Foreign Relations of Saudi Arabia

Foreign Relations Of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a non-aligned state whose foreign policy objectives are to maintain its security and its paramount position on the Arabian Peninsula, defend general Arab and Islamic interests, promote solidarity among Islamic governments, and maintain cooperative relations with other oil-producing and major oil-consuming countries.

Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the United Nations, having signed the United Nations Charter in 1945. The country plays a prominent role in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and Arab and Islamic financial and development assistance institutions. One of the largest aid donors in the world, it still gives some aid to a number of Arab, African, and Asian countries. Jeddah is the headquarters of the Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and its subsidiary organization, the Islamic Development Bank, founded in 1969.


According to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi foreign policy is focused on co-operation with the Gulf states, the unity of the Arab world, solidarity with Muslim countries, and support for the United Nations (UN). In practice, the main concerns in recent years have been relations with the US, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Iraq, the perceived threat from Iran, the effect of oil pricing, and increasing the influence in the Muslim world of the Wahhabi form of Islam through overseas donations. Additionally, relations with the West have been complicated by the perception that Saudi Arabia is a source of Islamist terrorism.

Saudi Arabia joined the UN in 1945 and is a founder member of the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, Muslim World League, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It plays a prominent role in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in 2005 joined the World Trade Organisation. As announced at the 2009 Arab League summit, Saudi Arabia is intending to participate in the Arab Customs Union to be established in 2015 and an Arab common market to be established by 2020.

As a founding member of OPEC, its oil pricing policy is generally to stabilize the world oil market and try to moderate sharp price movements. Saudi Arabia's long-term policy direction has been to preserve a stable and long-term market for its vast oil reserves so as to not jeopardise the Western economies. These are seen as protecting the value of the country's financial assets as well as providing political and military support for the Saudi government. The major exception to this occurred during the 1973 oil crisis when Saudi Arabia, with the other Arab oil states, used an embargo on oil supplies to pressurize the US to stop supporting Israel.

Saudi Arabia is one of the largest contributors of development aid, both in volume of aid and in the ratio of aid volume to GDP. As of 2006, the country has donated £49 billion in aid in the previous three decades, but exclusively to Muslims (except for one donation amounting to the equivalent of £250,000) This aid has contributed to the spreading of Islam of the sort found in Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism) rather than fostering the traditions of the receiving ethnic groups. The effect has been the erosion of regional Islamic cultures. Examples of the acculturizing effect of Saudi aid can be seen among the Minangkabau and the Acehnese in Indonesia, as well as among the people of the Maldives. The Wahhabi form of Islam is also perceived in the West as being a source of Islamist extremism - see below.

With regard to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia believes it is "an Arab and Islamic duty" to support the Palestinian cause and it "has issued numerous statements condemning Israeli aggressions against the Palestinian people and against the holy sites". The main plank of Saudi policy on the issue remains the Arab Peace Initiative, first launched by King Abdullah, as the then Crown Prince, in 2002: Arab governments would offer "normal relations and the security of Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the return of Palestinian refugees."

Saudi Arabia has long been seen as the most pro-Western of the Arab States and a close ally of the US, particularly under King Fahd. In 1990-91, Saudi Arabia, fearing attack from Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait, played an important role supporting military action by the US and its allies. Relations with those countries in the Arab world which opposed the Gulf War became very strained. Likewise, the policy prompted the development internally of an Islamist extremist response. Saudi Arabia repaid the debt it owed the countries whose forces had defeated Iraq, particularly the United States, in cash (for example, $15 billion to the US alone) and by purchasing large quantities of weapons from American companies and by supporting the U.S.-led peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It also followed the US lead in its attitude towards Iran, which was, in any event, seen as trying to export its Islamic revolution to other countries in the region with significant Shiite populations, including Saudi Arabia.

Following King Fahd's stroke in 1995, Abdullah, then Crown Prince, assumed responsibility for foreign policy. A marked change in U.S.-Saudi relations occurred, as Abdullah sought to put distance between his policies and the unpopular pro-Western policies of King Fahd. Abdullah took a more independent line from the US and concentrated on improving regional relations, particularly with Iran. Several long-standing border disputes were resolved, including significantly reshaping the border with Yemen. The new approach resulted in increasingly strained relations with the US.

In 2003, Abdullah's new policy was reflected in the Saudi government's refusal to support or to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Some US critics saw this as an attempt by the royal family to placate the kingdom’s Islamist radicals. That same year Saudi and U.S. government officials agreed to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Saudi soil. Since ascending to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has followed a more activist foreign policy and has continued to push-back on US policies which are unpopular in Saudi Arabia (for example, refusing to provide material assistance to support the new Iraqi government). However, increasingly, in common with the US, fear and mistrust of Iran] is becoming a significant factor in Saudi policy. In 2010, the whistle blowing website Wikileaks disclosed various confidential documents revealing that King Abdullah urged the U.S. to attack Iran in order to "cut off the head of the snake".

Relations with the US and other Western countries have been further strained by the perception that Saudi Arabia has been a source of Islamist terrorist activity, not just internally, but also world-wide. Osama bin Laden and 15 out of the 19 September 11 attacks hijackers were Saudi nationals and former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey described Saudi Arabian Wahhabism as "the soil in which al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing." The U.S. perception has been that the royal family, through its long and close relations with Wahhabi clerics, had laid the groundwork for the growth of militant groups like al-Qaeda and that after the attacks had done little to help track the militants or prevent future atrocities.

Following the wave of early 2011 protests and revolutions affecting the Arab world, Saudi Arabia offered asylum to deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and King Abdullah telephoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (prior to his deposition) to offer his support.

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