Saudi Arabia in the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil

By William B. Quandt | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
The Islamic World

THE CONNECTIONS between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Islamic world are particularly complex, derived as they are from common religious precepts on one level and hard strategic calculus on another. The "Islamicness" of Saudi foreign policy is not merely a reflection of official ideology, nor is it only lip service. Once again, it is the connection between political realities in Saudi Arabia and developments in the world beyond that makes Islamic concerns an important dimension of Saudi foreign policy.

The Saud family's fundamental claim to legitimacy derives not from its success at military conquest but from its propagation of a particularly pure and austere interpretation and practice of Islam, commonly referred to in the West as Wahhabism after its founder. However much Wahhabi Islam may be ignored in daily life by some Saudis, it is extraordinarily difficult for Saudi leaders to ignore Islamic forces in their own country and elsewhere. Without the aura of legitimacy conferred by Islam, the Saudi regime would enjoy less prestige at home and abroad. As Islam becomes a more assertive force in the world, the Saudis feel particularly anxious to cultivate ties to major Islamic powers. This is both good foreign policy and good domestic politics.

The Islamic theme in Saudi foreign policy is not new. King Faisal, anxious to check radical Arab nationalism led by Egypt's President Nasser, called for Islamic unity in late 1965. This was not a noteworthy success, as few countries responded to the Saudi call. Shah Muhammad Riza Pahlavi of Iran did visit Saudi Arabia in November 1968, but he was unwilling to acknowledge the Saudis as leaders of a conservative Islamic movement, and in any case by then the threat from Nasser's Egypt had receded as a unifying force among conservative Islamic countries. A decade later, however, a richer and more assertive Saudi Arabia once

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