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 (127 Responses)
  1. Tarig

    The US will be making a BIG mistake betting on religion, GOP, Isreal and "Qatar" is handling the whole region to the Russian ...
    Mr Obama, the right side of history does not contain religion, get over it 'Muslim' Kenyan ... Jeez

    November 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • banasy©

      You do know that the President isn't Muslim, right? My goodness.

      November 25, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • BP

      US doesn't care as long as it's belly is filled. It doesn't have any permanent friend or enemy. It gets money from arms deal from Saudi around $30 billion and close to $1 trillion from china and enter this kind of activities w/o regard to its ally like Saudi, Isreal etc.

      November 26, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  2. Asianguy

    What hogwash- ! Saudi exported wahabi madrasahs churn out cannon fodder suicide bombers that have ripped Pakistan apart!- while appalling human right records for political opponents of the House of Saud rot in pridon( if they are still alive) – Saudi hatred and fear of Iran and their lobbying the GCC nations leads to expulsion of Iranians and is THE main reason that they are not letting there be a deal in the region. Lastly, third class treatment of migrant labor workers ( majority Muslims) makes the custodian of Islam comment a joke! Saudi (wahabi) agenda has seen the destruction of historical Muslim sites, incl the Prophet (pbuh) house not to mention global funding of Islamic centers and out of character mosques and buildingd( ignoring local architecture tradition and customs- negating the very core of Islam- acceptance). Unfortunately , Saudi Arabia is synonymous with the House of Saud and this is where the rot starts and ends!- Just a side note- there is no Tourist visa to Saudi Arabia!

    November 23, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • josh

      The author intentionally forgotten that Saudi Arabia culture is the only culture responsible for siucide bombing and terror attacks in the world. Regardless of some small tiny copy catters the Saudi culture breeds terror and targetted Arabic secular attempts way before targeting USA on Sep 11 2001. And the argument that Saudi is a victim of terror does not make the culture innocent, the kingdom Royal family has been targeted by some elements within by terror attacks not because the family is fighting terror but because its internal disputes and the only form of rivary in this culture is TERROR. There is no political fight: the Saudi culture established the terror as a mean to answer any dispute. The USA should work to eliminate this cancer not work, as its been the case, to maintain it

      November 24, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  3. mjtrigga

    i believe that things will change in saudi arabia one day. because seriously the way the class systems work and are set up are terrible the saudi people will stand up one day pray for a free saudi arabia

    November 23, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  4. Mike w

    Saudi Arabia consistently is linked to being the largest monetary contributors to al qaeda, anti-Israel organizations , and extreme pro Muslim groups. Potential uprisings and turmoil are assuaged by money not reform.Please remember a few things :
    1. British petroleum discovered the oil in " the kingdom" not Saudis .
    2 the money from the oil, which others found, is used to by guns ( ie American guns for oil )
    3 technology, military, agricultural advances are all imported . Saudis don't actually develop anything . In fact the man writing this article was accepted at " Harvard " because Harvard and other american schools charge these " students 2.5x normal tuition " and not because they are qualified
    4 people in America do not respect Saudis because you are basically children with too much money. You lack manners and exhibit terrible behavior . Store owners and businesses appreciate your money not you

    The west needs the money we pay for Saudi oil back to relieve the economic stresses created by Obama. When fracking improves and more states other than north Dakota are producing over 1m barrels a day, Opecc and " the kingdom " will be whistling a different toon.

    Don't forget , America doesn't care about Saudi Arabia , we care about money used to buy American military equipment and other goods .

    November 23, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  5. ryan c

    Saudi Arabia was responsible for 9/11. Never forget, even though our leaders intentionally obscure it.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
    • josh

      Dead on! Saudi Arabia created the culture of terror in the world

      November 24, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • Ali

      never check the facts on line and discover by yourself

      November 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  6. Likes2Read

    Does the author care to comment on how well The Kingdom treats women and followers of religions other than Islam? I suspect not.

    November 24, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  7. Eric Rosenfeld

    Darn. I thought this was going to be about Kanye West being wrong about Saudi Arabia.

    November 24, 2013 at 4:12 am |
  8. hdg524

    Their only foreign policy is supporting sunny led kings and governments. That is the reason they are supporting sunni terrorists operating in Syria. Suadi Arabia has consistently supported the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism. This country has done the world no favors w.r.t oil and has milked the west and poor south Asian countries with their one resource they have. My only wish is that there should be a real viable alternative to oil and send these towel heads back to picking dates.

    November 24, 2013 at 6:46 am |
  9. hdg524

    A country that has no democracy, does not treat its own women equal (they are not even allowed to drive!!), treat laborers from south Asia,Indonesia and Philippines like cattle does not deserve to lead in the world. The king and his fellow countrymen need an education in acceptable human behavior in this century.

    November 24, 2013 at 6:51 am |
  10. Markus

    As Western Countries can not rely on and trust USA anymore, we need to give GREAT BRITAIN, with great David Cameron leadership, more influence in the NATO alliance.

    November 24, 2013 at 6:57 am |
  11. hdg524

    This author is a a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (a mouth piece of the Saudi government). He must be paid big bucks by the king to spew all the garbage he has written.

    November 24, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  12. josh

    Shame on CNN to publish for money. By doing this, you only promoting terror culture as a form of life. Saudi had produced nothing but terror-men: 17 of tham were on the flight to destruction on Sep 11 2001. And before and after that date, Saudis created a culture terrorizing and secular attempts in the ME.

    November 24, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • ✠RZ✠

      Josh, I take it we won't find any pictures of you shaking hands with Saudi royalty?

      November 24, 2013 at 9:09 am |
      • josh

        I personally have nothing against anyone, however, we need to stand up for any culture that main existing in life to produce terror. No politics, no social interests not even a real fight against enemies if you will. Saudi culture does not even fight real war. The concept of fighting for life does not exist. The Saudie fight for death. Do you know that the concept of suicide Jihad is death. They promote death because of 40 virgin up in "heaven." Its not the heaven hunanity is looking for and death is not what we seek in our progression.

        November 24, 2013 at 10:59 am |
      • ✠RZ✠

        @ josh – Good way to be. Always use logic and sound reasoning. Invoking the fear of God is a bad practice used by weak and untrustworthy religion, and invoking the fear of terrorism is a bad practice used by weak and untrustworthy governments.

        November 24, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  13. Brian

    The author is a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and wrote a positive piece about Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. Of course the author has no bias towards Saudi Arabia (sarcastic).

    November 24, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  14. Aman

    It is clear that Saudi didn't take the seat in UN, due to undemocratic activity in human being its citizen and others as well. Look how they are treating the Ethiopians in their country. Mr. Obama would say if they were treating animals let alone human beings. Of course surprised with the so called human rights watch, blabla... Saudis are the sources for alkaida, killing of people, anyways they need time to learn or they will understand it ones the oil dries. STOP HARASSING ETHIOPIANS, TREAT THEM AT LEAST IN A WAY THAT ETHIOPIANS ARE HANDLING THE CATTLE EXPORTING YOU....

    November 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  15. Burt Ward

    The US was looking to draw down a lot of military advisers, contractors, bases, and operations in Saudi Arabia around 2001. I have lots of buddies who are advisers for Boeing and their affiliated sub-contractors. Some spent their entire 30 year career at Boeing in Saudi Arabia. They are allowed to take the wives and children with the usual rules. No western publications or gaming devices. Women must wear the full burkas and always walk behind them. In 1998, the US was looking to draw a lot of these operations down. Saudi Arabia would not have it. They need us to keep the region stable from them becoming a valid military target for rogue regimes. While we have our bases there, nobody will even think of attacking them. So they needed a good way to keep the US in the game and the best way they could do it is through their #1 wealthy family Bin Laden. It went to full plan. The attack on the USA by mostly Saudi nationals did the job just fine. Now, we may never close those bases.

    November 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  16. dm

    Saudi Arabia is only an ally of the west on the surface behind the veil they are totally anti every thing the west stands for freedom of speech and democracy do not exist there , you cant build a church there in fear of insulting Islam where in the west its saudi oil money that is been used to build mosques all over Europe and spreading Islam , an ally indeed , I don't think so.

    November 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
  17. Andrew

    Saudi arabia is the chief sponsor and financer of terror world wide,d western powers should put saudi arabia in a dirty container and drop ATOMIC bomb on it,africa (somalia,mali,sudan,northern nigeria,etc) will be peaceful,islam,muslims,prophet muhd(saw aka satan at war),allah are veritable den of satanic wickednes and diabolical cruelty,healthism,barbarity and detestable enormites.

    November 25, 2013 at 1:04 am |
  18. tor

    Custom paper!

    Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the countries that finance Alkaidu!
    Bloody kings ruled these states!
    There may be beheaded without trial. Women there are slaves!
    For their money in Saudi Arabia "buys" American kongresmenov!
    You must destroy murderous regimes of these countries! Liberate the population of these countries from Al

    November 25, 2013 at 2:31 am |
  19. Aloe

    Saudi Arabia is the land of thieves, rapists, polygamists, and corrupt leaders. There is no parallel in any other nation to the amount if social decadence prevalent in saudi. I speak from personal experience. These people often claim false pride in being the defenders of their faith and deity, where in truth they are a band of barbaric nomad tribes white interests are peevish at best. God has no place in their heartless lands and bloody core.
    Don't give your self more credit then your worth. Your were hungry nomads once before and after you have recklessly spent your ONLY resource you will decline back your tents and camels.

    November 25, 2013 at 4:18 am |
  20. ✠RZ✠

    If the Saudis rant and rave were anything but an act, they could easily back it up with devastating economic pressure simply by shutting down the oil supply. But for it's non-compliance, the US was awarded multi-billion dollar contracts for new jets. And oil prices are actually lower. But perhaps best yet, the Saudis seem to be befriending Israel (??). All the world's a stage.

    November 25, 2013 at 8:27 am |
  21. Joe

    You can trust the Saudi's to do one thing. "Whats best for the Saudi's" ( And when I say Saudi's I mean the royal family and its interests) Period.

    November 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  22. herupyuda

    Reblogged this on Journal and Journey.

    November 26, 2013 at 12:05 am |
  23. Arrested Development

    Saudi Arabian government needs to work for Peace in the Middle East and use its wealth to foster Peace in Syria especially

    November 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  24. TiredOfPaying

    I am filing this entire article as an example of taqiya, or lying to non-muslims. The only benefit the World will ever see from the existence of Saudi Arabia is if they wage an all-out war against the Shiites. That way, when they are done exterminating the Shiite mulsims we in the West will only have to kill the remaining 30% of muslims to make the world a better place, instead of the 100% we have to exterminate now. Islam is cancer.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  25. Rick McDaniel

    The Saudi's are failing to recognize that they can now be seen to be playing all sides for their own benefit, and the U.S. can now see clearly, that the Saudi's are not truly in the corner of the U.S. at all, and they never have been.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
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