations, the money channeled through the thousands of Islamic rivulets that support schools, hospitals and islamic communities worldwide.