There are two main milestones in restructuring Saudi Arabian foreign policy in the post-Cold War period, namely, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Arab insurgencies and revolutions that erupted in 2011. These two significant developments have vastly changed regional and global balances, leading to the redefinition of Saudi foreign policy preferences.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the main symbols of the United States in 2001, carried out by al-Qaida, Saudi Arabia had to restructure its foreign policy orientation. Among others, since the organization is largely funded by the Saudis and 15 of the 19 hijackers of the attackers were Saudi citizens, Saudi Arabia was held responsible by the U.S. government. Since then, the U.S. began to otherize both the Saudi Arabian state and the Saudi-originated Wahhabi version of Islamic understanding. Upon these developments and new conditions, the Saudi kingdom restructured its foreign policy orientation in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. King Abdullah, the ultimate ruler of the kingdom between 2005 and 2015, initiated a comprehensive diversification plan in Saudi foreign policy.
The second most significant development that has changed the conditions for implementing Saudi Arabian foreign policy has been the eruption of the Arab insurgencies and revolutions in 2011. A large wave of change altered regimes in many Arab countries; Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies established an axis of resistance against the powers of change. The U.S. and other Western countries supported this axis of status quo. The Donald Trump administration, in particular, gave an open check to the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia. However, after President Joe Biden came to power in the U.S., he abandoned the Trumpian policy of supporting the monarchies against other regional states.
This led the Saudi government to rethink its foreign policy orientation. After a short notice period, the new Saudi government returned to the diversification policy of the Jordanian King Abdullah era. Considering the return of power politics, the rise of political and economic instability and the intensification of global rivalry, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, started to implement a pragmatic, non-ideological and diversified foreign policy orientation. The normalization process in the Middle East facilitated this new Saudi diplomatic discourse.
There are several important reasons for the restructuring and diversification of the Saudi foreign policy orientation. First of all, since it does not trust its traditional allies anymore, Saudi Arabia began to improve its relations with the non-Western global powers. Considering the current Chinese foreign policy understanding, it is easier for a country like Saudi Arabia to improve its ties with China. Unlike the Western countries, the U.S. in particular, Beijing does not question the ideology or political regime of any country, or it does not impose conditions on foreign policy relations. Therefore, Riyadh accepted the Chinese mediation role and initiated a normalization process with Iran, another Chinese partner in the region.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has followed a different policy toward the Russian-Ukrainian war. It does not follow the footsteps of the West, i.e., the U.S. It did not impose sanctions against Russia. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia tried to mediate between the two warring sides.
Riyadh’s shift toward regional powers
Second, since the global powers do not intend to solve the Middle Eastern problems, Riyadh decided to communicate with other regional authorities. The Saudi political leadership knows it cannot remain indifferent to other regional powers such as Israel, Iran and Türkiye. It began to accept that only through partnership with other regional countries can it solve or manage regional problems. Therefore, it decided to normalize its relations with all regional countries, including Türkiye and Iran. In other words, the Saudi leadership began to prioritize regional partnerships.
Third, the Saudi leadership decided to diversify not only its partners but also the content of its foreign policy. As a largely dependent economy on natural resources, i.e. oil, Riyadh developed many infrastructural megaprojects in recent years. It tries to attract international investors to the country. Thus, it struggles to get rid of the political and economic dependence, mainly on the Western countries, and to increase its status in the world.
Fourth, as a response to the demands for change, the Saudi leadership took many significant measures to control social and political life in the country. Many changes were made in social life. The Saudi political leadership is determined to open and integrate Saudi society into the world. For example, nowadays, mainly due to the transfer of many football stars such as Christian Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema and Roberto Firmino, the Saudi football league is one of the most popular and the most watched leagues in the world. Many global and regional events social, economic, scientific and sports events are organized in the country to change the negative image of the country. Thus, the Saudi political leadership has been trying to build a new economic and administrative order and a new societal structure.
All in all, Saudi Arabia is experiencing an extensive reconstruction and construction process in almost every sphere of life. The most important part of this process is the institutionalization of the state structure. Considering the fast-changing nature of the global system and that of the regional atmosphere, it is very difficult for the kingdom to overcome the challenges ahead. For this, it has to take necessary measures in both domestic and international contexts.