The Two Faces of Saudi Arabia

February 12, 2008

The Saudi Arabian regime, aided by oil money and custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites, has in recent years emerged as one of the most active and creative diplomatic players in the Middle East. Yet the regime’s imaginative interventions in foreign affairs contrast starkly with its immobility in the face of deepening divisions at home. To minimise the perceived threat from Shi’ites in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, the most sensible course is not to pursue a tacit anti-Shia alliance with the United States and Israel, but rather to improve social and political conditions for Shi’ites at home. This would require confronting the Wahhabi clerical establishment head on, which could fatally undermine one of the pillars of al-Saud rule. The regime appears fated to opt for continued immobility, engaging in largely symbolic regional diplomacy in the hope that this will some how buy it credit at home.

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