Saudi Arabia’s Geopolitical Role

F. GREGORY GAUSE III – How can the international community understand Saudi Arabian politics? 

In 2000, you wrote in Foreign Affairs that “America must push the Saudis toward privatization and fiscal reform. The House of Saud must get its house in order.” How have the US wars in Iraq — and perhaps less importantly, in Afghanistan — changed the way in which American policymakers interact with the Saudis?

The most important change is due to neither the War in Iraq nor Afghanistan, but to the September 11, 2001 attacks. In the American-Saudi relationship, 9/11 pushed to the top of the priority-list the issues of terrorism and counterterrorism. This has been a very sensitive topic; fifteen of the nineteen hijackers, and Osama bin Laden, were from Saudi Arabia. For some time the Saudis have encouraged the spread of the conservative interpretation of Islam — the state religion in Saudi Arabia and in many countries across the Muslim world — and that contributed, unintentionally, to the rise of the Jihadist movement.

After 9/11, the United States was very interested in pushing the Saudis to confront this issue. And particularly after Al Qaeda began to turn on the Saudis themselves — in 2003 Al Qaeda began launching attacks inside the country — the Saudi regime did turn against Al Qaeda as a security threat but also on the ideological front. They used their networks in the Muslim world to rebrand their version of Islam, and refute Osama bin Laden’s interpretation.

Saudi Arabia is often seen as one of the few stable countries in a region in flux. Has the Saudi leadership responded to the regional upheaval during the last decade, namely the destruction of Iraq and the rise of a nuclear-aspirant Iran — is the country as stable as it appears to the West?

It is fairly stable domestically. It lived through the Arab Spring in 2011 when all sorts of regimes in the neighborhood were convulsed with domestic upheavals, including neighboring states like Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and now Syria. The Saudis once again proved that a combination of high oil prices and their own particular brand of politics has been enough to stabilize the regime.

However, the Saudis do not look upon the changes in the region over the last ten years as being particularly positive. They were strongly opposed to the Iraq War; they do not like the instability in Iraq, and they do not like that Iran seems to have gained quite a bit of influence in Iraq. They did not like the fall of Mubarak — he was their most important ally in the Arab World. The Arab Spring is certainly something to which they are trying to adjust. Yet they might find some advantage in the movement. For example, if Bashar al Assad in Syria falls, that would be a big blow to the Iranians.

How does the Saudi leadership interpret and analyze the Middle East region, that is, through what lenses does it attempt to make sense of, and respond to, regional conflict or development? 

At the leadership level, the Saudis look at the situation in balance-of-power terms. They see Iran as a rising power, as one that wants to not only become a dominant power in the Middle East but also to destabilize the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia and its allies. They see Iran as a geopolitical threat, but the way by which they have conducted their rivalry with Iran — and the way Iran has reciprocated — made the sectarian issue much more salient and dangerous in the region. Iranians, with some exceptions, find their allies among Shia Muslims, and the Saudis find theirs among Sunni Muslims. And these alliances are the root of the Sunni-Shia issue in places like Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq. While at the top in Saudi Arabia, the leadership looks at regional conflict and tension as a balance-of-power issue, the way it is being played out on the ground is in a sectarian hue.

It seems almost impossible to discuss the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, without explaining the role that oil plays in the country’s political composition. How has the wealth of oil in Saudi Arabia shaped the country’s posture towards its regional neighbors in terms of aid or intervention? 

Oil is without a doubt the most important thing to understand about politics in Saudi Arabia. The country is the largest oil exporter in the world and one of the largest oil producers; Russia is the only country that produces more oil, and the Saudis could produce the most oil if they chose to do so.

Once oil’s importance is stated, the situation becomes a lot more complicated. The Saudis have a mixed interest in oil, in that they want prices to be high enough so that their own economic and fiscal situations are stable. Back in the late 1990s when oil prices dipped toward ten dollars per barrel for a brief time, the Saudis faced pronounced financial problems. The increase in oil prices since 2003 and 2004 has put the Saudis on very solid footing, but they have been spending a great deal of that money at home, particularly during the Arab Spring. The Saudis need oil prices to be up around eighty or ninety dollars per barrel. On the other hand, they do not want prices to get so high that global demand decreases as people look to alternative sources of energy. Thus they worry about prices that get up to 120 or 130 dollars per barrel. It is a delicate line that the Saudis are walking, and while they have some tools to affect this balance, they cannot control it completely.

Money — from oil — is the most important power resource the Saudis have at their disposal. They do not have a particularly powerful military; they do have ideological allies, but they are not as well-organized and vigorous as Hezbollah: an Iranian ally. The Saudis use their money to advance their interests in the region.

What tools do the Saudis have to help maintain this balance? 

Their main instrument is how much oil they produce. Almost every country produces as much oil as it can. Saudi Arabia can produce 8 million barrels per day, or it can produce 11 million barrels. It has a lot of what in the oil industry is called “spare capacity,” that is, the Saudis could increase production tomorrow, put more oil on the market, and push prices down.

Has the United States constructed its own perception of Saudi Arabian politics that does not match the reality of the situation — have, perhaps, American leaders constructed their own perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s dealings with its neighbors or with the United States?

Top policymakers in the United States, when they deal with these countries, want to negotiate primarily on the foreign policy level; they are not that concerned about any given nation’s domestic politics. I am not sure if American policymakers have constructed an image of Saudi domestic politics as much as they simply do not care about them, unless it becomes a foreign policy issue. Domestic politics in Egypt, for example, became an international issue. What policymakers want out of these countries is recognition and negotiation on issues that affect the broader international community. And ultimately, I believe that US analysis of Saudi Arabia is very accurate.

In 2005 you argued that a democratic Middle East could result in Islamist governments unwilling to cooperate with the United States. The Arab Spring and the push for representative government has raised questions of democracy anew. Has the “situation” for democracy changed — can the United States still expect a far less secure region as a result of democratization?

I think I was right about democratization in 2005. It seems that a more democratic Middle East will become a more Islamist Middle East, at least in the short term; who knows what will happen after Islamists come into power and have to deal with the realities of government. During the most recent elections, Islamists did extremely well; that was true in Libya, and will be in Syria if there are ever elections there. This Islamist success could create problems, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example: Islamist governments tend to have a more critical view of Israel than the governments they replace. Of course, that situation would not mean that everything is looking bad for the United States. The Obama Administration has been fairly nimble at accepting this reality, trying to accept and have decent relations with these new governments. The US would be imposing a rather optimistic view, however, if they thought that a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will be as cooperative as the Mubarak regime was.

The Arabian Peninsula — dominated by Saudi Arabia — occupies a region between North Africa and the greater Middle East. What geopolitical role does the peninsula play in terms of linking the Arab world together — could that role, if it exists, be leveraged by the West?

The most important geopolitical factor about the Arabian Peninsula is its energy richness. It is not really a linking area the way, say, the fertile crescent was a link between the Nile and Euphrates Valleys. The Arabian Peninsula is mostly desert, and the links between various regions — North Africa and the Indian subcontinent, for example — are not across the land but rather across water to avoid the Peninsula altogether.

The Peninsula’s other important geopolitical element is that the two holy cities of Islam are there: Mecca and Medina. These areas, not other parts of the Peninsula — have been the destination of Muslim pilgrims for 1,400 years, and that does provide a certain focal point for the Muslim world. And whichever country controls those cities clearly has influence, as Saudi Arabia does now.

Ultimately, though, the energy issue puts the Arabian Peninsula onto the world’s geopolitical map. As oil becomes more scarce, Saudi oil could be worth even more than it is now. And they have more oil than anybody else.


F. GREGORY GAUSE III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont, and was director of the University’s Middle East Studies Program from 1998 to 2008. His research focuses particularly on the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

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