November 22nd, 2013
12:26 PM ET

What West gets wrong about Saudi Arabia

By Nawaf Obaid, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Recent discussion in the wake of Saudi Arabia's refusal to accept a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council has prompted bewilderment – and renewed questions about the Kingdom’s foreign policy. Yet accusations of irresponsibility are inaccurate and misleading. Indeed, despite the criticisms leveled by commentators including Fareed Zakaria on these very pages, the fundamentals of Saudi foreign policy have not changed in decades, and are based on consistent and clear foundations.

As the “senior player” in the Arab world, as the Kingdom was recently described by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Saudi Arabia works to promote economic stability and political security via a moderating energy policy and careful strategic posture that is aimed at countering and neutralizing the upheaval that has been tearing the Muslim and Arab worlds apart.

This approach has been on display in recent Saudi actions.

When an insurgency sought to overthrow the Bahraini government in 2011, a Saudi-led Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) military contingent stepped in to secure the critical state infrastructure of this tiny nation. In addition, the Kingdom is also heavily engaged in attempting to stabilize Yemen, primarily through economic and security assistance based on the GCC plan that replaced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh with an interim government. This new leadership is now drawing up of a new constitution for elections next year. And in Egypt, Saudi Arabia has stepped in as a crucial player in pushing back against Muslim Brotherhood ideology, including through providing the financial resources needed to strengthen the more moderate but temporary government in Cairo.

All this is in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s role and responsibilities as the cradle of Islam. After all, the Kingdom has a unique standing vis-a-vis the more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, a leadership role enhanced by the Kingdom's willingness to expend formidable financial and economic resources in assisting other nations in dire straits to maintain stability.

This approach has in turn generated a growing foreign policy assertiveness that is being transformed from primarily reactive to proactive. The fact is that the Kingdom also has global responsibilities, including trying to combat Islamic extremism. And despite the popular image in the United States that Saudi money is about funding terror, the Kingdom was actually a victim of al Qaeda-backed terrorism on its own soil several years before the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In 1995, for example, al Qaeda struck a National Guard training facility in Riyadh. This was followed by the Riyadh compound bombings in May 2003. The latter attack claimed dozens of lives and prompted the Saudis to launch a massive security upgrade to root out terrorists in their midst and overseas through hard (military and police) and soft (educative and financial) tactics.

But years before these changes, Saudi Arabia had already staked out its diplomatic position on the al Qaeda threat. Following the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Saudi Arabia is said to have requested that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden. The former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, reportedly said back in 2001 that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had initially agreed to grant the request, but changed his mind and was “abusive” about the Kingdom.

Despite the failure to secure bin Laden, the Saudi counter-terrorism effort decimated al Qaeda’s infrastructure in the Kingdom, preventing attacks both at home and abroad in the process including a heavily Saudi-backed infiltration scheme that thwarted an alleged attempt to place bombs on two cargo planes in Yemen that had been destined for the United States.

But Saudi Arabia does not only have a responsibility to push for security from terrorism – as the world’s largest oil exporter, it also has a global responsibility to ensure the well-being of the world’s financial system. Serving as the undisputed leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudis have managed oil production in a consistent, sensible manner that has broadly kept global energy markets stable and supplied while minimizing the chance for the sudden supply disruptions seen with countries such as Iran, Iraq and Venezuela.

Despite the frustration in the West with the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has been the most durable and unwavering ally of the United States in the Middle East since 1945, balancing its roles as a leading Muslim nation and a pivotal U.S. partner. Secretary Kerry made this very point when he said of the Kingdom that it has “the ability to be able to influence a lot of important things we also care about.”

So back to the U.N. Security Council – if Saudi Arabia wants to be a responsible player, why did it turn down a seat? The answer is that as part of its growing efforts to steer a more assertive and independent course, Saudi Arabia has found itself increasingly at odds with the U.S. and others over their handling of Syria. Just this week, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister urged the Security Council to act to “save” Syria, and it is this refusal to act that likely pushed a disillusioned Kingdom to shun the body.

If a more independent Saudi foreign policy is “irresponsible,” then Fareed Zakaria is right. But while he might be willing to pick the country for a Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy award, the facts of the Kingdom actually suggest this is a country whose foreign policy is more stable, secure and responsible than many realize.

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Topics: Saudi Arabia

soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. ✠RZ✠

    The Saudis & friends have recently place a bizillion dollar order for new missiles! Er, um, I mean new jets.

    November 22, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • james Brzycki

      I think anything female is not allowed to drive a car...Is this correct?

      November 22, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Reply
      • Surge

        What does it have to do with foreign policy?

        November 23, 2013 at 2:27 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The author wrote: "Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister urged the Security Council to act to “save” Syria, and it is this refusal to act that likely pushed a disillusioned Kingdom to shun the body."
        What does Saudi Arabia want the West in general and the US in particular to do? To bomb Damascus and chase Assad out of power? What happens afterwards? It looks as if Riyadh is only interested in ousting Assad, what ever happens an who ever takes over, is less important. This is not our – European – way of solving the Syrian conflict. We want stability in the region. With Islamists of all stripes flexing their muscles, there will be power struggle. Civilians will have to bear the brunt.

        November 24, 2013 at 9:37 am |
    • james Brzycki

      If you got the oil money you can be King also of this country.

      November 22, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  2. Sarah

    Nawaf, great article. I agree with you. And Fareed Zakaria is never right. I have read many of his columns and he is an extremist in his Islamic thoughts and ideologies, secretly hoping that fundamentalist political Islam wins. I have no idea why CNN still has him.

    November 22, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • mike jones

      Wow. You and this article are spinning like a couple of tops. The exact opposite is true. Saudi Arabia created fundamentalist Islam. It's people funded and executed 911. They crushed the attempted revolution by the oppressed majority in Bahrain, and support sunni terrorism worldwide, including in Syria. This is why they are falling out with the U.S.. We're done playing games with them. When it comes the middle east, the U.S. and the rest of the civilized world have to choose between Sunni trash and Shia trash. There is no choice to make. They deserve each other and we should just let them have at it.

      November 22, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Reply
      • Sarah

        Mike: I agree that Saudi Arabia is not a good example of a democratic country with freedoms – they don't let their women drive nor let anyone go in with a Bible. I mean I wouldn't want to live there. BUT, their foreign affairs are right and they are backing up the liberals, like they did in Egypt. May be their motives are not so noble as noted in the article but I certainly feel that Saudi Arabia's foreign policy is much better than the USA's foreign policy. Also, Saudis are doing a lot to help stop fundamentalist political Islam that your beloved USA is supporting.

        November 22, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
      • Yon

        Obama was funding Islam – using the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, passing weapons and terrorists from Libya, Egypt and Jordan. The people of Egypt, the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia rebelled against Obama and his Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is replacing the aid to Egypt Obama cut off. You are a backwards ignorant soul who has no clue what is going on.

        November 23, 2013 at 1:59 am |
      • danger

        You have no idea what your talking about. Do not speak on things you are absolutely clueless about

        November 23, 2013 at 3:36 am |
      • TiredOfPaying

        The Saudis support Sunni islam, which is the reason they did the things mentioned in this 'article'. The people they opposed are the Shiites, their mortal enemies. That is the only reason they have done anything – to further their religious war. This entire 'article' is an excercise of taqiya, or lying to non-muslims.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  3. Erik rot

    How much the author got paid from saudi kingdom to write this article? Saudi kingdom is one of the main source of instability in that region, and it seens ouf country policy is changing towards them. As soon as america become independant og bloody oil in mid east we will start being rational about human rights, women rights and other rights are being ignored for centuries in saudi. Saudi oil money power is declining and this article is a desperate attempt to change american minds and heart about saudi. SAUDI MONEY CAN NOT ABYMORE BUY FRIENDS FOR THEM. Dictators should and will go! Sooner or later!

    November 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  4. Briter

    Hey saudi .. Give women the right to drive, dress how they want and right to work all across the kingdom ...treat indian and other workers with respect. Prosecute and punish a anyone even if it is a member of the royal family. Then let's talk.

    November 22, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Reply
    • DaTruth

      What you don't realize is that you and your tiny brain don't matter. There is obviously something RIGHT about Saudi Arabia. That is why they have been a great US ally since the 1960s. You are just too shallow and stupid to understand the complex nature of foreign policy.

      Your comments about their dressing and women not driving further goes to show how ignorant you are. That is THEIR CULTURE. They are not asking you to be Saudi. Stop asking them to be American.

      November 23, 2013 at 3:42 am | Reply
      • TiredOfPaying

        Islam is cancer, and the Saudi royal family are the main agents for spreading cancer on this planet. They and the cult of islam must be destroyed. ALL of them – shiite, sunni.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  5. chf

    The Saudi government brutally oppresses its population and has one of the worst human rights records. They are the cradle of much of the terrorism known today due to their extremist religion and corrupt policies. This author turns a blind eye to reality and tries to white wash the Saudis in pure economic terms. Oil shill plain and simple.

    November 22, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Reply
    • sara

      Saudi regime also brutally oppresses the Bahraini people, who only want human rights and democracy for their nation and people.

      November 23, 2013 at 12:20 am | Reply
    • ajww

      I worked in Saudi for over 35 years. I did not see the brutal oppresion you talk about. it' s true they exploit foreign workers to some extent but so do other countries. Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, day labor on farms in southwest although that has improved a lot.

      November 23, 2013 at 8:31 am | Reply
  6. Mustapha Assi

    Saudi Kingdom kings, princes, & queens must go for the following reasons:
    They know nothing about true Islam (love God and humanity, forgiveness), they know nothing about democracy, teach hatred, impose their religious beliefs on others, they dis-respect Women, foreign national laborer, other religions. they invest in most extreme terrorist groups, they are corrupt kings, princes, and queens. They don't invest oil money back into educating their people. They have no values & human dignity. They are liars, criminals, and thieves.

    November 22, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Reply
    • Irishmist23

      That is all true. However, the same can be said about the Islamist's who are trying to oust them from power. This is why a Bill of Rights limiting the power of government and guaranteeing equal rights for all regardless of race, gender, or religion is as necessary as democracy. Because a poor, uneducated electorate can be more tyrannical and brutal than any dictator.

      November 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Reply
      • Mike

        I enjoy the last sentence. Remind you of any country?.....USA

        November 23, 2013 at 5:34 am |
  7. Ted Ward

    The Saudis have been on the one hand great and reliable US allies and a moderating diplomatic influence in the Middle East. But on the other hand the kingdom's longtime huge support for the spread of Wahabbi or Salafist theology is the key reason for the madness, murder, hatred, and mayhem of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, homicide bombers, and the barbaric ideas taught in the madrassas of Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world. Too bad that a nation blessed with such fabulous wealth and all it's promise and possibility is wasting it and it's prestige on spreading such evil trash.

    November 22, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  8. Moosa

    Expected nothing less than this lovely article from a "Senior fellow at the King Faisal Center of Research and Islamic Studies"

    The author certainly knows which side of his bread is buttered. 🙂

    November 22, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  9. hassan

    Saudia arabia are the biggest and most dangerous terrorists in the world they are the oppressors and the reason the middle east is unstable they support all wahhabi terrorists with money and weapons and use muslims from other countries as tools to do there dirty work they send forces to bahrain to kill the shia they send weapons to syria to kill the shia they send terrorists to Lebanon to blow them selves up to kill the shia they are worse then Israel and worse then any other oppressor Inshalla all the saudia kingdom will burn in hell and be tortured just like they torture the shia around the middle east and even in there own country they will kill a shia because he doesnt believe what they believe there all extremist radicals who lie to people and pay them with money and weapons inshalla death to all of you kofar!

    November 22, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  10. John Geheran

    The unvarnished truth is that SA funds one of the most extreme forms of Islam: Wahabism. SA, despite promises to correct, continues to teach intolerance and hatred of Jews by supporting radical clerics and a curriculum that portrays Jews as descendants of "apes and pigs". As it nealy always is, SA talks a good game but it's actions rarely reflect their rhetoric.

    November 22, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  11. Bilbobaggins

    By stability, the author must mean stability in the same sense as the Soviet Union provided stability to Eastern Europe. Stability, because all people know is to Respect their highness/great leader's Authoritah!!!!!

    November 22, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Reply
    • Surge

      In Soviet Union/socialist europe there were never a sort of highness. These were highly centralized federal governments. You sound stupid

      November 23, 2013 at 2:31 am | Reply
  12. asif

    Saudi Arabia follows a wahabi religion and promote the hatred around the world start from 09/11 to any terrorist attack around the world you find direct Saudi connection and Pietro dollar behind it all jihadies terrorists found funding and spiritual literature direct from Saudi intelligence almost every major terrorist incident have Saudi connection and its also wrong perception that they are representing Muslims around the world sunni and shia Islam has nothing to do with their eviel wahabi ideology

    November 22, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Reply
    • Saudi

      I feel really sorry to read this from someone appear to be a muslim! I'm from Saudi Arabia and I'm a true Wahabi (you called it religion and ideology!), while it is actually a school of thought that follows the salafi school. Being Wahabi and living in US, I consider myself a good citizen of US and treat others just like what I want them to do to me. I have respect for everyone, provide help to anyone needs it, and try to educate the society I live among with my own knowledge I acquired in school and life. I hope your conclusion came after reading what SH. Moahmmed bin Abdulwahhab wrote during his period of life. Worst thing ever when people try to judge/blame/offend other's belief withouth the minimum knowledge about what their belief is. I truly urge you to go read about it so you know what you are talking about and stop saying what you hear!

      November 23, 2013 at 1:53 am | Reply
      • Abraham

        Do you let your women socialize with non family members ans srone them if they do? Can they leave the house and drive the car? Do you make friends using taqiyya and later betray them?

        November 23, 2013 at 1:58 am |
      • steve

        do the women in your life wear burqas?

        November 23, 2013 at 8:12 am |
  13. pablo mayhew

    How utterly convenient that this sycophant failed to mention 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists hailed from Saudi Arabia. This article, clearly, is just more swill served up by the international right-wing propaganda machine.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:02 am | Reply
  14. Mo

    Most useless article I have recently read. How much the author got paid to write this?

    November 23, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  15. sara

    What you saw in Bahrain in 2011 was a popular uprising. It's a struggle for human rights and democracy. There was absolutely no insurgency. To this say people come out in big protests to stand for democratic values. This article is very biased and very pro-Saudi regime. Shame on CNN for publishing it.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:18 am | Reply
    • Abraham

      And what you see in Syria is an incursion one step closer to isreal led by sunni "saudi foundation" insurgents.

      November 23, 2013 at 2:02 am | Reply
  16. Ali Husseini

    This does not explain why refusing to take a seat on the Security Counsel asserts independence or responsibility. Wouldn't they have more poet to act?

    November 23, 2013 at 1:43 am | Reply
  17. Abraham

    You didn't mention how saudi promotes swift justice in their chop chop square. This is where king watches as thief and criminals get hands and heads removed acxording to thwir crimes.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:50 am | Reply
  18. Surge

    Why is everyone so concerned about women driving? I mean do you really care or this is just manifestation of your extremely narrow knowledge (derived from what media drives) about this country?

    November 23, 2013 at 2:34 am | Reply
  19. Jan

    Wow....Saudis are the leaders of the muslims! does any one know where the extremist Wahabi islam was born? Don't we know who funded the Taliban, and still continue to fund madarassahs in Pakistan and Afghanistan where young children are brain washed to become jihandis....And the author calls a movement for civil rights in Bahrain an insurgency!!! The fact is that Saudis are islamist fascists, and they have suppressed every single voice calling for civil liberties and free expression...It's a shame that CNN published this article...A regime which condones women being treated as fifth degree citizens and immigrants from third world countries as slave has no reason to exist in modern times...what a shame!

    November 23, 2013 at 3:31 am | Reply
    • Jan

      CNN stop being pro-Saudi! This is trashy journalism, since when did CNN become Fox News?

      November 23, 2013 at 3:36 am | Reply
  20. rosethornne

    I'm not generally in favor of jumping to assume that "other" or "brown" people are up to something nefarious, I think epidermal melanin has nothing to do with anything.

    That being said, such a blatant lobbying job for a backward sandpile that treats women like animals, is nothing more than a giant steaming pile of bovine droppings, and publishing such tripe is pure journalistic irresponsibility.

    I don't give a rat's behind how much oil they have.

    November 23, 2013 at 3:40 am | Reply
  21. aurelius

    It's grand time that a true account of Saudi's contribution be put forth in the media. There needs to be more of that. The pro Israeli lobby has probably much to do with the negative image Saudi evokes in the American mind.

    November 23, 2013 at 5:22 am | Reply
    • Briter

      Oh blame Israel again (even when Sunnis and Shiites kill each other)

      November 23, 2013 at 5:55 am | Reply
  22. Chibsoky

    Saudi is far better than blood thirsty America

    November 23, 2013 at 5:53 am | Reply
    • Briter

      America contributes to the world including the smartphone you write on and internet and computers ... What has saudi done

      November 23, 2013 at 5:56 am | Reply
  23. ruben0527

    A complete whitewashing of the Saudi role in fostering militant Islamic fundamentalism: Saudi funding of Wahabi schools throughout the Muslim world over the last 40 years created the foundation for stricter and more militant Islamic movements; a large swath of the Saudi population continues to sympathize with and fund militant movements. The Saudi government is now reacting to what it created.

    November 23, 2013 at 6:13 am | Reply
  24. None

    This story is a one sided hypocrisy. It fails to mention, that 19 of the 21 terrorist, on 9/11 were Saudi and sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia like Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Saudi Arabia is no friend of the United States nor Isrsel. The religion that it preaches, is one of oppression, hate, and intolerance. Its a known abuser of humsn rights and does not condone terrorism.

    November 23, 2013 at 7:14 am | Reply
  25. National Security

    Why are American Corporations losing markets on world scale, while Asian corporations (such as: Sony, Nissan, Toyota, Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, Huawei, ...) are making big cash? Because we have lazy folks and failing Washington DC. Start working – stop fooling – stop importing – stop wars – start exporting. We vote: for one winning America – as it once was – admired by the world for Best American Image.

    November 23, 2013 at 8:45 am | Reply
  26. Daniel

    "Decimated AQ's infrastructure"? Really?!? Who are you kidding? From personal experience, from being IN various government meetings, Saudi leads the charge of various local nations (e.g. Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, et al) that gives immunity to local operations and fund raising so long as AQ doesn't conduct terrorism in their countries. I hate propaganda BS like this article.

    November 23, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  27. Name. Joshua

    The Saudi government brutally oppresses its population and has one of the worst human rights records. They are the cradle of much of the terrorism known today due to their extremist religion and corrupt policies. This author turns a blind eye to reality and tries to white wash the Saudis in pure economic terms. Oil shill plain and simple.

    November 23, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
  28. mike

    This is an opinion piece for sure. A paid opinion.

    November 23, 2013 at 9:53 am | Reply
  29. Kamal E. S.


    November 23, 2013 at 10:13 am | Reply
  30. John Geheran

    This "Opinion" article is just another example of the "bought and paid for" propaganda by SA that permeates Western political elites, Academia as well as countless Islamic clerics. The unvarnished truth is that SA promotes a more extreme form of Islam – Wahabism – and indirectly supports much of the jihadism that poisons our lives.

    November 23, 2013 at 10:18 am | Reply
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