PolEcReMo. My Take

The Saudi Strategy

Posted in Geopolitics, Politics by Ali Athar on August 15, 2008

Allow me to state some facts: 1) the recently concluded military deal between British and Saudi governments will deliver 72 Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, which makes it one of the six and the only country outside Western Europe to operate the most sophisticated aircraft. This deal places the Saudis just behind the world’s five nuclear powers, Japan, Germany and India in terms of annual military expenditure. 2) The Saudi King Abdullah in 2007 helped unite the warring factions of Hamas and Fatah, and launched a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine. Although the effort failed, it depicts the changing attitudes of Saudi monarchy towards the decades old conflict if we compare it to the anti-Zionist and pan-Islamic stand of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. 3) And of course, the Saudi government is sitting on 262 billion barrels of oil, the largest in the world.

This is the image of a regional power, whose power outgrows its region, Arabia. Conceivably, the Saudi monarchy could be planning and implementing policies for such influence since its independence in 1932, or possibly luck continually stayed on its side as the monarchy persevered external and internal threats. But, the fact of the matter is that we have on our hands the region’s most stable state, armed with the latest western weaponry and unending oil money that is confident in itself to make changes in the world according to its own interests. They have on their side the alliance of the West, the well-wishes of the fellow Muslim countries, and a tamer local populace thanks to the combination of authoritarian diktat and frivolous social spending.

Most of the modern history of Saudi Arabia or more specifically the area of Hejaz, the western and the more populated part of the kingdom, has seen the yoke of foreign rule. The Ottomans who ruled Hejaz for more than 400 years were mostly Turks, which exacerbated the Arab-Turk power struggle towards the end of their rule. Their struggle was then molded into a definite shape by the British agent T.E. Lawrence (famously called the Lawrence of Arabia) who gave the Arabs hope that they too could one day govern themselves. However, the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and the rise of Al-Saud family didn’t bring stability to the region. It took 14 more years for then King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud to actually unify the kingdom into its present form in 1932. Then, the discovery of oil in 1938 helped sow the seeds of future prosperity, but not without the fundamentalist ideology impacting its society and other Muslim nations.

The rise of the House of Saud imbued the future kingdom with puritan version of Islam or Wahhabism. The founding prince of Saud dynasty sought the help of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the 18th century, the ideologue who professed the strictest application of Islam, to defeat the rival tribes. Hence, the enforcement of Wahhabi Islam became inevitable in modern Saudi Arabia, not only because it led the House of Saud to victory, but also because the successive kings thought of it as a unifying force. This version was later exported to other Muslim countries, specifically to the South and Central Asia in the name of aggrandizing the concept of “Ummah.” The New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman observed a portrait of King Faisal in a Pakistani madrassa near the northwestern town of Peshawar.

All of this may be true, but the Saudi model of influence was not always on the ascent in the Arab and Muslim world. The Baath model in Iraq and Syria, the pan-Arab model of Gamal Abdel Nasser, or even the Islamist model of Sayyid Qutb (implemented by al-Qaeda) had been threat at various times to the generally pro-American stance of the Saudi and other Gulf countries. It was a legitimate threat because all of the above models were perceived anti-colonialist and/or anti-imperialist unlike the Saudi model, and thus gained far more public support. But, failure to free the population of economic and political hardships, all of these political and social movements lost the same public support. Thus, what remained was the neoliberal, free market, and pro-West monarchial paradigm represented chiefly by the Saudi kings.

On the economic front, the Saudi economy is shifting from oil manufacturing to oil-based products. The primary example is that of SABIC, one of the world’s largest chemicals fertilizers company. Although, the economy would continue to be based on oil in the near future, but with projects like the $26bn King Abdullah Economic City on the coast of Red Sea, the country’s infrastructure, energy, ports and shipping industries will be getting a major boost. Even Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s 4.4% stake in the Citigroup says a lot about the diversification of Saudi money, as he too is a member of the royal family.

Militarily, the Royal Saudi Air Force will be getting the 72 Typhoons in the near future, which would be joining the 110 American F-15’s and the 100 European Tornados, making RSAF having the qualitative edge matched only by the Israeli Air Force in the region. Similarly, Saudi Army has the latest 380 M1 Abrams tank, the Main Battle Tank of the United States Army. These acquisitions were only possible because Saudi Arabia spends up to $21bn annually on military hardware. Perhaps, Matt Damon’s character in the movie Syriana was off the mark when he said that “a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off and that’s where you’ll be in another hundred years.”

In the foreign policy arena, being pragmatic is the best way to describe the Saudi putsch. They let the Israeli jets use their airspace in 1984 when they were on their way to bomb the Osiraq Nuclear plant in Iraq, because a Baathist Iraq was a threat to Saudi Arabia. But, such an intrusion was clearly disapproved when America invaded Iraq in 2003, thus leading to evicting the American military presence on Saudi land, which was earlier invited at the onset of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. At first, it was the threat from Saddam Hussein, and later it was the following the public appeal. On the other hand, the year 2008 featured the first Saudi king to visit the Vatican and holding a conference in Madrid promoting religious peace.

This is the Saudi Arabia that is on its way to become the regional superpower. Only Israel can match its domination, but Israel needs Saudi more than Saudi needs Israel because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As long as Turkey is looking towards EU for prosperity, the stage is set for the desert kingdom to dominate the Middle East, which has no threat as far north as Europe and as east as India. Combined with the Wahhabi ideology, petrodollars, and a pragmatic foreign policy backed by a strong military, the Saudi monarchy is witnessing the growth of its power that has an impact far beyond its borders. This is the finest case of oil money being well spent as opposed to its annoying neighbor Iran, which thinks it can challenge the sole superpower with its aged Soviet weaponry, rusting industrial houses, a rigid and dangerous foreign policy and which exports its crude oil to buy back refined oil because it lacks adequate oil refineries.