Regional Security

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

Saudi leaders historically regarded both aggression and externally supported subversion as potential threats to their country's national security. Thus, their primary foreign policy objective was to maintain political stability in the broader Middle East area that surrounds the Arabian Peninsula. Their principal concerns tended to focus on their two more populous and more powerful neighbors, Iraq to the north and Iran across the Persian Gulf. Since 1970, Saudi Arabia has perceived each of these countries alternately as friend and foe, and the nature of its relations with Iran and Iraq at any given time has influenced the pattern of Saudi relations with other states.


Saudi relations with Iraq have been the most problematic, vacillating from tension to de facto alliance to war. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Riyadh had suspected Baghdad of supporting political movements hostile to Saudi interests, not only in the Arabian Peninsula but also in other Middle Eastern countries. Saudi-Iraqi ties consequently were strained; the kingdom tried to contain the spread of Iraqi radicalism by strengthening its relations with states such as Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and the United States, all of which shared its distrust of Baghdad. Beginning about 1975, however, Iraq began to moderate its foreign policies, a change that significantly lessened tensions between Riyadh and Baghdad. Saudi Arabia's diplomatic relations with Iraq were relatively cordial by the time the Iranian Islamic Revolution erupted in 1979.

The Saudis and Iraqis both felt threatened by the Iranian advocacy of exporting Islamic revolution, and this shared fear fostered an unprecedented degree of cooperation between them. Although Riyadh declared its neutrality at the outset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, it helped Baghdad in nonmilitary ways. For example, during the conflict's eight years, Saudi Arabia provided Iraq with an estimated US$25 billion in low-interest loans and grants, reserved for Iraqi customers part of its production from oil fields in the Iraq-Saudi Arabian Neutral Zone, and assisted with the construction of an oil pipeline to transport Iraqi oil across its territory.

Despite its considerable financial investment in creating a political alliance with Iraq, Saudi Arabia failed to acquire a long-term friend. On the contrary, in August 1990, only two years after Baghdad and Tehran had agreed to cease hostilities, Iraqi forces unexpectedly invaded and occupied Kuwait. From a Saudi perspective, Iraq's action posed a more direct and serious threat to its immediate security than the possibility of Iraniansupported subversion. The Saudis were genuinely frightened and requested the United States to bring troops into the kingdom to help confront the menace.

Riyadh's fears concerning Baghdad's ultimate intentions prompted Saudi Arabia to become involved directly in the war against Iraq during January and February 1991. Although the United States was the principal military power in the coalition of forces that opposed Iraq, the kingdom's air bases served as main staging areas for aerial strikes against Iraqi targets, and personnel of the Saudi armed forces participated in both the bombing assaults and the ground offensive. Iraq responded by firing several Scud-B missiles at Riyadh and other Saudi towns. This conflict marked the first time since its invasion of Yemen in 1934 that Saudi Arabia had fought against another Arab state. Saudi leaders were relieved when Iraq was defeated, but they also recognized that relations with Baghdad had been damaged as severely as Iraqi military equipment had been in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq. Consequently, postwar Saudi policy focused on ways to contain potential Iraqi threats to the kingdom and the region. One element of Riyadh's containment policy included support for Iraqi opposition forces that advocated the overthrow of Saddam Husayn's government. In the past, backing for such groups had been discreet, but in early 1992 the Saudis invited several Iraqi opposition leaders to Riyadh to attend a well-publicized conference. To further demonstrate Saudi dissatisfaction with the regime in Baghdad, Crown Prince Abd Allah permitted the media to videotape his meeting with some of the opponents of Saddam Husayn.


Saudi Arabia's postwar concerns about Iraq led to a rapprochement with Iran during 1991. Historically, relations with non-Arab Iran had been correct, although the Saudis tended to distrust Iranian intentions and to resent the perceived arrogance of the shah. Nevertheless, the two countries had cooperated on regional security issues despite their differences over specific policies such as oil production quotas. The Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 disrupted this shared interest in regional political stability. From a Saudi perspective, the rhetoric of some Iranian revolutionary leaders, who called for the overthrow of all monarchies as being un-Islamic, presented a serious subversive threat to the regimes in the area. Political disturbances in the kingdom during 1979 and 1980, including the violent occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni religious extremists and riots among Saudi Shia in the Eastern Province, reinforced the perception that Iran was exploiting, even inciting, discontent as part of a concerted policy to export its revolution. The Saudi government consequently was not displeased when Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia remained officially neutral throughout the Iran-Iraq War, even though in practice its policies made it an effective Iraqi ally.

The thorniest issue in Saudi-Iranian relations during the 1980s was not Riyadh's discreet support of Baghdad but the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that took place in the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. Contention over the participation in hajj rituals of Iranian pilgrims, who numbered about 150,000 in this period and comprised the largest single national group among the approximately 2 million Muslims who attended the yearly hajj rites, symbolized the increasing animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran insisted that its pilgrims had a religious right and obligation to engage in political demonstrations during the hajj. Riyadh, however, believed that the behavior of the Iranian pilgrims violated the spiritual significance of the hajj and sought to confine demonstrators to isolated areas where their chanting would cause the least interference with other pilgrims. Because the Saudis esteemed their role as protectors of the Muslim holy sites in the Hijaz, the Iranian conduct presented a major dilemma: to permit unhindered demonstrations would detract from the essential religious nature of the hajj; to prevent the demonstrations by force would sully the government's international reputation as guardian of Islam's most sacred shrines. Tensions increased yearly without a satisfactory resolution until the summer of 1987, when efforts by Saudi security forces to suppress an unauthorized demonstration in front of Mecca's Grand Mosque led to the deaths of more than 400 pilgrims, at least two-thirds of whom were Iranians. This tragedy stunned the Saudis and galvanized their resolve to ban all activities not directly associated with the hajj rituals. In Tehran, angry mobs retaliated by ransacking the Saudi embassy; they detained and beat several diplomats, including one Saudi official who subsequently died from his injuries. These incidents severed the frayed threads that still connected Saudi Arabia and Iran; in early 1988, Riyadh cut its diplomatic relations with Tehran, in effect closing the primary channel by which Iranian pilgrims obtained Saudi visas required for the hajj.

Although Iran began to indicate its interest in normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia as early as 1989, officials in the kingdom remained suspicious of Tehran's motives and did not reciprocate its overtures for almost two years. The Persian Gulf War, however, significantly altered Saudi perceptions of Iran. The unexpected emergence of Iraq as a mortal enemy refocused Saudi security concerns and paved the way for a less hostile attitude toward Iran. For example, Riyadh welcomed Tehran's consistent demands for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and interpreted Iran's strict adherence to neutrality during the conflict as a positive development. Despite their lingering doubts about Tehran's aims vis--vis the Shia population of southern Iraq, the Saudis recognized after the war that they and the Iranians shared an interest in containing Iraq and agreed to discuss the prospects of restoring diplomatic relations. The issue that had proved so vexatious throughout the 1980s, the hajj, was resolved through a compromise that enabled Iranians to participate in the 1991 pilgrimage, the first appearance in four years of a hajj contingent sponsored by Tehran. In effect, once Saudi Arabia and Iran decided that cooperation served their regional interests, the hajj lost its symbolic significance as a focus of contention between two countries that defined themselves as Islamic. The reopening of embassies in Riyadh and Tehran accompanied the resolution of the hajj and other outstanding issues.

The GCC Countries

In contrast to its relations with Iran or Iraq, Saudi Arabia's ties with the small Arab oil-producing states along its eastern flank have been historically close. In 1992 the kingdom was allied with its fellow monarchies and shaykhdoms of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional collective security and economic organization. Saudi Arabia had taken the lead in forming the GCC. The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980 had provided the impetus Riyadh needed to convince its neighbors to join in a defensive pact. During the initial phase of that conflict, Iraqi forces achieved major victories inside Iran. Despite their distrust of the revolutionary regime in Tehran, Iraq's early successes alarmed the Saudis because they feared a defeat of Iran would embolden Baghdad to adopt an aggressive posture against other countries, especially in the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh did not need to persuade the Kuwaitis and other gulf rulers about the security implications of a victorious Iraq; they all shared similar views of Iraqi ambitions, and they recognized the vulnerability of their small states. Representatives from Saudi Arabia and the five other countries began meeting in January 1981 to work out the details of an alliance, and the GCC was officially inaugurated four months later.

Although the Iran-Iraq War continued to preoccupy the GCC until the belligerents agreed to a cease-fire in 1988, the focus of security concerns had shifted from Baghdad to Tehran by late 1981, when it became obvious that Iraq would not be able to defeat Iran. Even before the Iran-Iraq War had begun, the Saudis and their allies believed Iranian agents fomented demonstrations and riots among the Shia population living in the countries on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. Renewed alarm about Iran was aroused in December 1981, when Bahraini police announced the arrest of a clandestine group of Arab men associated with the illegal Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, based in Tehran. The Saudis and most other GCC rulers believed that the group, which had a large cache of arms allegedly provided by the Iranian embassy in Manama, planned to assassinate Bahraini officials and seize public buildings as part of a plot to overthrow the regime. This incident convinced Saudi Arabia that Iran sponsored terrorist groups and inclined the kingdom to support the Iraqi war effort more openly.

GCC concerns about Iranian involvement with regional terrorism remained high for almost three years following the Bahrain incident. Between 1982 and 1985, a series of assassinations, detonations of explosives-laden automobiles, and airplane hijackings throughout the Middle East, as well as the outbreak of the tanker war in the Persian Gulf, all contributed to reinforcing the strong suspicions about Iran. From a GCC perspective, the most unsettling example of terrorism was the 1983 truck bombing of several sites in Kuwait, including the United States embassy. The Saudis and their allies generally disbelieved Iranian denials of complicity. Nevertheless, GCC security forces failed to obtain conclusive evidence directly linking Iran to the various Arab Shia groups that carried out violent acts. The lack of tangible proof prompted Oman and the UAE to improve their bilateral relations with Iran and to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. These efforts actually led to a limited rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For about a year, from 1985 to 1986, the two countries cooperated on several issues including oil policy.

During 1986 the intensification of the tanker-war phase of the Iran-Iraq conflict and the revelations of covert United States arms shipments to Tehran combined to refocus GCC concerns on conventional security matters. Saudi Arabia differed with Kuwait regarding the most effective means of dealing with the new threat. In particular, the Saudis rejected the Kuwaiti view that the presence of foreign warships in the Persian Gulf would intimidate Iran into ceasing retaliatory attacks on GCC shipping. The Saudis believed that the presence of foreign naval vessels would merely provoke Iran into widening the conflict, and the ultimate consequences would be adverse for all the GCC states. Riyadh therefore supported the renewal of United Nations (UN) efforts to negotiate a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq. After the UN Security Council passed Resolution 598 calling for a cease-fire and mediated peace talks between the warring countries, Saudi Arabia joined its GCC allies in support of all diplomatic moves to bring sanctions against Iran if it refused to accept the resolution. All GCC countries were relieved when Iran agreed in 1988 to abide by the terms of Resolution 598.

The cessation of fighting between Iran and Iraq led to the realization of the GCC's deepest fears: that a militarily strong Iraq would try to intimidate its neighbors. By the end of 1988, Iraq had begun to pressure Kuwait for the rights to use Kuwaiti islands that controlled access to Iraqi ports. Tension between Iraq and Kuwait escalated, culminating in August 1990 with Iraq's invasion, occupation, and annexation of the small country. The aggression revealed to a stunned GCC that the alliance had insufficient power to deter or repel an attack on one of its members. Saudi Arabia thus requested United States assistance, as well as assistance from its Arab allies. All other GCC members provided military contingents for the coalition that was formed to confront Iraq. Following the liberation of Kuwait, the GCC decided that it would be necessary to maintain security alliances with countries from outside the Persian Gulf region. As of 1992, however, the GCC had not negotiated any arrangements for itself, although individual members had concluded bilateral defense pacts with other countries.


Yemen was the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that was not a member of the GCC. Saudi Arabia had excluded Yemen (actually two separate countries, the Yemen Arab Republic, YAR, or North Yemen and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, PDRY, or South Yemen from 1962 until unification in 1990) from GCC membership because of its republican form of government. Historically, Saudi relations with Yemen had been problematic. In 1934 Abd al Aziz had sent his army into Yemen in an unsuccessful effort to conquer the country. Although the hereditary Shia ruling family of Yemen, concentrated in the north, never lost its distrust of the Al Saud, it accepted military assistance from Riyadh after it was deposed in a republican coup in 1962. For the next five years, the Saudis supported the Yemeni royalists in their unsuccessful struggle to regain control from the republican regime backed by Egypt. In November 1962, Cairo tried to intimidate Riyadh into withdrawing its support by sending Egyptian aircraft over southern Saudi Arabia to bomb several towns, including Abha where a hospital was hit and thirty-six patients were killed. Following the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Saudi Arabia and Egypt resolved their differences over the YAR; in practice this meant that Riyadh accepted the republican government in Sanaa. Relations gradually normalized; by the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia was providing economic and military aid to the YAR. Nevertheless, the Saudis remained suspicious of their republican neighbor, and major outstanding issues such as the demarcation of borders were not addressed.

Saudi Arabia's attitude toward the PDRY influenced its overall Yemen policy. After Britain granted independence to its former colony of Aden and the adjoining protectorate of South Arabia in late 1967, a self-proclaimed Marxist government gained control of the entire area. Riyadh became preoccupied with containing the spread of Aden's Marxist ideas to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Oman, where a PDRY-backed insurgency movement fought against the Al Bu Said Omani dynastic government during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Until 1976, when diplomatic relations with the PDRY were finally established, Saudi Arabia actively supported efforts to overthrow the regime in Aden; Saudi hostility did not abate after 1976 but assumed more discreet forms, including covert aid to dissident factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Opposition to the unification of the YAR and the PDRY also became a Saudi foreign policy objective, primarily because Riyadh feared the much disliked YSP would dominate a unified Yemen and thus acquire an even larger base from which to disseminate its radical ideas. When unification occurred in early 1990, the Saudis increased clandestine funding to various Yemeni groups opposed to the YSP.

Saudi Arabia's displeasure with Yemen's unification was mild compared with its reaction to Yemen's position in the Persian Gulf War. Yemen adopted a neutral stance, condemning the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait but refusing to support UN sanctions or the use of force. Yemen's policy incensed the Saudis, who terminated their economic assistance to the republic. In addition, Riyadh expelled about 1 million Yemeni workers who were residing in the kingdom in 1990. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen remained strained in 1992.


The final country with which Saudi Arabia shared a land border was Jordan, in the extreme northwest. Although the Hashimite dynasty that ruled Jordan also had ruled the Hijaz before being driven out by Abd al Aziz in 1924, past rivalries were buried after World War II, and relations between the two monarchies were relatively cordial, especially between 1955 and 1990. After the 1958 overthrow of the Hashimite dynasty in Iraq, the Saudis assumed a protective attitude toward Jordan. Riyadh provided economic assistance for development projects, and, following the June 1967 War, direct financial subventions for the budget. Saudi Arabia also mediated between Jordan and its various Arab adversaries, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970-71 and Syria in 1980.

Jordan's refusal to support Saudi Arabia during its confrontation with Iraq in 1990 shocked and angered Riyadh. Many Saudis viewed Jordan's action as that of stabbing a friend in the back. The Saudi government reacted severely: all grants to Jordan were terminated; low-priced oil sales were cut off; and Jordanian imports were restricted. After Iraq had been defeated, Riyadh spurned Jordan's initiatives to reconcile differences. In 1992 relations between the two former friends remained deeply strained.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress