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. Lobia

    Look at the results to understand if the actions were right or not. If the Saudi government meant stability of the region, why the region is in turmoil and why human rights are taken away from the people of these nations. Saudi Arabia fought the Arabic springs in these countries to stop it from reaching its shores and doesn't care about any thing other than keeping there thorn.

    November 23, 2013 at 10:35 am | Reply
  2. RAY

    For someone to support the kingdom in this era they must be leaving under the rock. Obviously this writer is funded by the kingdom he writes about. As a constant reader of CNN, I am sorry to see such a biased and bad article published. It is a complete waste of time.

    November 23, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply
  3. Caleb Boone

    Dear Mr. Obaid:

    I agree with you.

    Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been consistent and prudent over the last fifty years.

    I disagree with the tenets of Islam but those are not the subject of your essay.

    I wish you a Blessed Thanksgiving and a Glorious Christmas!

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • Nasser

      The Saudi regime has been consistent and prudent in one thing and one thing only: Opening Madrassas that teach children hatred of the West and train, fund and support terrorists. This regime is falling into the quick sand of history and articles like this by their paid editors on CNN is a desperate attempt by these Wahhabis to try to save themselves. The Souls of all the their terrorism victims from New York to their foot steps hunts them. Shame on CNN for publishing these biased articles to polish the image of these Stone Age Wahhabis.

      November 23, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Pat

      This article may be considered biased or one sided in support of the Saudi Monarch. But it is also an opportunity to hear the other side. There are always two sides and we hear one side only too often. So why not give a chance to the other side (that we don't want to hear) to tell their side? it doesn't matter if I like it or not but I do certainly happy to hear it. Saudi's have every right to tell their side of the story.

      November 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Reply
      • Nauman

        No country claiming to be an Islamic state yet having no rights for women, and keep in mind in 2002 15 girls got burned aline cause they were forced to stay in a blazing building by the Saudi police men cause the girls didnt have proper head scarfs to come out in pubic.

        Secondly, i agree every nation, every person has a right to express their opinion but like i said every "human" does. the Saudi men in authority and the rules arent human on any level and i strongly believe being a Muslim that nor are they following Islam in any manner and moreover presenting Islam in a very wrong manner to the west.

        So yes they have no right to write such blatant crap.

        November 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • SAM


      November 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  4. troy


    That is why all the 9-11 murderers cam from Saudi Arabia.

    When the oil runs out, these idiot Emirs will be hung by their peasants.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
  5. Sam Iam

    Saudi's policy may be consistent, but it's consistently subversive and destabilizing. They have consistently tried to curb revolutionary Iran's influence, whatever the ill-effects, and the rise of truly Sunni governance to counter their fanatical Wahhabism which is masquerading as Sunniism. The worlds 1.5 billion Muslims don't support Saudi. Just because the family and its minions happened to slaughter Muslims by the thousands and occupy the Hijaz doesn't mean that Muslims will stop abiding by their tenets and visiting Mecca and Medina. Their visiting is in no way an endorsement of the illegitimate rule of the Saudi tyrants.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:33 am | Reply
  6. NotAsaudi

    Dear Mr. Obaid!

    You are wrong. Actually truth is exactly opposite of what you are writing. Either you are too naïve or you are a paid Saudi agent; either way you not telling the truth.

    Saudi Arabia has been a source of turmoil around the world as they have funded al-Qaeda inspired Wahhabi movement which preaches intolerance and cruelty using Saudi oil money and Al-Qaeda / Taliban and other organizations. Wahhabi / Salafi style of Islam has shown its cruel face in Syria, Libya and other places where these Saudi funded Wahhabi fighters are ripping hearts and guts of their enemies, eating them and posting it on YouTube.

    What a shame on Islam are they. What they are practicing is not Islam, it is Wahhabism, their adopted religion at its best.

    Because of Saudi funded militant organizations spread from Far East to North Africa, America keeps fighting one war after another, draining its manpower, money, morale and credibility.

    Saudi occupied and funded countries are killing people, blowing up market places and mocking human rights without accountability.
    Saudi society is tightly controlled and human rights do not exist. Outside Saudi Arabia, they are funding Madrasas, where young minds are trained to hate and kill other people who do not believe Salafi ideology. Saudi Funded Terrorists are sowing chaos, anarchy and bloodshed in Mali, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Europe and far east using Saudi Global Terror Network.

    Saudi Arabia made the right choice by staying out of Security Council because their presence in SC will expose Saudi hidden agenda and their funding, inspiration and support of militancy, wars and atrocities committed by Saudi funded global movement.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • Daniel Daronda

      Very good comment! How sad that Saudi Arabia just happens to be floating on top of so much crude oil...... these Bedouin Arabs have shown the entire world what just money shoveled into the hands of low intellect humans can do........... and let us never forget that 17 out of those 19 hijackers that made 911 happen were Saudi........... and when the entire US commercial airline service was grounded, during the week following 911, only ONE commercial plane flew in the skies above USA, and that was a private jet chartered by Saudi, to fly the entire Bin Laden family and all their relatives in the US, to safety in Saudi Arabia.......... and GW Bush gave them this permission............. all of us Americans need to think long and hard about that.......... 😦

      November 23, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  7. Nasser

    SHAME ON CNN! Saudi Wahabbis funded and trained the 911 terrorists and I'm ashamed to see CNN become the mouthpiece of this terrorist regime and publish such a trash in their support.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  8. Atif

    US is always right with their policies.
    Keep it up.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  9. kon-tiki

    Saudi Arabia is the root of all evil today. Not Iran or N Korea. They fund all these radical wahabi sunni madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other sunni muslim countries. As the author rightly mentioned their forces rolled into Bahrain recently to quell the rebellion of majority Shias ruled by minority Sunnis and US just looked the other way. Shame of US for that. I am not even mentioning the human rights recored of this place. I am just waiting to see how much longer can these Monarchies exist? Their days of the Arab spring is coming soon....

    November 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  10. Dave Meskel

    I heard this morning from an Ethiopian friend this morning that the Saudis are lynching and killing their fellow african muslim immigrants in Saudi arabia and I was shocked to hear that and what an evil kingdom who have no respect for human rights and dignity.

    November 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  11. tekola

    Shame on you CNN for pushing a paid propaganda, if you really want to report the true face of Saudi report the atrocity they are committing towards innocent Ethiopian Christian.
    Thanks to president Obama the Sauides are getting momentum in controlling the western media

    November 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  12. saywhat

    we have seen propaganda articles on American media often enough not just this. Just a couple days back there was an article on Iran by a biased writer from Foundation for Defense of democracies. So this is not the point.
    And yes@tekola the plight of Ethiopian Christians needs attention but what about the Jews from African countries in Israel? Their treatment is inhuman.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  13. saywhat

    As for Saudi foreign policy folks, read the article by that bold investigative journalist Pepe Escobar "Likudnic – House of Saud axis of terror". A lot would become clear.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  14. zakzuk

    Everone knows that the truth is exactly the opposit.The saudi's family has no support from any moslem in the world, but the wahabies and the takferie who loves the smell of the petrodollar.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  15. James Sergeev

    Saudi Arabia has 2 agendas: one is to show the West exactly what is described in the article, which is only a cover for the second agenda. 90% of the world' terrorists have been educated in Saudi Arabia. Saudi clerics are teaching hate of non-muslims. They have military camps teaching isurgency and terrorist tactics. "Divide and Conquer" is the strategy as seen by their support of every opposition force in Middle East and Africa. CIA is playing their game now because their interests are matching at this point. Nothing good came out of Arab Spring which was fully funded and supported by Saudis.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  16. zakzuk

    Just find out how much distruction they have caused in IRAQ and around the world. Please engoh hipocrocy and lies.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  17. seyoum

    It is a fact that the money that flows to the sunni islamic fundamentalists orginates in Saudi. The financial network of the Saudi government through out the world is the greatest cause to the most significant instabilities in the world. No one also forgets that the uncivilized nation of Saudi is the mother of 9/11.

    November 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  18. Jamie Estevez

    Saudi Arabia is the bank for Sunni Islamist terrorism across the world. The Saudis are arrogant Wahhabist thugs, dirty men in white gowns pretending to be Holy...and the Americans protect them. Now the Saudis even granted the Israelis the right to use it airspace for a future attack on Iran. Whenever I read of a dirty Wahhabist beheading a Syrian Christian or Alawite I think of Saudi Arabia and the criminals in the American government who have been funding and arming Sunni Islamist terrorists in Syria.

    November 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  19. Name*raza

    When Saudis intervene on behalf of a cruel Sunni monarchy against the majority Shiite population that is preserving peace and tranquility, while funding extremist takfiri Wahhabi groups in Syria is support of democracy. Those democrats have already shown how they would rule by cannibalising their opponents. All hail the biggest promoter of democracy the Saudi royal family.

    November 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  20. Reaz

    Perhaps it should be disclosed that the writer is an adviser and counselor to the Wahhabi Saudi government and eminently apologetic for countless acts of terror done in the name of their distorted brand of Islam. Just saying.

    November 23, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  21. adoptedusa

    Total hogwash! Saudi petro dollars mostly went to fund Madrsasa in many many Muslim countries. And the same Madrassa education produced Talibans and other fundamentalist groups. They might be singing different tune now but originally they were fully aware of what they were doing.

    November 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  22. Al

    Clearly Mr. Obaid has an agenda. Despite Saudi's best efforts to mislead Americans by buying our media, this is a pathetic attempt to showcase the world's most ruthless dictator as a friend and a benevolent partner. Start with the Saudi women ... why do they treat them worse than they treat their camels? How about funding and sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan? How about giving no rights to their own citizens and crushing democracy movements in Bahrain? Btw, who made Saudi's the leader of the Islamic world (as claimed in the article)? Statistics indicate that most Muslims (89%) see Saudis as ruthless dictators and filthy rich dictators whose only motivation is to preserve their own kindom. Sorry dude, you can't fool us any more!!!

    November 23, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  23. Anna

    Please. The two Al Queada attacks the writer mentioned in Saudi Arabia didn't target the Saudi government or it's people. They targeted and killed Americans and/or other foreign nationals.
    Also, how many of the 911 hijackers were Saudi nationals? And while terrorism funding may not come directly from the Saudi government, how much comes from its citizens while gov. Officials look the other way? And what of the Saudi kingdom funding of militant madrasas around the world, centers that foster terrorist cells and terrorist ideology?
    Saudi Arabia talks out of two sides of its mouth. It appears to want to foster stability but perhaps a fear of the spread of democracy is partly behind that. Yet there is no doubt that the kingdom is one of the most brutally repressive and strictly religious nations on earth.

    November 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  24. saywhat

    Don't forget people that they and those gulf states under their influence also keep our economy propped up with fat arms purchase contracts. And that they toe our line on M.East policies and work in tandem with Israel.

    November 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Reply
    • sam

      you are hundred % right.

      November 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  25. jalek

    As long as the kingdom continues funding Wahhabi Islam, where much of the extremism arises around the world, apologists such as this writer lack credibility.

    November 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  26. saywhat

    And yes most of the purported 9/11 hijackers had Saudi passports, though 7 of them were found alive in kicking in different countries afterwards and fuming at faking of their passports.
    So why did we invade & occupy Iraq instead of going after Saudis? Well those who have dug deep into 9/11 including journalists, aviation experts, spy agencies both foreign and our own, law enforcement , ranking officials from the military etc would tell you that there is more to it than just this Saudi notion. Much more.
    Read the Summary of the US 9/11 commission.

    November 23, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  27. Josh

    Saudi Arabia is nothing but garbage to me. They're one of the biggest problems in the Middle East.

    November 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Reply
  28. Ron

    I feel dumber after reading your article. This pathetically skewed opinion that you're preaching here is as contrary as humanly possible to everything the Saudies have done, still do and will continue to do. It is needless to list the spate of indicia from all corners of the middle east to show the abysmal failure and the dithering inconsistency of the Saudi foreign policy. The tsunami of chaos and disorder of the past three years is NOT unduely ascribed to the inexorable support of the Saudies to terrorists and fanatic Islamist. Riyadh has been and continues to be the capital of terrorism. Look no further than Syria and tell me what you think of the sufferings of those innocents, tell me what you make of the lawlessness and disorder in Lybia, the division amongst the Egyptians and countless other examples. The results speak for themselves. Saudi money is the life line that terrorists rely on and we know it; however we have to look the other way and pretend they're our "ally" until the oil wells start running dry.

    November 23, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  29. AfroTek

    The writer clearly identifies himself as a paid agent for a Saudi Arabia government and he is trying to spread his propaganda in the west. CNN should do their work as a worldwide news network by covering what is going on in Saudi Arabia the past two weeks. Saudi security forces and ordinary citizen chasing poor immigrants on the street like a dog, specifically Ethiopian Christian house maid. Raping young girls on broad day light as well as killing unarmed innocent immigrant hacked on the street by a mob of thugs. This is the country you are trying to portrait as a peace loving and a role model for the region but the truth is the Saudi regime has expanded its religious influence in many African nations by using their wealth for the past 5 years but in the other hand they are getting rid of Christian from their land.

    November 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  30. Misa

    Saudi Arabia has for decades supported and spread Wahabism and its destructive ideologies in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Saudi funded religious schools are to this day brain-washing vulnerable children and churning out zealots who go on to do suicide bombings...

    I don't know if the author is simply dense or bought by Saudi oil money but either way, this article is a piece of trash. I have never before posted on an article on CNN but the lies and misinformation in this article was just too much to bear.

    November 23, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Reply
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