In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Saudi Foreign Policy in the Formative Years (1902–1953)
  • Oil Economy, Regime Consolidation, and Foreign Policy
  • Saudi-US Relations
  • Saudi Regional Goals and Rivalry with Iran
  • Alliance Making and the Saudi Search for Security
  • Building Linkages to Asia
  • Arab Spring and Saudi Foreign Policy
  • Islam in Saudi Foreign Policy
  • Saudi Foreign Policy Decision-making Process

International Relations Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia
Mohammed Nuruzzaman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0259


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major actor in Middle Eastern as well as global politics. Founded in 1932 by King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, commonly known as Ibn Saud, the kingdom rests on an alliance between the Al Saud royal family and the followers of 18th-century Islamic revivalist Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The strategic and geo-economic significance of the kingdom originates from its location and possession of huge oil resources. It borders the world’s two immensely significant strategic sea trade routes—the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, boasts of being the world’s largest oil exporter, and is home to Islam’s two holiest sites—Mecca and Medina. Though not a militarily significant power, the kingdom’s vast oil wealth has gradually and greatly elevated its status as an influential global economic and financial power. Currently, it is the world’s seventeenth largest economy ($1.774 trillion, 2017 estimate based on purchasing power parity, or PPP) and a member of the elite G20 club of world economic powers. The economic good fortune notwithstanding, the Saudis have traditionally depended on the United States, especially after World War II, for security guarantees and pursued a foreign policy of restraint guided by preferences for soft power tools like mediation in regional conflicts, financial aid and investments, and diplomatic influence. Relations with the United States, mostly smooth but occasionally rocky (for example, the 1973 Saudi-led oil embargo on the West and the 9/11 attacks), has remained the cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy. A series of recent developments, most notably the rise of regional rival Iran following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the contagious effects of Arab pro-democracy movements, and the proclamation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the summer of 2014 forced a major overhaul in Saudi foreign policy. A fundamental shift from the traditional policy of restraint to a proactive foreign policy took root from the early 2010s. King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz sent troops to Bahrain in March 2011 to stifle the Shiʿa -led pro-democracy movements; incumbent King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, soon after ascending the throne in January 2015, launched a massive air attack on Yemen to punish the allegedly pro-Iran Houthi rebels, and doubled down financial and military support for the pro-Saudi rebel groups fighting against the Iran- and Russia-backed Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria. The kingdom has justified this proactive foreign policy approach as a necessary response to force Shiʿa powerhouse Iran to scale back its presence in Arab countries and to keep Iranian power under check. Lately, the kingdom is pursuing policies to court Israel to jointly square off with their common enemy Iran and weaken pro-Iran Lebanese militia group Hezbollah’s military capabilities.

General Overviews

Since 1932 Saudi foreign policy has sought to ensure two overriding objectives: protection from external threats, and survival of the Al Saud regime. The two objectives have largely originated from the Al Saud’s past historical experiences. Originally established in the mid-18th century by Muhammad ibn Saud, the emir of Darʾiyyah, a small oasis town in the central Saudi province of Najd, the Al Saud dynastic rule collapsed two times in the 19th century—first at the hands of the Ottomans in 1818 and the second time in 1887 at the hands of the emir of the Shammar Muhammad ibn Rashid (the Al Rashid rulers were based in the north-western Saudi city of Haʾil). Under Ibn Saud’s leadership, the Al Saud regime, once it established full control over most parts of the Arabian Peninsula, especially after conquering the western province of Hijaz in early 1926, set out to preserve the Arabian, tribe-based self-identity of the kingdom and to dispel its heightened sense of internal and external insecurities. The struggle for security from domestic and external threats has influenced Saudi foreign policy to develop multiple dimensions and try multiple strategies. This section provides a general historical overview of the creation of the kingdom and its foreign policy. This is followed by brief but critical discussions on a number of foreign policy aspects, including Saudi foreign policy in the formative years, oil and foreign policy, Saudi regional policy and rivalry with Iran, alliance-making and Saudi search for security, Saudi-Asia connections, Saudi reactions to the Arab Spring, Islam and ulama in Saudi foreign policy, and domestic power centers and Saudi foreign policymaking. To begin with, Al-Rasheed 2010 and Vassiliev 1998 provide good historical accounts of the formation of Saudi Arabia. Aarts and Nonneman 2005 is an insightful account on Saudi domestic and foreign policies. Gause 2014, Nonneman 2005, Safran 1985, and Salamah 1980 account for general Saudi foreign policy determinants, trends, and the quest for security. Partrick 2016 provides a general overview of Saudi foreign policy in the contemporary context, while Al-Rasheed 2008 reports on Saudi Arabia’s contemporary expansionist drive.

  • Aarts, Paul, and Gerd Nonneman, eds. Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

    This edited book presents insightful analyses on Saudi domestic politics, economic reforms, Islamist threats, and the kingdom’s changing foreign policy in a changing world.

  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi. A History of Saudi Arabia. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511993510

    Al-Rasheed lucidly details the history of the Al Saud rulers since 1744 as well as their territorial conquests and challenges to state formation and power consolidation in historical perspectives.

  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi, eds. Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia’s Political, Religious, and Media Frontiers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    Contributors explore the political, religious, and media power that drives Saudi Arabia’s contemporary expansionist policies across the Middle East and beyond, and investigates such expansionism focusing on the realms of local politics, religion, and media genres.

  • Gause, F. Gregory, III. “The Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia.” In The Foreign Policies of Middle East States. Edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, 185–206. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014

    Gause provides a comprehensive analysis on Saudi foreign policy with a particular focus on foreign policy determinants at the global, regional, and Arabian Peninsula levels.

  • Nonneman, Gerd. “Determinants and Patterns of Saudi Foreign Policy: ‘Omnibalancing’ and ‘Relative Autonomy’ in Multiple Environments.” In Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs. Edited by Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman, 315–351. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

    Nonneman, while examining the determinants of and patterns in Saudi foreign policy, employs the concept of what he calls “omnibalancing” to explain how the Saudi regime, in the face of threats and needs, manages to exercise relative foreign policy autonomy from internal and external structures and actors.

  • Partrick, Neil, eds. Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation in Uncertain Times. London: I.B. Tauris, 2016.

    A good anthology that probes the kingdom’s engagement with the external world, its internal and external challenges, particularly the internal incapacity of the Saudi state and regional rival Iran’s efforts to go nuclear as crucial factors that shape Saudi foreign policy.

  • Safran, Nadav. Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

    This book offers a penetrating analysis on how the interplay of elite politics, inter-Arab rivalries and alignments, wars and revolution in the Persian Gulf area, Arab-Israel conflict and US role in the Middle East shaped Saudi security preoccupation and policy from 1932 up to the early 1980s.

  • Salamah, Ghassan. Al-Siyasa al-kharijiyya al-sa’udiyya munkh ‘am 1945. Beirut: Maʾhad al-Inmai al-Arabi, 1980.

    Salamah examines Saudi foreign policy goals and developments since 1945 from an Arab perspective. Translated as “Saudi foreign policy since 1945.”

  • Vassiliev, Alexi. The History of Saudi Arabia. London: Saqi, 1998.

    Vassiliev provides a rich documents-based historical account of Saudi Arabia’s development as a state over the past two hundred years.

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