CRUCIBLE: Saudi Arabia’s Bluff or Threat

(Friday Khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 25 October 2013).

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/26 October)-– A nation, like an individual, has its own psychology. How a person handles the complexity of emotions and allows reason to govern it determines his or her personality. Similarly, how a nation conducts itself and handles various factors and forces and molds them according to its interest dictates too the standing of such nation. Whereas emotion translated outwardly is called human action, the conduct of nations and its intercourse with others is called geopolitics or foreign relation. At any rate, they are both important sources in determining value system viewed singly or collectively.

In this regard, the Qur’an’s imperative for reflections about the fate of nations is undeniably important with refrain repeated seven times that says: “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them? (Ghafir: 82)

A nation, like a person, could have manifold experiences throughout history the sum total of which determines his or her present and even future status.  Whereas some men are lucky being well endowed than others in terms of intelligence, physique, beauty, charm, and wealth; a nation could also be fortunate being endowed with resources, power, influence, alliances, and so on. Yet, despite these ingredients or variables, the Qur’an speaks about the transitory nature of man’s life including the life of nations. Apart from various factors, the state of a nation’s life lies primarily on how reason is used in shaping governance, policy, and engagement with others.

Defiance in the UN

The need to reflect on the fate of nations like Saudi Arabia has never been fortuitous, as I had planned to talk about it long ago. Now the time has come with Saudi Arabia’s strong words against the United Nations. It came as a surprise when news broke a few days ago about Saudi Arabia’s refusal to sit in the Security Council even charging the United Nations with double standard, while criticizing big powers particularly the United States for failure to engage in military strike against Syria and the US failure to settle the Palestinian problem. The Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia said: “Saudi Arabia… has no other option but to turn down Security Council membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsibilities in preserving the world’s peace and security.”

Saudi Arabia has actually prepared for years and lobbied extensively other member states to support for a two-year seat in the Security Council. Yet in the last minute, Saudi Arabia refused to sit in the Security Council and launched verbal attacks against the United Nations and its organs. If our memory serves us right, the only instance when Saudi Arabia showed defiance against big powers was when King Faisal bin Saud spearheaded the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in launching oil embargo on Israel’s supporters during the October War in 1973. Many countries were badly hit by oil shortage and rising oil price forcing the US and the USSR to expedite call for ceasefire between the Arab world and Israel through Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy.” As a result, it forced Israel to retreat to areas she previously occupied in 1967 particularly in Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.

Since then, Saudi Arabia became a US major ally in the Arab world as shown in many instances of Middle East politics more glaringly revealed in the Gulf War, US invasion of Iraq, and recently, as bulwark against Iran with the latter’s preponderant role in the region today. Why is there a shift of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy in the UN? What is the message Saudi Arabia wants to relay? Is there any strategic advantage she could get by expressing such protest and defiance in the Security Council? How much length Saudi Arabia could go in taking such a stance?

Security Council

To begin with, any member of the United Nations covets highly a seat in the Security Council, the most critical organ in said international body. While the General Assembly is more of a deliberative body of the UN, the Security Council is where major decision-making is done. It is composed of permanent members known as the “Big Five,” with ten member-states serving on rotational basis with two-year term. While the latter do not have veto power, they would have the leverage to exert influence on many regional and international issues.

Undeniably, Saudi Arabia’s refusal to sit in the Security Council has to be viewed less of UN political dynamics as much as a protest particularly against the United States given the latter’s rapprochement with Iran. The last minute US withdrawal to strike Syria with compromised proposal of Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons has obviously angered Saudi Arabia.  It does not only perpetuate the Assad Regime; it would also spread the influence of Iran in the so-called Shia crescent while prolonging the war in Syria.

Faced with unpopular support among Americans for another war in the Muslim world, US reluctance to strike Syria is less of Russia’s brilliant compromise on Syria’s chemical weapons as it is fear of unintended consequences of war in Syria going out of hand. The war could polarize Russia, Syria, and Hezbollah on one side against the US, Gulf States and al-Qaeda on the other side. Most alarming, a US military strike against Syria could trigger nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran, a situation that is far more catastrophic [that] one can imagine.

With President Hassan Rohani’s “charm offensive” on Washington about Iran’s nuclear program, the option for US military strike against Syria had to be abandoned eventually isolating Israel and Saudi Arabia. While Israel’s alliance with US is more historical and ideological, US-Saudi relation is more dictated by economic and strategic interests. Given that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are under US grip, there is no urgency for America to follow their wishes (i.e., Israel’s belligerent position against nuclear program of Iran; Saudi Arabia’s US military strike against Syria). Even as Syria continues to bleed, US priority is sustaining her hegemony in the region while maintaining relative power, control, and influence in all countries in the Middle East particularly Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

Given US Realpolitik in the Middle East, it is doubtful what Saudi Arabia would gain by showing defiance against the UN Security Council. The question is not why Saudi Arabia only charged the UN now with double standard as if the world is ignorant about it, but what arsenals Saudi Arabia has that will convince the “Big Five” particularly US to heed her complaints. Given US decreasing oil dependence in the Middle East and US rebalancing strategy with US Pivot in Asia-Pacific, cracks of relation with her traditional allies like Saudi Arabia are expected to happen. It is no wonder why Saudi Arabia has felt it most. Finally, the issue is not whether US could afford to stain its relation with Saudi Arabia, but whether Saudi Arabia could afford without the United States.

“Double marriage”

To all intent and purposes, the alliance of Saudi Arabia with the United States is not only mutual, it serves partly as a stabilizing force by Saudi monarchy in imposing control over the whole country, while spreading influence in the region. The other part is sourced from monarchy’s dependence on religious conservatism with Wahabbi strand. Referred to as “double marriage,” Craig Unger described in the “House of Bush and House of Saud: The Secret Relationship between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties” the relationship of Saudi monarchy, United States and Wahabbism:

“Throughout the roaring eighties, the US-Saudi marriage continued to thrive. It wasn’t just that the United States got billion of dollars of reasonably priced oil and the Saudis were able to arm themselves with American weapons. In addition, the covert operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were beneficial to both parties. For all its success, however, there was just one problem with the arrangement: if one thought of the US-Saudi activities as a steady relationship, the Saudis were actually married to someone else.

More specifically, the House of Saud’s political legitimacy was based on its allegiance to the sect of Sunni Islam known as Wahabbism and dated back three hundred years. It was at the core of the kingdom’s existence. Since many Wahhabis saw the United States as the Great Satan, that meant the Saudis had vital relations essential to their survival – a double marriage of sorts – with partners who were mortal enemies.”

For sure, the United States knows pretty well the sensitivity or critical role of the “marriage” as she knows too how to use it as tool in working or destabilizing such “marriage” for US favor and for the chagrin of the Saudis. While the monarchy has obviously mastered in maintaining a balanced force between the two “wives” – entities, which are not only too ideologically diametrical but also too politically heretical per standards of both sides – Saudi-US alliance has actually provided external-political base that allows Saudi Arabia to have relative stability and security these past several decades. Without such external base, Saudi Arabia would have been the first to have a Taliban-like government before Afghanistan. Indeed, sustaining religious conservatism with orientation towards political fundamentalism requires external-political base with economic source and strategic resources particularly oil.

On internal-political side, the monarchy’s tandem with Salafism particularly with strong Wahabbi line has earned it religious legitimacy and strengthened its claim as “Custodian of two holy mosques” since the time of King Fahd. The “marriage” thus has served well the Saudi monarchy; yet, it is also its own “Achilles heel.” Certainly, the US knows it very well. She can exploit it at will if the Saudis continue to misbehave or are serious with the charges against the UN Security Council. Few days before Saudi Arabia’s refusal to sit in the Security Council, there were reports that Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates just received new arm sales from the US. It is this real dynamic that counts in the real world than big words hurled around with not enough sticks to back them up. Realpolitik among nations would have to be clearly understood and properly read as basis in assessing threat from bluff.

Reflections and history

When the Qur’an enjoins us to engage in deeper reflections of history and, by extension, the politics of our time, it is because they provide guidepost on how to conduct ourselves both as individuals and as nation.

According to Ibn Kathir the line “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the End of those before them” is meant for man to gain wisdom. Quoting from Ibn Abi ad-Dunya in his book, “At-tafakkur wa l-‘itibar,” he writes:

“Some of the wise people said: “give light to your heart with lessons, illuminate it with thought, kill it with asceticism, strengthen it with certain faith, remind it of its mortality, make it aware of the calamities of this world, warn it of the disasters that life may bring, show it how things may suddenly change with the passing of days, tell it the stories of the people of the past, and remind it what happened to those who came before.”  

This is the imperative of learning the conduct of nations, empires, and kingdoms in the past; and by extension, the conduct of the ummah these days. When we particularized specific moment like the defiance of Saudi Arabia against the UN Security Council, we are aware that we could not reflect on a simple canvas of political development in the Muslim world as represented by specific issue about Saudi Arabia. But we have to note though that each moment whether in one’s life or in the life of a nation, it always impresses certain truth; therefore, we have to be alert in trying to capture such truth so that we learn according to Ibn Abi’s reminders to “give light to your heart with lessons.”


We are familiar about Saudi Arabia’s history dating back to the time when Muhammad ibn Saud forged alliance with Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and ushered their political alliance that gave birth to what we know today as Saudi Arabia. We are also familiar with the twist and turn into which Saudi Arabia’s history had undergone including her politics and war with the Al-Rashid family, her engagement with the Ottoman Empire, and her collaboration with the British. We are also quite familiar how the Sharif of Makkah was removed from power and the creation of a new reign, a new government, represented by the Ibn Saud family.

Saudi Arabia entered an era where geopolitics amongst big powers was fierce and entrenched in the Middle East; hence, she had to wade through them, while experiencing lots of pitfall and problem. This is the era where many governments like the Saudi monarchy faced these days. Nation-state system is something foreign as far as Islamic experience is concerned. International system is such that each country has to find a place, play the game of geopolitics so it gains relevance and perpetuate itself.

Indeed, it is difficult a thrust particularly in maintaining what Unger mentioned Saudi Arabia’s “double marriage.” The grip of tradition on one hand and the imperative to engage internationally on the other is a task gargantuan. Yet, it is such “marriage” that provides stability on both sides allowing thus the monarchy to persist. It is an opened book: Saudi Arabia’s regional standing is very much identified with the United States. Saudi-US alliance is characterized as relationship of “custodian of the custodian.” Now that she stood up and defied the Security Council, we ask: how long the Saudi government would be able to pursue this new form of geopolitics? What arsenals she has in sustaining such engagement? And what creative ways she has to employ so her words against the UN Security Council would not become words in the wilderness?

Responsibility and humility

The refrain in the Qur’an regarding “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the End of those before them” obviously speaks of the imperative to learn wisdom in history. If we have to learn wisdom in the past, the more we have to learn wisdom with events happening in our time. Yusuf Ali, with his rather spiritual orientation, gave us these soothing words:

“Let not any generation think that it is superior to all that went before it. We maybe “heirs to all the ages, in the foremost files of time.” That is no reason for arrogance, but on the contrary adds to our responsibility. When we realize what flourishing cities and kingdoms existed before, how they flourished in numbers and prosperity, what chances they were given, and how they perished when they disobeyed the Law of God, we shall feel a sense of humility and see that it was rebellion and self-will that brought them down. God was more than just. He was also merciful. But they brought about their own ruin.”

In another verse attendant with “Do they not travel…” speaks of the fact that “it was not God who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls (Rum: 9).”

While the Qur’an speaks of how Omniscient and Powerful Allah (SWT) over His creation, there is that dimension that happens among men including the fate of nations that is essentially attributable to them. Individual should always be on guard of how s/he maintains stability with his or her bearing, how s/he uses reason, and how s/he strengthens his or her faith so s/he won’t deviate from the Straight Path. In the same manner, nation should also harness all her arsenal of policy and strategy and so on, and accord them with higher interest and principles. “National interest” should not simply become the basis in relating with others. It has to transcend with higher goals.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.)