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Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape

Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape

by Joshua Teitelbaum

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Joshua Teitelbaum evaluates Saudi foreign policy in the Persian Gulf and in the Arab-Israeli peace process and provides a shrewd assessment of the Saudi-U.S. relationship. He debunks the traditional view of Saudi foreign policy that emphasizes the Saudi concern with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and explains how the true concern of Arabia's rulers is the ideological battle that has been opened up by Iran's push into Arab affairs.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817911065
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Series: Hoover Institution Press Publication
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 68
File size: 350 KB

About the Author

Joshua Teitelbaum is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Read an Excerpt

Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape

By Joshua Teitelbaum

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1106-5



The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has its origins in the mid-18th century, when an alliance was formed in the central Najd region between a local strongman, or emir, Muhammad bin Saud (d. 1765) of the Al Saud family, and a radical Islamic preacher, Shaykh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1791). A bargain was struck between these two ambitious men: Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab would give religious approbation for the expansionist desires of Muhammad bin Saud, and the latter would give the former the military force to spread his ideas of a more puritanical form of Islam than that which was practiced in the Arabian Peninsula. This alliance was successful and, despite various ups and downs, by 1932 the Al Saud had conquered most of the peninsula, including the relatively liberal and Islamically cosmopolitan Red Sea coastal area of the Hijaz, ruled by the Hashemite family, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Al-Hasa in the east, with its extensive Shiite population.

The formation of modern Saudi Arabia involved the subjugation of a diverse population — religiously, tribally, and regionally — to the whims of one family, the Al Saud. The royal family sought to identify itself with the state to such an extent that it named the state after itself — Saudi Arabia — one of only two states in the world named after a family.

This subjugation came at a price. Although distribution of massive oil revenue has helped the Saudis to buy off much of the opposition over the years, it has not always been successful. Differing visions of Islam, from the Shiites of the eastern region of Al-Hasa to more liberal Islamists and extremist Wahhabis, who believe that the current regime is not extreme enough, have all challenged the rule of the Al Saud over the years. Underscoring all of this is the fact that the centralizing establishment of the Saudi state came at the expense of significant tribal autonomy. While discrete tribal loyalties have lost much of their political significance over the years because of the efforts of the Al Saud, the tribal ethos of a decentralized government and considerable tribal autonomy still presents a challenge to the regime and finds its expression in opposition movements.

One of the keenest historians of Saudi Arabia, Madawi Al-Rasheed, has observed: "The 20th century witnessed the emergence of a [Saudi Arabian] state imposed on people without a historical memory of unity or national heritage which would justify their inclusion in a single entity." The security calculus of the Al Saud is therefore highly dominated by internal security concerns.

The Saudis have dealt with these domestic challenges in several ways. Tribal challengers were co-opted into the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which functioned essentially as a way to funnel oil rents to the tribes and buy their cooperation rather than as an effective fighting force. Sunni religious fanatics were given control of the religious establishment and the educational system, a move that would eventually backfire on the regime. The Shiites were ruthlessly suppressed, to the delight of the Sunni Wahhabi extremists who viewed Shiism as pure heresy.

External defense concerns have also been a significant part of Saudi security considerations. In the first years of the state, the descendants of the Hashemite family, recently ensconced by the British in Jordan and Iraq after being thrown out of the Hijaz by the Al Saud, sought to regain control of their ancestral homeland. This led to the initial suspicion of the British and contributed to a bias toward the U.S. in the immediate post- World War II period. Indeed, in 1950 King Abd al-Aziz confided to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State George McGhee that the Hashemites were his greatest fear, and for that reason he wanted military aid and an urgent military alliance with America. American interest in Saudi Arabia dates from the 1930s with the development of oil. The desire to have access to oil outside the U.S. during World War II led the Roosevelt administration to declare in 1943 that "the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States," in order to provide Riyadh with Lend-Lease aid.



Indeed, America's initial response to Saudi security concerns had more to do with oil than with the Hashemites. But the end of World War II brought the Cold War, which had an important Middle Eastern theater. Traditional Middle Eastern monarchies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia sought to stymie Soviet Middle Eastern subversion, particularly through regional client states such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. For the Saudis, concerns about the Hashemites had given way to concerns over Communism. Early on the Saudis sought military support from the United States and received it through the United States Military Training Mission, established in 1953.

The Cold War coincided with increased development, education, and modernization in Saudi Arabia. This process brought with it some associated ills that affected internal security. Communist and Baathist cells were discovered, and labor unrest by Shiite workers in Aramco's oil fields in the Eastern Province were frequent. These were cases of internal dissidents influenced by imported ideologies. The U.S. cooperated, with the help of Aramco, in keeping a lid on these developments.

Soviet encroachment and Arab radicalism were not the only Saudi external concerns. Across the Persian Gulf lay Iran. Saudi Arabia has always had an ambivalent relationship with Tehran. On the one hand, Iran, with its majority Shiite population, was deeply concerned about the establishment of anti-Shiite Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and what that would mean for access to holy places and for the fate of Saudi Arabia's sizable Shiite population. But aside from some minor friction, this did not develop into conflict. Religion was not a part of the shah's foreign policy.

More important, during this period Riyadh and Tehran were joined in their distrust of Communism and Soviet designs on the region. Iran, which had a border with the Soviet Union, had suffered years of Russian imperialism. The two countries even cooperated in the early 1970s to help the Sultan of Oman fight a Maoist rebellion in the region of Dhofar. Both countries sought and received military equipment and training from a very willing United States. This policy earned the nickname "Twin Pillars" under the Nixon administration.

The February 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted President Jimmy Carter to announce what became known as the Carter Doctrine, during his January 1980 State of the Union address. Carter stressed that the Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world's oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.

His conclusion was quite forceful:

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

The Carter Doctrine was given a specifically Saudi twist in October 1981, when President Ronald Reagan issued what has become known as the Reagan Corollary: "We cannot permit Saudi Arabia to become Iran," Reagan declared. The Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary were responsible for the increase of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, first in the form of the Rapid Deployment Force, and eventually, a full military command, the U.S. Central Command.

The Reagan administration never lost hope that Iran could still be courted. Given the country's long border with the Soviet Union, the effort to return Iran to the fold was deemed too important to give up. The U.S. had an arms embargo against Iran, which had been embroiled in a war with Iraq since 1980 and was desperate for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In what became known as the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, the administration, with Israeli mediation, tried to trade arms to Tehran for U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian Shiites in Lebanon. (Some of the funds from the sale of the missiles were diverted by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council to the Contras in Nicaragua.) Secretary of State George Shultz had opposed the deal and was joined by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger ("Cap Weinberger and George Shultz remained very much opposed, with Shultz especially strong in his opposition"). But, the president, who had the support of CIA Director William Casey and national security adviser Robert McFarlane, overruled them both. Shultz had even threatened to resign, but Reagan convinced him otherwise, and was glad he had.

According to Shultz, the Iran-Contra affair was an unnecessary distraction in relations with Iran. When Iran threatened Persian Gulf shipping in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. led a reflagging effort, robustly confronting Iranian aggression. "After the setback wrought by the Iran-Contra affair," concluded Shultz, "Ronald Reagan was back in business."



1979 was a crucial year in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic Revolution ended decades of a pro-American regime in Tehran, and one that was more or less agnostic about Saudi Arabia. But unfortunately for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the new regime had a radical new agenda. It was not content dealing with internal affairs — it sought to export its revolution and to rectify perceived Western domination and oppression.

For Saudi Arabia, an ascendant, religiously based Iran presented new and unprecedented challenges. For the first time, a militant Shiite regime, flush with oil wealth, was poised across the Gulf from the Saudi guardian of Sunni orthodoxy. And the Iranians wasted little time.

Shiite Riots in the Eastern Province and the Rise of Islamist Shiism in Saudi Arabia

Iranian-inspired riots broke out toward the end of the year in the Shiite sections of Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province and continued into 1980, encouraged by the success of the Iranian Revolution. While the rioters had justifiable grievances based on years of Saudi discrimination, they also drew encouragement from the victories of fellow Shiites in Iran across the Gulf. The Saudi authorities used the Saudi Arabian National Guard to ruthlessly suppress the riots. The government did not hesitate to use helicopter gunships against the demonstrators. Many leaders of the Shiite community went into exile or were arrested following these protests.

The main Shiite opposition group, the Organization of the Islamic Revolution (Munazzamat al-Thawra al-Islamiyya), was established by Shaykh Hasan al-Saffar, a Shiite cleric, in December 1979, following the first burst of rioting. The group functioned as a political and religious outlet for feelings of oppression and insult.

Saffar was echoing the thoughts of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he wrote:

... we are genuinely part of the realm of the downtrodden [mustad'afun] while the despots of Al Sa'ud ... are genuinely part of the realm of oppressors ... and colonizers. The ongoing battle is now between these two realms. ... Our struggle against ... tyrannical rule is a cycle of a long chain of a universal revolution which will, inevitably, lead to the collapse of imperialistic superpowers and the rise of the world of the downtrodden....

After the uprising Saffar found asylum in Iran, and his organization established offices in Tehran, London, and Washington.

Making Trouble in Lebanon: Iran and the Rise of Hizballah

As it spread its revolutionary Islamist message throughout the Middle East, Iran put a special emphasis on the Shiite population of Lebanon, which was the largest but poorest and least-represented sector of Lebanon's intricate confessional framework. It was involved with the precursors of the radical terrorist organization Hizballah, which struck twice in Beirut in 1983, bombing the U.S. Embassy (63 killed) in April and the Marine barracks (241 killed) in October. Hizballah, whose leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is a follower of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, would grow to be a powerful force in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia's efforts to negotiate an end to the Lebanese Civil War finally bore fruit in an agreement signed in the Saudi city of Taif in 1989, which sought to more fairly distribute power in Lebanon. But it regularized the Syrian presence in the country and allowed Hizballah to maintain its arms, ostensibly to confront Israel. Thus Iran's presence in Lebanon was made final by the official recognition of the status of its allies Syria and Hizballah.

Wahhabi Extremists on the Offensive

On the Sunni scene in Saudi Arabia, the years of catering to Wahhabi extremists of various kinds were beginning to be felt. As it will be remembered, the Al Saud had given control of the mosque network and educational system to the Wahhabi establishment, which preached an extreme puritanical and anti-Western doctrine. In exchange, the theory went, religious leaders would give approbation for the modernization of the state and look the other way at the sometimes "un-Islamic" behavior of the royal family. But this bargain was not working out as expected.

Sunni Islamic extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca nearly simultaneously with the Shiite uprising of 1979, protesting what they saw as the lax Islamic system in Saudi Arabia and the un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. They held out for two weeks. Both events demonstrated the difficulties of Saudi internal security and their connection to regional developments.

The regime decided to deal with Wahhabi extremism in a unique way. First, it joined the Wahhabi religious establishment in encouraging Saudi youth to travel to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets after their 1979 invasion. The idea was essentially to "export" violent extremists and — the regime hoped — have them "martyred" overseas. This dovetailed nicely with the cooperative U.S. and Saudi efforts to confront the Soviet Union in the last decade of the Cold War. The other aspect of dealing with the problem of homegrown Islamist extremists was to export their zeal and money overseas to the West, where they could preach their doctrine at local mosques, often built with money from the Saudi royal family. In this manner, it was believed, these forces could be co-opted and their energy could be channeled to foreign lands.

The main regional story of the Persian Gulf in the 1980s was the Iran-Iraq War (1980– 1988). Iraq sought to exploit Iranian internal turmoil and expand its narrow territory along the Persian Gulf. In its rhetoric, Baghdad, drawing on Islamic history, portrayed its attack as defending the Arab east from the predations of Persian Shiites. Saddam Hussein was widely supported by the Arab states of the Gulf, fearful of the implications of an ascendant Iran.

This was a time of extreme tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran saw Saudi Arabia as trying to undermine the Islamic Revolution by supporting Iraqi aggression, while Saudi Arabia suffered from Iranian agitation and even violence during the annual pilgrimage (hajj) in Mecca. For many years, the Iranians used the pilgrimage as an arena of confrontation with the pro-Western Al Saud, holding protests and encouraging rioting that sometimes resulted in the loss of life.



Needless to say, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not mean the end of security challenges for the United States and Saudi Arabia. All it did was create a new strategic landscape with different challenges. Saudi concerns became more focused on the growing strength of Iran, and the implications that this would have on Riyadh's position in the region and the effect of this new position on domestic security.

By August 1990, Saddam Hussein had turned his aggression from Iran to Kuwait. Within days of capturing the small Gulf nation, Iraqi troops were poised on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. The U.S. sprang into action, sending hundreds of thousands of troops to defend the kingdom. Extremist Wahhabis were outraged, as they could not stomach the idea that Christian unbelievers were defending them. This was the start of an active movement of Sunni Saudi Arabian opposition. The most violent trend in this movement was headed by Usama bin Ladin.

The Saudi regime's support of the Afghan jihad was key to the development of the Sunni opposition in Saudi Arabia. Thousands of young men gained military experience in Afghanistan. Whey they returned home, they were ready to turn their jihadi energies inward, and Usama bin Ladin was there to guide them. In November 1995, Saudi sons of the Afghan jihad blew up the Riyadh headquarters of the U.S. Office of the Program Manager — Saudi Arabian National Guard, which supported the National Guard's modernization program. Seven people were killed, including five U.S. citizens, and 42 others were seriously injured.


Excerpted from Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape by Joshua Teitelbaum. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Fouad Ajami,
Background: The Genesis of Saudi Arabian Security Concerns,
Twin Pillars: Saudi Arabia and Iran as U.S. Allies in the Persian Gulf,
A Pillar Collapses: From the Iranian Revolution to the End of the Cold War,
The New Strategic Landscape,
The U.S. and Saudi Security: Failing to Understand the New Strategic Landscape,
About the Author,
About the Hoover Institution's Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and,
the International Order,

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