Saui Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape / Joshua Teitelbaum

Since the end of the Cold War, a new strategic landscape has appeared in the Middle East. No longer dominated by a U.S.-Soviet rivalry, this new landscape is dominated by U.S.-Iranian confrontation. In this struggle, the United States' most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, plays a key role. As the Obama administration policies allow Iran to run out the clock on getting a nuclear weapon, it would appear from its recent policy moves that it believes Riyadh is primarily concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict. While this is a concern in Saudi Arabia, it is far and away not the primary one. Indeed, there is no doubt that in its foreign policy Riyadh is much more worried about Iran's rise as a key regional actor.


Two decades after the end of the Cold War, a new strategic landscape has ap­peared in the Middle East. No longer dominated by a U.S.-Soviet rivalry, this new landscape is dominated by U.S.-Iranian confrontation. In this struggle, the United States’ most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, plays a key role. As the Obama administration policies allow Iran to run out the clock on getting a nuclear weapon, it would appear from its recent policy moves that it believes Riyadh is primarily concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict. While this is a concern in Saudi Arabia, it is far and away not the primary one. Indeed, there is no doubt that in its foreign policy Riyadh is much more wor­ried about Iran’s rise as a key regional actor.

As a regional challenger, Iran threatens Saudi interests in Lebanon, where it operates with Syria and its Shi’i proxy Hizballah to undermine the Saudi-supported government; in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where it supports the terrorist organization Hamas against the Palestinian Authority; in Yemen, where it is assisting rebels who are fighting the Saudi-supported regime of President Ali Ab­dallah Salih; and closer to home in the Persian Gulf, where it operates to curtail Saudi inter­ests in Iraq and project its power into neigh­boring countries, particularly via their Shi’i populations.

But the depth of Saudi Arabian concern about Iran goes beyond the basic regional balance of power or balance of threat consider­ations, reaching deep into the regime’s calculus about its own security. This magnifies manyfold the importance to Saudi Arabia of confronting the Iranian-Shi’i threat. Much of the regime’s legitimacy comes from its role as the guardian of Sunni orthodoxy, the majority branch of Islam and the branch followed by most Saudi Arabians. This is a role felt keenly by the royal family, particularly the king, Ab­dallah bin Abd al-Aziz.[1] As the regime takes halting steps toward liberalization,[2] a rate of progress designed to mollify conservative forces within and without the royal family, Saudi Arabia’s own minority Shi’a, supported by Iran, push for greater rights within the king­dom. But the Sunni majority looks to the regime to uphold Sunni primacy at home and abroad. And important groups of Sunnis and Shi’a call the rule of the Al Saud into question.

If Iran gets the upper hand, the royal family may face serious threats by Saudi Arabian Sunni radicals determined to stop the spread of Shi’ism, and by Saudi Arabian Shi’a encour­aged by the rise of Iran and its Shi’i regional allies. Both sides would seek to exploit the situ­ation, leading to instability in Saudi Arabia and reverberations of further regional instability.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has its ori­gins in the mid-eighteenth century, when an alliance was formed in the central Najd region be­tween a local strongman, or emir, Muham­mad bin Saud (d. 1765) of the Al Saud family, and a radical Islamist preacher, Shaykh Mu­hammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1791). A bargain was struck between these two ambi­tious men: Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab would give religious approbation for the ex­pansionist desires of Muhammad bin Saud, and the latter would give the former the mili­tary force to spread his ideas of a more puri­tanical form of Islam than that which was practiced in the Arabian Peninsula. This alli­ance was successful and, despite various ups and downs, by 1932 the Al Saud had con­quered most of the peninsula, including the relatively liberal and Islamically cosmopolitan Red Sea coastal area of the Hijaz, ruled by the Hashemite family,[3] with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and al-Hasa in the east, with its extensive Shi’i population.

The formation of modern Saudi Arabia in­volved the subjugation of a diverse popula­tion—religiously, tribally, and regionally—to the whims of one family, the Al Saud. The royal family sought to identify itself with the state to such an extent that it named the state after it­self—Saudi Arabia—one of only two states in the world named after a family.[4]

This subjugation came at a price. Although distribution of massive oil revenue has helped the Saudis to buy off much of the opposition over the years, it has not always been success­ful. Differing visions of Islam, from the Shi’a of the eastern region of al-Hasa to more liberal Islamists and extremist Wahhabis, who believe that the current regime is not extreme enough, have all challenged the rule of the Al Saud over the years. Underscoring all of this is the fact that the centralizing establishment of the Saudi state came at the expense of significant tribal autonomy. While discrete tribal loyalties have lost much of their political significance over the years because of the efforts of the Al Saud, the tribal ethos of a decentralized government and considerable tribal autonomy still presents a challenge to the regime and finds its expression in opposition movements.

One of the keenest historians of Saudi Ara­bia, Madawi al-Rashid, has observed: ‘‘The 20th century witnessed the emergence of a [Saudi Arabian] state imposed on people with­out a historical memory of unity or national heritage which would justify their inclusion in a single entity.’’[5] The security calculus of the Al Saud is therefore highly dominated by internal security concerns.

The Saudis have dealt with these domestic challenges in several ways. Tribal challengers were coopted into the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which functioned essentially as a way to funnel oil rents to the tribes and buy their coop­eration rather than as an effective fighting force. Sunni religious fanatics were given control of the religious establishment and the educational system, a move that would eventually backfire on the regime. The Shi’a were ruthlessly sup­pressed, to the delight of the Sunni Wahhabi ex­tremists who viewed Shi’ism as pure heresy.

External defense concerns have also been a significant part of Saudi security considerations. In the first years of the state, the descen­dants of the Hashemite family, recently ensconced by the British in Jordan and Iraq after being thrown out of the Hijaz by the Al Saud, sought to regain control of their ances­tral homeland.[6] This led to the initial suspi­cion of the British and contributed to a bias toward the U.S. in the immediate post-World War II period. Indeed, in 1950 King Abd al-Aziz confided to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State George McGhee that the Hashemites were his greatest fear, and for that reason he wanted military aid and an urgent military al­liance with America.[7]

American interest in Saudi Arabia dates from the 1930s with the development of oil. The desire to have access to oil outside the United States during World War II led the Roosevelt admin­istration to declare in 1943 that ‘‘the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States,’’ in order to provide Riyadh with Lend-Lease aid.[8]


Indeed, America’s initial response to Saudi security concerns had more to do with oil than with the Hashemites. But the end of World War II brought the Cold War, which had an important Middle Eastern theater. Traditional Middle Eastern monarchies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia sought to stymie Soviet Middle Eastern subversion, particularly through re­gional client states such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.[9] For the Saudis, concerns about the Hashemites had given way to concerns over Communism. Early on the Saudis sought mili­tary support from the United States and re­ceived it through the United States Military Training Mission, established in 1953.

The Cold War coincided with increased de­velopment, education, and modernization in Saudi Arabia. This process brought with it some associated ills that affected internal secur­ity. Communist and Ba’athi cells were discov­ered, and labor unrest by Shi’i workers in Aramco’s oil fields in the Eastern Province were frequent. These were cases of internal dis­sidents influenced by imported ideologies. The United States cooperated, with the help of Aramco, in keeping a lid on these developments.

Soviet encroachment and Arab radicalism were not the only Saudi external concerns. Across the Persian Gulf lay Iran. Saudi Arabia has always had an ambivalent relationship with Tehran. On the one hand, Iran, with its major­ity Shi’i population, was deeply concerned about the establishment of anti-Shi’i Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and what that would mean for ac­cess to holy places and for the fate of Saudi Arabia’s sizable Shi’i population. But aside from some minor friction, this did not develop into conflict. Religion was not a part of the shah’s foreign policy.

More important, during this period Riyadh and Tehran were joined in their distrust of Communism and Soviet designs on the region. Iran, which had a border with the Soviet Union, had suffered years of Russian imperial­ism. The two countries even cooperated in the early 1970s to help the Sultan of Oman fight a Maoist rebellion in the region of Dhofar. Both countries sought and received military equip­ment and training from a very willing United States. This policy earned the nickname ‘‘Twin Pillars’’ under the Nixon administration.[10]

The February 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted President Jimmy Carter to announce what became known as the Carter Doctrine, during his January 1980 State of the Union address. Carter stressed that the:“ Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic posi­tion, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.”[11]

His conclusion was quite forceful: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Per­sian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”[12]

The Carter Doctrine was given a specifically Saudi twist in October 1981, when President Ronald Reagan issued what has become known as the Reagan Corollary: ‘‘We cannot permit Saudi Arabia to become Iran,’’ Reagan de­clared. The Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary were responsible for the increase of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, first in the form of the Rapid Deployment Force, and eventually, a full military command, the U.S. Central Command.

The Reagan administration never lost hope that Iran could still be courted. Given the country’s long border with the Soviet Union, the effort to return Iran to the fold was deemed too important to give up. The United States had an arms embargo against Iran, which had been em­broiled in a war with Iraq since 1980 and was desperate for anti-tank and anti-aircraft mis­siles. In what became known as the Iran-Con­tra affair of the mid-1980s, the administration, with Israeli mediation, tried to trade arms to Tehran for U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian Shi’a in Lebanon. (Some of the funds from the sale of the missiles were diverted by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council to the Contras in Nicaragua.) Secretary of State George Shultz had opposed the deal and was joined by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinb­erger (‘‘Cap Weinberger and George Shultz re­mained very much opposed, with Shultz especially strong in his opposition’’[13]). But, the president, who had the support of CIA Direc­tor William Casey and national security adviser Robert McFarlane, overruled them both. Shultz had even threatened to resign, but Reagan con­vinced him otherwise, and was glad he had.[14]

According to Shultz, the Iran-Contra affair was an unnecessary distraction in relations with Iran. When Iran threatened Persian Gulf shipping in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq War, the United States led a reflagging effort, robustly con­fronting Iranian aggression. ‘‘After the set­back wrought by the Iran-Contra affair,’’ concluded Shultz, ‘‘Ronald Reagan was back in business.’’[15]


1979 was a crucial year in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic Revolution ended decades of a pro-American regime in Tehran, and one that was more or less agnostic about Saudi Arabia. But unfortunately for the United States and Saudi Arabia, the new regime had a radical new agenda. It was not content dealing with internal affairs—it sought to export its revolution and to rectify perceived Western domination and oppression.

For Saudi Arabia, an ascendant, religiously based Iran presented new and unprecedented challenges. For the first time, a militant Shi’i regime, flush with oil wealth, was poised across the Gulf from the Saudi guardian of Sunni or­thodoxy. And the Iranians wasted little time.

Shi’i Riots in the Eastern Province and the Rise of Islamist Shi’ism in Saudi Arabia

Iranian-inspired riots broke out toward the end of the year in the Shi’i sections of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and contin­ued into 1980, encouraged by the success of the Iranian Revolution. While the rioters had justifiable grievances based on years of Saudi discrimination, they also drew encouragement from the victories of fellow Shi’a in Iran across the Gulf. The Saudi authorities used the Saudi Arabian National Guard to suppress the riots ruthlessly.[16] The government did not hesitate to use helicopter gunships against the demonstrators.[17] Many leaders of the Shi’i community went into exile or were arrested following these protests.

The main Shi’i opposition group, the Orga­nization of the Islamic Revolution (Munazza­mat al-Thawra al-Islamiyya), was established by Shaykh Hasan al-Saffar, a Shi’i cleric, in December 1979, following the first burst of ri­oting. The group functioned as a political and religious outlet for feelings of oppression and insult.[18]

Saffar was echoing the thoughts of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he wrote:

…we are genuinely part of the realm of the downtrodden [mustad‘afun] while the despots of Al Sa‘ud… are genuinely part of the realm of oppressors… and colonizers. The ongoing bat­tle is now between these two realms…. Our struggle against… tyrannical rule is a cycle of a long chain of a universal revolution which will, inevitably, lead to the collapse of imperialistic su­perpowers and the rise of the world of the downtrodden….[19]

After the uprising Saffar found asylum in Iran, and his organization established offices in Tehran, London, and Washington.

Making Trouble in Lebanon: Iran and the Rise of Hizballah

As it spread its revolutionary Islamist message throughout the Middle East, Iran put a special emphasis on the Shi’i population of Lebanon, which was the largest but poorest and least-represented sector of Lebanon’s intricate con­fessional framework. It was involved with the precursors of the radical terrorist organization Hizballah, which struck twice in Beirut in 1983, bombing the U.S. Embassy (63 killed) in April and the Marine barracks (241 killed) in Octo­ber. Hizballah, whose leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is a follower of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, would grow to be a powerful force in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to negotiate an end to the Lebanese Civil War finally bore fruit in an agreement signed in the Saudi city of Ta’if in 1989, which sought to distribute power in Lebanon more fairly. But it regularized the Syrian presence in the country and allowed Hizballah to maintain its arms, ostensibly to confront Is­rael. Thus Iran’s presence in Lebanon was made final by the official recognition of the status of its allies Syria and Hizballah.

Wahhabi Extremists on the Offensive

On the Sunni scene in Saudi Arabia, the years of catering to Wahhabi extremists of various kinds were beginning to be felt. As it will be remembered, the Al Saud had given control of the mosque network and educational system to the Wahhabi establishment, which preached an extreme puritanical and anti-Western doctrine. In exchange, the theory went, religious leaders would give approbation for the modernization of the state and look the other way at the some­times ‘‘un-Islamic’’ behavior of the royal fam­ily. But this bargain was not working out as expected.[20]

Sunni Islamist extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca nearly simultaneously with the Shi’i uprising of 1979, protesting what they saw as the lax Islamic system in Saudi Arabia and the un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. They held out for two weeks.[21] Both events demonstrated the difficulties of Saudi internal security and their connection to regional developments.

The regime decided to deal with Wahhabi extremism in a unique way. First, it joined the Wahhabi religious establishment in encourag­ing Saudi youth to travel to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets after their 1979 invasion. The idea was essentially to ‘‘export’’ violent extrem­ists and—the regime hoped—have them ‘‘mar­tyred’’ overseas. This dovetailed nicely with the cooperative U.S. and Saudi efforts to confront the Soviet Union in the last decade of the Cold War. The other aspect of dealing with the prob­lem of homegrown Islamist extremists was to export their zeal and money overseas to the West, where they could preach their doctrine at local mosques, often built with money from the Saudi royal family. In this manner, it was be­lieved, these forces could be coopted and their energy could be channeled to foreign lands.

The main regional story of the Persian Gulf in the 1980s was the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Iraq sought to exploit Iranian internal turmoil and expand its narrow territory along the Persian Gulf. In its rhetoric, Baghdad, drawing on Islamic history, portrayed its attack as defending the Arab east from the predations of Persian Shi’a. Saddam Hussein was widely supported by the Arab states of the Gulf, fearful of the implications of an ascendant Iran.

This was a time of extreme tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran saw Saudi Arabia as trying to undermine the Islamic Revolution by supporting Iraqi aggression, while Saudi Arabia suffered from Iranian agitation and even violence during the annual pilgrimage (hajj) in Mecca. For many years, the Iranians used the pilgrimage as an arena of confronta­tion with the pro-Western Al Saud, holding protests and encouraging rioting that some­times resulted in the loss of life.[22]

*Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum is Principal Research Associate at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he is a contributor to the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.



[1] See Abdallah’s interview with the Kuwait daily Al-Siyasa, January 27, 2007.

[2] Joshua Teitelbaum (ed.), Political Liberalization in the Persian Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[3] See Joshua Teitelbaum, The Rise and Fall of the Hashemite Kingdom of Arabia (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

[4] The other is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, named after the Hashemite family.

[5] Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 3.

[6] For example, see Joshua Teitelbaum, ‘‘Pilgrimage Politics: The Hajj and the Saudi-Hashemite Rivalry,’’ in Asher Susser and Aryeh Shmuelevitz (eds.), The Hashemites and the Modern World (London: Frank Cass, 1995), pp. 65–85. See also Joseph Kostiner, The Making of Saudi Arabia, 1916–1936: From Chieftaincy to Monarchical State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[7] David Ottoway, ‘‘The U.S. and Saudi Arabia since the 1930s,’’ presentation to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, June 25, 2009.

[8] Ottoway, ‘‘The U.S. and Saudi Arabia since the 1930s.’’

[9] Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958–1970 (London: University Press, 3rd ed., 1971); Yezid Sayigh and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The Cold War and the Middle East (Oxford: Clare­ndon Press, 1997); Galia Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East: From World War II to Gorbachev (Cam­bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[10] For a critique of the Twin Pillars policy, see How­ard Teicher, From Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America’s Flawed Vision in the Middle East from Nixon to Bush (New York: William Morrow, 1993).

[11] Jimmy Carter, State of the Union address, January 23, 1980.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiog­raphy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 516.

[14] Reagan, An American Life, p. 523.

[15] George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), p. 935.

[16] Toby Jones, ‘‘Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery: Modernity, Marginalization and the Shi’a Uprising of 1979,’’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (May 2006), pp. 213–33. Fouad Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia (London: Al Saqi, 2006).

[17] Toby Jones, ‘‘Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery.’’ While the regime was busy putting down a Shi’i upris­ing in the Eastern Province, Wahhabi radicals took over the Great Mosque in Mecca. On this incident, see Joshua Teitel­baum, Holier than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Opposition (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000), pp. 19–22, and Yaroslav Troï¬Âmov, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[18] Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia, p. 33.

[19] Hasan al-Saffar, Kalimat al-Haraka al-Islamiyya, p. 30, quoted in Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia, p. 132.

[20] Teitelbaum, Holier than Thou, pp. 98–113.

[21] Thomas Heggehammer and Stéphane Lacroix, ‘‘Rejectionist Islam in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhay­man al-Utaybi Revisited,’’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2007), pp. 103–22. See also Troï¬Âmov, The Siege of Mecca.

[22] See Martin Kramer, ‘‘Khomeini’s Messengers in Mecca,’’ in Martin Kramer (ed.), Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), pp. 161–87.


MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Yeru Aharoni, Anna Melman.
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.

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