Home Contact Us  

Iran - Articles

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
#5439, 27 February 2018


Reorienting Saudi Foreign Policy: From Islam to the Arab Identity
Pieter-Jan Dockx
Research Intern, IPCS

Since the rise of Saudi Arabia’s new de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), there have been subtle yet important changes in the Kingdom’s foreign policy. The traditional Salafist discourse has partly made space for increased references to 'Arabness'. Although support for Syrian opposition groups during the Syrian war was legitimised based on religion, MbS has framed the current Saudi intervention in Yemen as an Arab matter. When Ali Abdullah Saleh, the assassinated Iran-aligned Yemeni president had called for talks with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh welcomed him “back to the Arab fold.” 

Based on this Arab discourse, the Kingdom has also begun engaging Shia Arabs rather than only Sunnis. This is most visible in Riyadh’s Iraq policy. In 2017, former Shia hardliner Moqtada al-Sadr visited the Kingdom; Riyadh invited Ammar al-Hakim, another former hardliner; And Saudi Arabia's King Salman received Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is part of the Iran-aligned Shia Islamist Da’wa party.

This use of the Arab identity discourse is a noticeable break with Saudi Arabia's recent past. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia has attempted to isolate Iran by embarking on a Sunni Islamist foreign policy, thus intensifying the latent Shia-Sunni divide in the region. Based on this discourse, the Kingdom has supported various Sunni, and especially Salafist, allies in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. However, an Arab component is not entirely new to Riyadh’s foreign policy. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser (then seen as the leader of the Arab world), supported by the erstwhile USSR, engulfed the region with his Pan-Arabism to roll back Western influence embodied by the Shah of Iran. Despite its fear of the anti-monarchist current that intended to unify the Arab world, the Kingdom partially appropriated the ideology. Especially after Egypt’s defeat in the Yom-Kippur War and the subsequent peace treaty with Israel, Saudi Arabia took up the mantle of Arab leadership. Even in the 1970s, Riyadh’s Arab leadership did not exactly mirror Nasser’s popular thinking. While Pan-Arabism had a distinct secular character, Islam always remained a secondary yet significant component of Saudi Arabia’s appropriation. To highlight this contrast, this article uses the notion of ‘Arabness’ rather than the loaded term, ‘Pan-Arabism.’

The current reintegration of the Arab identity in the Kingdom’s discourse will lead to a fusion of Arabness and Islam as opposed to the secularism Nasser espoused. This policy shift is borne foremost out of pragmatic considerations in the region. Saudi Arabia’s policy of supporting Sunni proxies has largely failed to contain Iran, which made engaging with actors outside of the Sunni world inevitable. The new discourse would also resonate with allies like Egypt. The country is the birthplace of Arab identity politics and is ruled by a secular establishment that is faced with a Salafist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Surveys have also indicated that in many countries in the region, the most salient identity amongst the youth is not sectarian or national, but the Arab identity. This means the reintegration of Arabness in the Kingdom’s foreign policy has a lot more soft-power potential in the region than its conventional Islamist ideology.

Furthermore, the new identity narrative backed by non-sectarian engagement has the potential to replace the current Sunni-Shia schism in the region by an Arab-Persian division. This could redefine West Asian politics and swing the balance in favour of the Kingdom. As the pool of Arab allies in the region is broader than possible Sunni partners, a shift to an Arab-Persian paradigm would allow the Kingdom to isolate Iran further, limit potential proxies for Tehran and simultaneously increase its influence in the Arab world. 

For this new narrative to be effective against Iran’s—who sees no merit in an Arab-Persian schism—sectarian status quo in the region, it needs reciprocation from local actors. Iraqi Shia figures like Sadr, Hakim and Abadi have, for various reasons, embarked on a nationalist discourse based on a sense of Arab unity and antagonism towards Iranian meddling. Thus, they have every incentive to cooperate with a Saudi Arabia that legitimises their discourse and can act as a counterweight against Iranian influence in the country. Before he was killed, Yemen's former president Saleh, a Zaidi Shiite, too called for an alliance with Saudi Arabia, which too could have led to a cross-sectarian Arab alliance. While the new Saudi approach is taking root in Iraq and possibly in Yemen, a lot will depend on future local political conditions in the Arab world.

To sum up, Saudi Arabia is increasingly framing its regional policy with a discourse hinged on 'Arabness' as opposed to one hinged on Islam. This shift, combined with Riyadh's recent engagement with Shia actors in the region, could redefine the fault lines of conflict in West Asia. However, the success of this envisioned paradigm shift will depend on the capacity of Iranian resistance and local political conditions.

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
IPCS Columnists
Af-Pak Diary
D Suba Chandran
Resetting Kabul-Islamabad Relations: Three Key Issues
Can Pakistan Reset its Relations with Afghanistan?
The New Afghanistan: Four Major Challenges for President Ghani
Big Picture
Prof Varun Sahni
Understanding Democracy and Diversity in J&K
When Xi Met Modi: Juxtaposing China and India
Pakistan?s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Inevitability of Instability

Dateline Colombo

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera.
Sri Lanka: Moving Towards a Higher Collective Outcome
The Importance of Electing the Best to our Nation's Parliament
Sri Lanka: Toward a Diaspora Re-Engagement Plan
Dateline Islamabad
Salma Malik
Pakistan's Hurt Locker: What Next?
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
India-Pakistan Relations in 2015: Through a Looking Glass
Dhaka Discourse
Prof Delwar Hossain
IPCS Forecast: Bangladesh in 2015
18th SAARC Summit: A Perspective from Bangladesh
Bangladesh in Global Forums: Diplomacy vs. Domestic Politics
Eagle Eye
Prof Chintamani Mahapatra
India-US: Significance of the Second Modi-Obama Meet
Has President Obama Turned Lame Duck?
Modi-Obama Summit: Criticism for Criticism?s Sake?

East Asia Compass
Dr Sandip Mishra
India-Japan-US Trilateral: India?s Policy for the Indo-Pacific
China-South Korea Ties: Implications for the US Pivot to Asia
Many ?Pivots to Asia?: What Does It Mean For Regional Stability?
Himalayan Frontier
Pramod Jaiswal
Nepal?s New Constitution: Instrument towards Peace or Catalyst to Conflict?
IPCS Forecast: Nepal in 2015
Constitution-making: Will Nepal Miss its Second Deadline?

Prof Shankari Sundararaman
IPCS Forecast: Southeast Asia in 2015
Indonesia's Pacific Identity: What Jakarta Must Do in West Papua
Modi in Myanmar: From ?Look East? to ?Act East?
Sushant Sareen
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
Islamic State: Prospects in Pakistan
Pakistan: The Futility of Internationalising Kashmir

Looking East
Wasbir Hussain
Myanmar in New Delhi's Naga Riddle
China: ?Peaceful? Display of Military Might
Naga Peace Accord: Need to Reserve Euphoria
Maritime Matters
Vijay Sakhuja
Indian Ocean: Modi on a Maritime Pilgrimage
Indian Ocean: Exploring Maritime Domain Awareness
IPCS Forecast: The Indian Ocean in 2015

Nuke Street
Amb Sheelkant Sharma
US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?
India's Nuclear Capable Cruise Missile: The Nirbhay Test
India-Australia Nuclear Agreement: Bespeaking of a New Age
Red Affairs
Bibhu Prasad
Countering Left Wing Extremism: Failures within Successes
Return of the Native: CPI-Maoist in Kerala
The Rising Civilian Costs of the State-Vs-Extremists Conflict

Regional Economy
Amita Batra
India and the APEC
IPCS Forecast: South Asian Regional Integration
South Asia: Rupee Regionalisation and Intra-regional Trade Enhancement
South Asian Dialectic
PR Chari
Resuming the Indo-Pak Dialogue: Evolving a New Focus
Defence Management in India: An Agenda for Parrikar
Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: Implications for Asian Security

Spotlight West Asia
Amb Ranjit Gupta
Prime Minister Modi Finally Begins His Interaction with West Asia*
A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
Strategic Space
Manpreet Sethi
India-Russia Nuclear Vision Statement: See that it Delivers
Global Nuclear Disarmament: The Humanitarian Consequences Route
Nasr: Dangers of Pakistan's Short Range Ballistic Missile

The Strategist
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Jihadi Aggression and Nuclear Deterrence
The Blight of Ambiguity
Falun Gong: The Fear Within

OTHER REGULAR contributors
Gurmeet Kanwal
Harun ur Rashid
N Manoharan
Wasbir Hussain
Rana Banerji
N Manoharan

Ruhee Neog
Teshu Singh
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Roomana Hukil
Aparupa Bhattacherjee


Browse by Publications

Issue Briefs 
Special Reports 
Research Papers 
Seminar Reports 
Conference Reports 

Browse by Region/Countries

East Asia 
South Asia 
Southeast Asia 
US & South Asia 

Browse by Issues

India & the world  
Naxalite Violence 
Suicide Terrorism 
Peace & Conflict Database 
Article by same Author
Subtle Shifts in Saudi Foreign Policy: Domestic and International Dimensions

Doklam and the India-US Strategic Relationship

The Neglected Dimension of Iran’s Opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan's Independence

Y! MyWeb
Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
Year 2018
 January  February  March
 2017  2016  2015  2014  2013  2012  2011  2010
 2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002
 2001  2000  1999  1998  1997

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) is the premier South Asian think tank which conducts independent research on and provides an in depth analysis of conventional and non-conventional issues related to national and South Asian security including nuclear issues, disarmament, non-proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, counter terrorism , strategies security sector reforms, and armed conflict and peace processes in the region.

For those in South Asia and elsewhere, the IPCS website provides a comprehensive analysis of the happenings within India with a special focus on Jammu and Kashmir and Naxalite Violence. Our research promotes greater understanding of India's foreign policy especially India-China relations, India's relations with SAARC countries and South East Asia.

Through close interaction with leading strategic thinkers, former members of the Indian Administrative Service, the Foreign Service and the three wings of the Armed Forces - the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force, - the academic community as well as the media, the IPCS has contributed considerably to the strategic discourse in India.

Subscribe to Newswire | Site Map
18, Link Road, Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110014, INDIA.

Tel: 91-11-4100-1902    Email: officemail@ipcs.org

© Copyright 2018, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.