Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation in Uncertain Times

cover image

By: Neil Partrick, Editor

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

Volume: 5 Issue: 7

July 2017

Review by:

Mohammed M. Aman, Ph.D.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Milwaukee, WI

The book brings together original and previously published papers on aspects of Saudi Arabia foreign policy, and the overlapping relationships with states and regions in a historical context as well as their relevance to the ever changing present.   At the writing of this review, the Saudi Royal Court announced a reverse in the line of succession by naming the 31 years old  Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the crown prince and next in line to the throne to succeed his ailing father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.  This, at the expense of his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, could prove to be a mixed blessing for a kingdom in transition that faces significant international challenges of its own making.  The ascension of Prince Mohammed to the throne signals an attempt by the Saudi monarchy to appease the young Saudis, who view the prince as more attuned to their aspirations and potential instrument for change that the Saudi kingdom desperately needs.

The book’s contributions vary in originality, as well as dates of publication. Some could be considered original contributions and other reprints or re-edits of previously published papers or articles. In the Preface to the book, the editor states as his purpose for publishing the book “to examine the motivational factors affecting Saudi Arabian foreign relations and the capacity or limitations of policy applications in key relationships” (p. ix).

The book consists of 21 chapters, and a 15 page conclusion. The first three chapters provide an overview of the domestic factors at play within Saudi Arabia, and how these impact on decision-making, external outreach, and the underlying economic and political imperatives that drive policy formulation. The remaining chapters examine relationships with key states, both in their own right and sometimes in the context of regional dynamics.

The first part of the book titled “The Internal Context” includes three chapters: chapters 1: “The Internal Context” by Neil Patrick; Chapter”, chapter 2: “Islam and Identity in Foreign Policy” by Nenno Preuschaft; and chapter 3: “Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Oil”, by Neil Quilliam.

Mindful or the Saudi foreign policy aims which include striving for legitimacy, ensuring that other regional states do not overly threaten its regional cohesion or external security, Part II of the book titled “Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Relations” contains 18. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the Saudi foreign relations with individually named countries round the globe and the kingdom’s relations with these countries. Four chapters (4-14) deal with Saudi relations with Arab countries in alphabetical order from Egypt to Yemen. Chapters 15 to 17 deal with two East Asian countries Indonesia, and Malaysia, while chapter 18 deals with South Asia. Saudi relations with Europe, Russia and the USA are treated in chapters 19, 20, and 21 respectively.

As the chapters’ authors note, the Saudis have used their petro dollars to shore up the dynasty regime, get rid of enemies or perceived threats to the system of spreading the Wahhabi’s version of Islam among Muslims and converts to Islam worldwide, using the power of petro dollars. This has also resulted in supporting these autocratic regimes regardless of the will of the people, as long as these regimes fall in line with the Saudi objectives and within its orbit.

Collectively, the chapters address the various aspects and manifestations of the Saudi foreign relations in general and with specific countries in particular. Furthermore, the contributors deal with some of the disputes and contradictions that mar the kingdom’s relations with these countries, and how such contradictions serve the Saudi regime’s self-interest and preservation of its absolute monarchy.  The Saudi ultimate objective is what is good for the Saudi monarchy and its continued existence against all odds. As some of the book’s contributing authors point out, the interests of the Saudi monarchy are different from the interests of those in its political orbit. The poorer Muslim countries look and hope to gain the approval and generosity of the largess of the Saudi financial assistance which invariably have strings attached. In Egypt’s case the Saudi largesse is conditioned upon Egypt’s acquiesce to being a friendly and obedient regime, such as the present one, in return for the billions of dollars not accounted for by Egypt’s leadership. The Saudi animosity towards present day Tehran, as opposed to the friendly relations with the former Shah’s regime, have placed the Middle East in the unenviable position of disarray as witnessed from the current crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the resulting weakening and disfranchisement of the GCC block for the sake of Saudi’s self-interest.

As the various book’s chapters emphasized, regime’s survival is upper most in the Saudi ruling family’s mind. Fear of actual or perceived external or internal influence that could result in regime change influence the Saudi red line. This is evident in the case of the Yemen war that plagued Nasser’s regime in the 1960s, the first Gulf War (GW) in 1990-91 to rid Kuwait of Saddam’s military invasion, and GW2 that was launched on the false pretense that Saddam was about to invade the Saudi kingdom and bring about the demise of the Saudi dynasty.

Prior to the cozy Trump’s administration with Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration sought to establish a balance of power between the two most powerful adversaries in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it failed to persuade Israel to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The current Trump administration, on the other hand, is trying to bolster Saudi Arabia as the counter to the growing Iranian influence in the region in general and in the Gulf States in particular, and to vilify the Iranian regime’s nuclear agreement that was signed during the Obama administration, and was condemned by the Saudis and Israelis. Complicating the matter further for the AGS block led by SA is the Qatar crisis, which has divided the Gulf block between those on the side of Saudi Arabia (Bahrain, UAE, Egypt) on one hand, and those trying to mediate the conflict (Kuwait, Oman and Jordan). The American position on the matter has varied from first blaming and condemning Qatar, to the present effort to mediate the conflict and urging the disputing parties to reach an amicable resolution.

In Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy, Neil Partrick and the contributing authors managed to give a thoughtful analysis of the complexities of the Saudi foreign relations with the rest of the countries. The ups and downs and the challenges that will face the young king-in-waiting Mohammed bin Salman at a time of oil glut, declining oil prices, armed conflicts around the kingdom, and internal as well as external threats can form serious challenges to the House of Al Saud.

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