The Strategist

Saudi Arabia’s Quest for the Ultimate Political Play-Off

28 Feb, 2023    ·   5843

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) reviews Saudi Arabia’s strategic history to better contextualise the current trajectory of its foreign policy

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

The Saudi strategic gambit continues to face challenges. There are obstacles in the withdrawal of American interests from the region and ramifications from the USS Quincy Memorandum, the resultant power vacuum, and power play between states like China, India, and Russia to fill it. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious socio-economic reforms are seemingly steering the kingdom away from entrenched Wahhabism. Historically, Ibn Saud (1880-1953), the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and his dynasty, manoeuvred political play-offs by imperial and other extra-regional forces to their own advantage. This article reviews Saudi Arabia’s strategic history to better contextualise its current trajectory.

In the run-up to the First World War, the Berlin-Baghdad rail axis, the logistic sea-land hub envisaged as the German-Ottoman alliance’s joint strategic project, challenged the primacy of the British-controlled Suez Canal and the trade and transport that went through it. Concerned by these developments, Whitehall found a worthy ally in Ibn Saud. After emerging victorious amid an inter-tribal rivalry and unifying a large part of the Arabian Peninsula, Ibn Saud saw in the geopolitical contest an opportunity to ‘play’ the protagonists to his advantage. He consolidated his power base in the Arabian Peninsula with a diligent geopolitical acumen and entrenched his ideology in Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab’s orthodox teachings. This, coupled with the opportunity that the collapsing Ottoman Empire presented, inspired his return to puritanical Islam, and most critically, an acceptance of ‘political Islam’.

Ibn Saud established a new communal identity through the Ikhwan’, a Wahhabi religious militia. The Ikhwan not only played a crucial role in instituting him as ruler of most of the peninsula, but also placed him in a favourable power-bargaining position with both the Ottoman Sultan and the British. Ibn Saud made it known to the latter that the Ottomans and other powers were also interested in establishing treaty relations with him, which he would have to conclude if he had no other means of support. The veiled threat to British interests was not lost on Whitehall. With the Ikhwan at his side, Ibn Saud set out reconquering his family lands. In 1902, he captured Riyadh by assassinating the governor of the city. He drew the tribes to rally to his call. Within two years of Riyadh’s fall, the Najd lay at his feet and he was in a position to threaten Ottoman designs. The strategic Berlin-Baghdad rail link thus remained unfinished, limiting its use during the First World War.  

British policy towards Ibn Saud changed when it coincided with the admiralty’s doctrine to convert their imperial navy from coal to oil-fired. At the time, their allies, the US and Russia, produced almost all of the world’s petroleum. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy with the prospect of the navy’s strategic dependence on foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, it concluded, lay in control at source. Therefore, Saudi relations finessed with Britain through the Treaty of Darin (1915). The pact became a corner stone of imperial policy that made Saudi Arabia an equal ally in the war and the Saudi state a protectorate of the British Crown. By 1932, Saudi Arabia was courted by world governments.

During the Second World War, following its declaration of neutrality, Britain and the US provided financial support to Saudi Arabia, which in turn declared war on Germany and Japan in 1945 without any resultant military action. This allowed the kingdom to become a founding member of the UN. After the Second World War, Europe’s fatigue reduced their influence in West Asia and gave impetus to a world order dominated by the USSR and the US. During the Cold War, sensing the incipient power-vacuum in the region, Saudis welcomed the US into playing a more substantial role. In its attempt to thwart the USSR’s bid to gain power in the Persian Gulf region, the US provided capital and protection to Saudi Arabia in exchange for control over their oil reserves. The USS Quincy Memorandum ensured that the Saudi royal family would continue to rule for generations to come, thanks to their wealth, influence on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), connections to the Wahhabi religious group, and US support.

However, a downturn in this equation occurred when, in protest over American military assistance to Israel in its 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, Arab oil producers led by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia stopped exporting to the US. This resulted in skyrocketing petrol prices and a significant economic crisis in the US. The embargo led two significant developments: the US began reducing its reliance on Middle Eastern oil, which in turn contributed to Washington concentrating on regional instability, and, as a result, engaging in numerous wars and military interventions. Saudis have since evened out this rocky patch in the relationship by supporting these interventions.

This continuity however is being challenged by a spate of domestic and international developments. King Salman’s son, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), as crown prince and heir-apparent, has launched sweeping economic, social, military, and foreign policy reforms. These touted reforms are to adjust to the changing world order. However, given the complex power structure and its vulnerabilities, the success of these reforms is predicated on how they affect the status quo. Critically, three challenges confront MbS. Firstly, the entire political, juridical, and social system, defined by the Wahhabi ulema that sealed the kingdom’s founding compact with Wahhabism, must change. Any break however with the Wahhabi clergy will be tantamount to a de-coupling of politics from its sub-structure of Wahhabism. The second challenge is a contemporary interpretation of the Quran that permits moderation, an idea that, till announcement, would have been blasphemous. Thirdly, MbS has taken a cue from his illustrious forebear, Ibn Saud. He has daringly chosen not to pick sides between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, nor have a selection thrust on him.

The US in their Saudi policy has vowed, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” Meanwhile, China has reportedly denied the existence of a power vacuum in West Asia. It would appear that the Quincy Memorandum that eventually led to the policy of crude export revenues denominated in US dollars, the ‘petro dollar’ deal, and total dependence on the American security blanket may have outlived their shelf-life. The US-Saudi Jeddah Communiqué may even suggest an outline for MbS’ new vision of a more versatile strategic relationship with the US that also finds place for Beijing and Moscow.

Three critical questions for MbS persist: Can Saudi Arabia wean itself away from the luxury of the petro-dollar? Will the lifting of the US security blanket leave the kingdom in the cold? And will the dynasty survive without Wahhabi ideology or as the, Economist put it, “how to change what you had said was God’s Law?”


Vice Adm Vijay Shankar (Retd) is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.