Saudi Arabia: Quest for the Ultimate “Political Play-Off”


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at the following link: )

The British Empire, long masters of the Persian Gulf and the wiles of playing-off nations; met their match in Ibn Saud (1880-1953) the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. At the turn of the last century, Whitehall was concerned with the growing cosiness of Germany with the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, a strategic project was born from this snugness, a Berlin-Baghdad rail axis that envisaged a central terminal at Kuwait. The plan was for it to evolve into a pivotal Control and Logistic sea-land hub that could threaten the Suez Canal and in turn the British Indian Empire. Ibn Saud saw in the emerging geopolitical contest an opportunity to ‘play’ the protagonists to his advantage.

While consolidating his powerbase, Ibn Saud, never lost touch with the orthodox teachings of Muhammad Ibn al Wahhabi, who in the 18th century deeply influenced his forebears into enforcing a unity, based on the brotherhood of Islam. However, the tribal origins of the Al-Saud, its nomadic population and harsh conditions never permitted a strategic view of geography. It took Ibn Saud’s geopolitical acumen and the opportunity that the collapsing Ottoman Empire presented that inspired his return to puritanical Islam and most critically an acceptance of “Political Islam”. Ibn Saud attacked the nomadic structure of his society and combined the aggressiveness of the Wahhabi ideology with the unquestioning nature of his followers to penetrate the vast Arabian Peninsula. He weakened tribal allegiances and replaced them with loyalty to Allah and the Amir. He established a new communal identity of ‘Ikhwan’, a Wahhabi religious militia to form a significant military force. The Ikhwan not only played a crucial role in instituting him as ruler of most of the Peninsula, but also placed him in a favourable power-bargaining position with both the Sultan and the British. Ibn Saud made it known to the latter that the Ottoman and other powers were also interested in establishing treaty relations with him which he would have to conclude if he had no other means of support. The veiled threat to British interests was not lost on Whitehall.

With the Ikhwan at his side, Ibn Saud set out reconquering his family lands. In 1902, he captured Riyadh by assassinating the governor of the city. In one stroke he drew the tribes to rally to his call. Within two years of Riyadh’s fall, the Najd lay at his feet and he was in a position to threaten Ottoman designs for Kuwait and their Berlin-axis.

British policy towards Ibn Saud changed metamorphically when it coincided with the Admiralty’s doctrine to convert their imperial navy from coal to oil-fired. At the time their allies the US and Russia produced almost all of the world’s petroleum. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy with the prospect of the Navy’s strategic dependence on foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, it concluded lay in control at source. In the meantime, Ibn Saud finessed his relations with Britain through the Treaty of Darin (1915). The Pact became a corner stone of Imperial policy that made Ibn Saud an equal ally in the War and his state a protectorate of the British Crown. The minor sheikh from the desert had played his cards well, from tribal chieftain he was transformed into a revered king. By 1932 his nation, Saudi Arabia, was courted by world governments.

As for the strategic Berlin-Baghdad rail link, it remained unfinished, limiting its use during the First World War.   

The Second World War was by no means as important for Saudi Arabia as the First had been. Ibn Saud remained a supporter of the Allies and yet stayed neutral. After the War, European powers that held sway in West Asia were exhausted. They could do little to prop their crumbling empires, thus, ending their influence in the region and giving impetus to a world order dominated by the USSR and the USA. Sensing the incipient power-vacuum in the region, Ibn Saud welcomed the USA into playing a more substantial role in his domain.

Cold War American interests worked to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in the peninsula. Ibn Saud now manipulated circumstances to win Saudi Arabia financial and security guarantees in return for access and oblique control of the world’s largest energy reserves.  “The USS Quincy Memorandum”, ensured the legacy of the House-of-Saud through the reigns of Kings Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah and the current king, Salman. Solidarity with the Wahhabi’s, oil wealth and American guarantees were the keys that enabled dynastic continuity.

In 2017, King Salman appointed his son Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) as Crown Prince and heir apparent. The young Prince has set about launching sweeping economic, social, military and foreign policy reforms. Given the complex power structure and its vulnerabilities, success of these reforms is predicated on, how they affect the status-quo. Critically three challenges confront MbS. Firstly, the entire political, juridical and social system that is defined by the Wahhabi ulema and had sealed the kingdom’s founding compact with Wahhabism, must change; but any break with the Wahhabi Clergy will tantamount to a de-coupling of politics from its sub-structure of Wahhabism. The second challenge is a contemporary interpretation of the Koran that permits moderation, an idea that, till announcement, would have been blasphemous. Thirdly, MbS has taken a cue from his illustrious forebear, Ibn Saud. He has daringly chosen not to pick sides between Washington, Beijing and Moscow nor have a selection thrust on him.

Meanwhile, the US in their Saudi Policy has vowed, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” However, China has in its report Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era roundly denied the existence of a ‘power vacuum’ in West Asia. It would appear that the “Quincy Memorandum” for guarantees that eventually led to the policy of crude export revenues denominated in US dollars, the “Petro-dollar” deal and total dependence on the American security blanket may have outlived their shelf-life. The US-Saudi Jeddah Communiqué   may even suggest an outline for MbS’ new vision of a more versatile strategic relationship with the US that finds place for Beijing and Moscow.

But there remain three nagging doubts; can Saudi Arabia wean itself away from the luxury of the petro-dollar? Will the lifting of the US security blanket leave the kingdom in the cold? And lastly, will the dynasty survive without the Wahhabi ideology or as the, Economist put it, how to change what God said?