What will change in Saudi policy, both foreign and domestic, over the coming period? This is the question that has been most repeated in the Western press since the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and the ascension of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz. How will Riyadh deal with the big, pressing issues? What will its oil policy be? What will be the most striking changes in the Saudi political sphere? On the back of these questions a hundred answers are hastily offered, and unfortunately most of them are based on research, analysis, and even predictions that don’t rely on a single shred of convincing evidence.
It is no secret that Saudi policies have not witnessed any sudden or revolutionary changes over previous decades, for they have always been built on firm geographical, historical, religious, economic, security, and political principles and foundations. They have also always worked within a strict framework that values above all else the non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, as well as the outright rejection of any outside interference into the Kingdom’s own affairs, boosting relations with other Gulf, Arab and Islamic countries in a way that helps joint interests, cooperating with other friendly countries around the world, and playing a key role within regional and international organizations and institutions, as well as using sensible and balanced oil policies, in light of the Kingdom’s being one of the world’s biggest oil producers and the holder of the world’s largest oil reserves.
Anyone who has been watching the development of Saudi foreign policy over the years will no doubt agree that it has been shaped within this wider framework and has adhered to its general principles to produce a firm and stable set of policies which reflect the interests the Kingdom seeks to safeguard. One can say that Saudi policies have developed in tune with the changes that have taken place in Saudi society in past decades. The developments are perhaps one step ahead of Saudi society, but they are certainly not that far off from it, and there have been no policies enacted which grated against the sensibilities of the Saudi citizenry. In order to truly appreciate the changes that have taken place, however, one must widen one’s lens to include at least the last decade or two, in order to truly see the extent of the changes, changes due simply to those the world and Saudi Arabia have seen during these fast-moving times.
The aforementioned principles which drive Saudi policies are clear and firm, being based on actual institutions, something which was reiterated by King Salman following his ascension, when he said: “We will continue along this upright path which the country has steered since its inception, and we will not veer from it.” One could say that Saudi policies rely to a large extent on “soft power”—a term coined by political scientist Joseph Nye to describe alternative means to military coercion or force that will enable a country to achieve certain ends. Through using this principle the Kingdom has been able to boost its regional and international prestige and importance. While other countries may use the usual “hard power” methods of force and intrigue, Riyadh has stuck to its principles throughout the past decades despite all the worrying events the region has experienced during that time. Perhaps the most striking example of this soft power at work was during King Salman’s tour of Asian countries last year, when he was still Crown Prince, and which encompassed India, Pakistan, China, Japan and the Maldives. Here the Kingdom sought strong, firm relations with these countries without constraining them to fit certain limited frameworks or interests.
Commenting on my previous article on the Saudi succession, one reader said that big nations “do not need atomic bombs with which to threaten whole peoples and civilizations with destruction. It is simply enough to say it is a great country. How different Saudi Arabia is to other states.” There is no better way with which to end this article than with these important comments from a dear reader.