Is Saudi Arabia seeking friends?

Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights and its treatment of women make it easy to demonise the kingdom.

Activists have defied the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia by getting behind the wheel. Photo: Getty
Activists have defied the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia by getting behind the wheel. Photo: Getty

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has always been concerned with one aim – political survival. Since the kingdom’s creation in 1932 with the aid of the British Colonial Office in the Arabian Peninsula, political analysts have frequently predicted its imminent collapse. All of them have been proved wrong. In large part, the key to Saudi’s survival has been its special relationship with the United States. This is enshrined in the 1928 Red Line Agreement, which the US exploited to gain exclusive rights to Saudi oil exploration after the First World War.

And yet, in the 1980s and at the turn of the 2oth century, Saudi Arabia unwittingly limited its political options. First, as Peter Schweizer revealed in his cold war history Victory, during the Reagan administration the Saudis worked with the CIA on a plan to bring down the Soviet Union by increasing Saudi crude oil production, thereby triggering a collapse in global oil prices.

This wasn’t entirely in the Saudis’ interest: the Soviet Union’s collapse deprived them of an alternative superpower with which they could work, in certain circumstances, to safeguard their own interests.

A decade later, the Saudis supported the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Iraq was destroyed, depriving them of a powerful ally and a counterbalance to Iran’s regional ambitions. Today, Saudi Arabia stands alone in the Middle East as Iran’s influence grows, bolstered by the pro-Iranian regimes of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as Hezbollah and the Houthi Shia tribe found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights and its treatment of women make it easy to demonise the kingdom. This, coupled with its oil resources and vast international cash reserves, encourages friends and foes alike to support local opposition groups that destabilise the country.

At the same time, its historic support of religious extremists is no longer a viable way for it to gain regional influence, and is counterproductive if it wants to maintain a close relationship with Washington.

There is, however, one option open to Saudi Arabia if it wants to maintain the stability of the kingdom and challenge Iran: it should convince the US to stop arming the Iraqi government and persuade it to put pressure on al-Maliki to end his violent sectarian policies. US weapons are being used by the Iranian al-Quds Force to crush the Iraqi opposition and kill innocent civilians. The Saudis should also offer active support to those Iraqis resisting al-Maliki’s rule, such as by providing training camps to members of the former Iraqi national army, disbanded by Viceroy Paul Bremer in 2003.

In the face of potentially existential threats, a politically, economically and militarily powerful Iraq would no doubt enhance Saudi Arabia’s chances of political survival, against all the odds.

Burhan Al-Chalabi is the publisher of the London Magazine