Arab Nationalism

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

The politics of Arab nationalism have been as important a factor in Saudi foreign policy as have issues of regional security. The kingdom's relations with other Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa have been directly influenced by Arab nationalist concerns. Since the early 1950s, three persistent themes have dominated Arab nationalism: Arab unity, the unresolved grievances of the Palestinians, and the conflict with Israel. Although Saudi Arabia had its unique perspectives on these themes, it strove to remain within a broad inter-Arab consensus. At various times, however, Saudi views differed sharply from one or more of the powerful Arab states, and the kingdom consequently became enmeshed in the area's political tensions.

Arab Unity

The concept of a single Arab state stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf never had much appeal within Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis interpreted Arab unity to mean that the seventeen principal Arab governments should strive for solidarity on major regional and international issues; respect the individual political and social differences of each Arab country; and refrain from interference in one another's internal affairs. This view of Arab unity was conservative in comparison with the ideas advocated by Arab intellectuals and political leaders in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, as well as within the Palestinian movement. The differing perspectives engendered frequent ideological contests, especially with Egypt, the most populous Arab country, which was located across the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The most severe strain in SaudiEgyptian relations occurred between 1957 and 1967 when Gamal Abdul Nasser was president of Egypt. Nasser was a charismatic leader whose Arab nationalist rhetoric included widely publicized denunciations of the Al Saud as corrupt rulers and subservient puppets of the United States. His government supported numerous revolutionary groups opposed to the Saudi regime and its regional allies. In addition, Riyadh believed that Nasser was involved in major political upheavals such as the military overthrow of monarchies in Iraq (1958), Yemen (1962), and Libya (1969).

The June 1967 War represented a defeat for radical Arab nationalists and contributed directly to a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Initially, the normalization of relations proceeded gradually. After Anwar as Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970, however, close economic and political ties between the two countries developed rapidly. At Saudi urging, Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers from Egypt, halted Cairo's assistance to revolutionary groups operating in the Arabian Peninsula, and patched up strained relations with Syria. During the October 1973 War, Saudi Arabia supported Egypt by taking the unprecedented step of initiating an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and European countries that backed Israel. Subsequently, Riyadh encouraged Egyptian participation in United States-mediated negotiations aimed at obtaining phased Israeli withdrawals from Egyptian and Syrian territory occupied in 1967.

Although the Saudis valued the close relations they had achieved with Egypt by 1978, they were not prepared for a separate Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. The Saudis genuinely believed that resolving the grievances of the Palestinians was an essential requirement of a durable peace. Thus, they reacted negatively to news that Egypt and Israel, while attending a summit meeting at the United States presidential retreat of Camp David, Maryland, had reached agreement on terms for a comprehensive peace. Riyadh refused to support the Egyptian decision and joined with the other Arab states in condemning the initiative. After the Camp David Accords were signed in March 1979, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Egypt and cut off economic aid. Sadat responded by broadcasting anti-Saudi speeches as vitriolic as any uttered by Nasser in the 1960s.

The cumulative impact of major developments such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the outbreak of the IranIraq War in 1980, Sadat's assassination in 1981, the regional consequences of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and persistent tensions with Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhafi encouraged Saudi leaders to reevaluate their policy of isolating Egypt. However, Riyadh was reluctant to undertake any bold initiatives toward normalizing relations with Cairo. Instead, it provided tacit approval for efforts by Iraq, Jordan, and Sudan to rehabilitate Egypt. Once an inter-Arab consensus had been achieved, including a decision to readmit Egypt to the League of Arab States, the Saudis felt comfortable that they could improve their ties to Egypt without encountering charges that they were betraying Arab nationalism. Saudi Arabia finally restored diplomatic relations with Egypt in November 1987. The cementing of the renewed ties took place during the Persian Gulf War, when Egypt sent a contingent of armed forces to Saudi Arabia to help defend the kingdom against an Iraqi attack.

Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the PDRY were the other countries that the Saudis believed espoused a radical form of nationalism. These five states consistently criticized Saudi Arabia's ties to the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. Of all these countries, relations with Libya were the most strained. Libyan leader Qadhafi frequently denounced the Al Saud dynasty as corrupt and illegitimate and openly called for its overthrow. The Saudis were convinced that Qadhafi supported terrorist attacks on their diplomats and other Arab envoys and financed antigovernment groups in Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and Tunisia. As part of the kingdom's propaganda campaign designed to counter Qadhafi's verbal assaults, in the mid-1980s King Fahd persuaded the Saudi ulama to declare Qadhafi a heretic.

The Palestinians

The Saudis believed that the failure to resolve the grievances of the Palestinians was the primary reason for political instability and conflict in the Middle East. The Saudi position in 1992 was generally the same as the one set out by Fahd in an eight-point peace plan he proposed in August 1981. The key points called for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Jordanian and Egyptian territories where the majority of the inhabitants were Palestinian that Israel occupied as a consequence of the June 1967 War; the dismantling of exclusive Jewish settlements created by Israel in these territories since 1967; the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem--part of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967--as its capital; and just compensation for Palestinians dispossessed of their lands and homes during the establishment of Israel in 1948. Fahd's proposals represented the mainstream consensus that had evolved among most Arabs and Palestinians by the early 1980s. The Saudis were convinced that the Fahd Plan was a workable solution; they felt extremely disappointed that neither Israel nor the United States gave the plan serious consideration.

During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was the principal financial backer of the PLO. For Riyadh, this support was both a moral and a pragmatic imperative. Saudis sincerely believed that the Palestinians had suffered a grave injustice and that all Arabs had an obligation to provide assistance. On a more practical level, the Saudis acknowledged that conditions in the refugee camps helped to breed Palestinian radicalism; they thus perceived monetary aid to Palestinian leaders as a means of maintaining a moderate influence within the Palestinian movement. The PLO's public support for Saddam Husayn during the Persian Gulf War shocked the Saudis. The government retaliated by cutting off its aid to the PLO. As of early 1992, the Saudis remained bitter about the failure of the Palestinians to support them during the war, and relations with the PLO had not been normalized.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

The conflict between Israel and the Arab states is intimately connected with the Palestinians, although it has acquired distinct characteristics. Saudi Arabia, like all other Arab states except Egypt, has never recognized Israel. For Riyadh, such a step was unthinkable as long as the Palestinians continued to be denied their rights of national sovereignty. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia accepted the reality of Israel's existence. In his 1981 peace plan, Fahd had called for the right of every state in the Middle East to live in peace. This was widely interpreted to mean that Saudi Arabia was ready to recognize Israel when all the points of the Fahd Plan pertaining to the Palestinians had been implemented. When the United States organized a conference to initiate Arab-Israeli peace talks in the fall of 1991, Saudi Arabia declined to participate, but it did encourage Syria to take part.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress