Although Saudi Arabian history stretches back more than 250 years, the era before King Abdulaziz’s rule saw limited involvement in foreign affairs. For most of the period that the First and Second Saudi states ruled over much of the peninsula, relations with peoples beyond their borders were limited to contacts with Britain, the dominant global power, and the Ottoman Empire, the major regional player, as well as with neighboring emirates.
The 20th Century was a time of profound change, not only for Saudi Arabia but the world at large. Colonialism was entering a phase of decline, setting the stage for the emergence of new states in Asia and Africa. And the world was unwittingly gearing up for two successive wars that would reshape the political map.
It was against this background that King Abdulaziz entered the scene. Prior to reclaiming his patrimony, he had spent years in Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait and had developed an understanding of the importance of relations between men, as well as nations. As early as 1903, King Abdulaziz initiated contacts with Arab leaders and the governments of Britain, Russia and other countries. Representatives dispatched to various cities in the Middle East not only protected the interests of his emerging Kingdom, but also kept him informed of the latest developments in international affairs.
Over the next two decades, the ruler of Najd applied his considerable energies to the task of unifying the tribes and peoples of the peninsula while seeking to preserve the integrity of his state during the First World War and the years following it, a time when the political map of the Middle East was being redrawn in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In 1919, King Abdulaziz sent his son Faisal - who was to rule as King in the 1960s and 1970s - as his representative on an extended visit to the capitals of Europe. On that visit Prince Faisal attended the Peace Conference in Versailles, where the European powers were discussing the future of the Ottoman domains in the Middle East and North Africa.
By the mid-1920s, King Abdulaziz had largely accomplished his task of building a new, unified nation, and he had extended his protection to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and the rest of the Hejaz region in western Saudi Arabia.
At this point, King Abdulaziz became immersed in regional and international affairs, soon becoming the most widely respected and important Arab and Muslim leader of his time. For a nation built on Islamic principles, upholding Islam and protecting Islamic interests was the cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy under King Abdulaziz.
One of King Abdulaziz's greatest concerns in the years he was unifying the nation was the instability that prevailed in many parts of the peninsula, which affected not only the internal situation, but also impacted foreign affairs. Such instability caused friction with neighboring countries and also was an impediment for the tens of thousands of Muslims who made the annual pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah. After entering Makkah in October 1925 in the humble garb of a pilgrim, King Abdulaziz set about the task of facilitating the pilgrimage for a larger number of Muslims by bringing law and order to the western parts of the peninsula. The following summer, he convened an Islamic Congress in the holy city, during which he assured Muslim leaders from all over the world that he would do everything in his power to protect the holy sites and make them more accessible to pilgrims.
He also held a series of meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders from around the world to assure them that the Saudi state would introduce order and end the depredations of bandits and corrupt officials that had plagued the pilgrims in previous years.
The justice and stability that his rule brought to a land that had not tasted these prerequisites for a safe pilgrimage and economic growth enhanced his stature in the Arab and Islamic worlds and further propelled him into the regional and international arenas.
As was his every action in life, King Abdulaziz’s foreign policy was rooted in his Islamic beliefs. Foreign leaders and diplomats came away impressed with his honesty and integrity. He was famed for dispensing with diplomatic niceties that stood in the way of a frank and candid discussion of relations and events. He was equally known for upholding his word and standing by his promises, whether given to a simple Bedouin or to a world leader. These traits enhanced his stature as a reliable and responsible leader dedicated to peace and justice. They would become, after his passing, principles of Saudi foreign policy that today influence the Kingdom’s bilateral and multilateral relations and the country's global outlook.
In 1930, King Abdulaziz met King Faisal of Iraq. During the meeting, the two sides signed treaties of friendship. That same year, King Abdulaziz visited Bahrain and met with Emir Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifah in a session noted for its warmth and cordiality.
King Abdulaziz's efforts to normalize and improve relations with other countries continued after the establishment of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 23, 1932. On May 21, 1934, Saudi Arabia and Yemen ended a long period of tension along their borders with the conclusion of the Taif Treaty. These efforts were facilitated by the growing number of foreign leaders visiting Saudi Arabia and numerous visits by King Abdulaziz and his sons abroad. His eldest sons, Prince Saud and Prince Faisal, embarked on several foreign tours to meet with heads-of-state. Prince Faisal, who served as Foreign Secretary, visited Europe again in 1932 for meetings with heads-of-state and leaders of various European and Asian states. In 1937, Crown Prince Saud and Prince Muhammad represented King Abdulaziz at the coronation of King George VI in London and conveyed messages from their father to various leaders from around the world. In 1939, Prince Faisal attended the Palestine Round Table Conference in London and, accompanied by his younger brother Prince Khaled, met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC, in 1943.
The discovery of oil in commercial quantities in Saudi Arabia in 1938 further propelled the Kingdom onto the world scene. Yet as one foreign official noted, no amount of oil could have enabled the Kingdom to play as important a role in regional and international affairs as it was beginning to had it not enjoyed a stable government and a unified people.
One of King Abdulaziz’s key foreign policy objectives was the promotion and protection of Arab interests. He was one of the first Arab leaders to recognize the importance of the issue of sovereignty for Palestine and how the unsuccessful resolution of that issue might lead to long-term regional instability.
Throughout the period immediately before, during and after World War II, King Abdulaziz was in constant contact with world leaders, and met with senior foreign officials who were by then regularly making their way to Riyadh. One of the most important visitors in this period was King Farouk of Egypt. The two leaders met in Yanbu by the Red Sea on January 25, 1945, to discuss bilateral relations. More importantly, they reviewed the progress of moves to establish the League of Arab States, which was founded in March of that year.
In February 1945, King Abdulaziz met separately with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill along the Suez Canal. The main topic of conversation was the future of the Middle East in the post-war era. During their meeting on board the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the canal, President Roosevelt tried to persuade King Abdulaziz to acquiesce to a plan for unrestricted Jewish emigration to Palestine, which the Saudi ruler strongly opposed. He later received a written pledge from the American president stating that he would never take any action that would be detrimental to Arab interests. King Abdulaziz also met with Prime Minister Churchill at the Fayyoum Oasis. Before returning to Jeddah, he visited Cairo for a meeting with King Farouk.
Saudi Arabia's role in world affairs was further enhanced in 1945 when Prince Faisal, who, accompanied by Prince Fahd, later to rule as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, traveled to California for the signing of the UN Charter, making the Kingdom one of the 50 founding members of the world body.
With the war over, the issue of Palestine took on greater significance for Saudi Arabia. In 1947, Prince Faisal delivered a historic speech at the UN debate on Palestine, in which he expressed strong Saudi opposition to partition. A champion of Arab interests in general, King Abdulaziz was particularly concerned about the future of Palestine. His views on the question were clear in an interview with British journalist George Bilainkin in 1947: “The road is quite clear. ... We want peace in Palestine, we want independence for Palestine.” In May 1948, King Abdulaziz received King Abdullah of Jordan in Jeddah to discuss developments in Palestine, including armed conflict and the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 15.
Another world issue that increasingly occupied the King's attention in the post-World War II era was the spread of communism. At this time, Soviet forces were in control of Eastern Europe and had occupied parts of north-western Iran on the other side of the Arabian Gulf. This suspicion of communism and active opposition to its growing power would endure as an important facet of Saudi foreign policy in the following decades and would result in extensive Saudi support for efforts to contain its spread. After the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, King Abdulaziz sent a message to U.S. President Harry Truman, stating: “I am with you, and I want you to know it.” Saudi opposition to communism manifested itself later during the struggle of Afghan freedom fighters to expel Soviet forces and the communist regime from Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s. Active Saudi opposition to communism would continue until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its satellite states soon after.
King Abdulaziz was involved in foreign affairs right up to his death on November 9, 1953. In the succeeding decades, Saudi foreign policy has upheld the same principles of constancy, integrity, peace and justice that he so valued. During the rule of King Saud Bin Abdulaziz, the Kingdom continued to build on its relations with Arab and Muslim countries, as well as with the United States and European nations. This was achieved through the conclusion of treaties, state visits abroad and a series of visits by foreign heads-of-state.
King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz followed a similar course. During his rule (1964-75), Saudi-U.S. relations were further strengthened and the Kingdom emerged as both a spiritual force and a political leader for Muslims and Arabs. Throughout the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, which included two Arab-Israeli wars and the oil crisis of 1973, King Faisal and Saudi Arabia were voices for moderation, peace and stability.
King Khaled's reign between 1975 and 1982 witnessed the continuing growth of Saudi Arabia's role on the global diplomatic scene. At a time of intense economic development in the Kingdom, King Khaled worked to promote Saudi political and economic relations with Arab, Islamic and other states throughout the world. Responding to regional instability in the form of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the outbreak of armed conflict between Iran and Iraq in 1980, Saudi Arabia initiated discussions that led to the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political, security and economic alliance with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
While maintaining the twin attributes of continuity and constancy that has characterized it since the days of King Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign policy has had to evolve at a more rapid pace in response to the complex challenges that have faced the region and the world over the past two decades.
On June 13, 1982, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz became the fifth ruler of the modern Kingdom. While supervising the country's accelerating socioeconomic development and introducing administrative and organizational measures to enable the government to better meet the needs of the nation as it prepared to enter the 21st century, King Fahd intensified his diplomatic efforts at the regional and global levels to help resolve a series of crises and conflicts. “It has been evident that whenever we work to restore usurped rights, we work toward bolstering world peace with all our efforts,” King Fahd stated after his investiture. “We are active, fellow countrymen in the wider international sphere within the framework of the United Nations. ... Our acts have reflected, and will continue to reflect, our sense of belonging to the world community.”
Committed to helping the cause of the Afghan freedom fighters during the years of Soviet occupation of their country, Saudi Arabia led an international effort to provide relief to the millions of Afghan refugees driven from their homes and to bring about the ouster of the Soviet forces and the communist regime they had installed in Afghanistan. Following the expulsion of the communist regime in Kabul, Saudi Arabia helped mediate a national reconciliation agreement between the leaders of the various Afghan factions. Despite the accord, which was signed in Makkah on March 12, 1993, the country remained immersed in a bloody civil war. While supervising extensive relief operations to ease the suffering of Afghan refugees, King Fahd continued to urge the factional leaders to halt the fighting for the sake of their nation.
During these same years, Saudi Arabia was active within the GCC, the League of Arab States and the UN to seek a peaceful settlement of the bloody war between Iran and Iraq, a conflict that threatened regional security, as well as global economic stability arising from the disruption of oil supplies.
A civil war begun in 1975 had widened steadily in Lebanon, causing the loss of tens of thousands of lives, population dislocation and immense damage to the country. Furthermore, the crisis threatened to expand, drawing in outside forces. For years, King Fahd had been meeting with Lebanese, Arab and world leaders, seeking a way to end the fighting and bring relief to the people of Lebanon. His tireless efforts, and those of other Arab leaders, finally came to fruition in 1989. As a member of the League of Arab States Supreme Tripartite Committee on Lebanon, King Fahd hosted a meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that year. The accord signed in Taif established a national reconciliation government that ended the civil war and set about rebuilding the war-shattered country.
The next challenge to peace and stability in the Middle East, and indeed the world, took shape the following year, when Iraq appeared poised to invade Kuwait. Sensing an impending tragedy, in July 1990, King Fahd sent Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Kuwait's Emir Shaikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and hosted visits by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein. His objective was to defuse a building crisis through dialogue. On July 28, he invited delegations from Kuwait and Iraq to meet in Jeddah to resolve their differences. The talks were suspended inconclusively and on August 2, 1990, Iraq launched its invasion of Kuwait, triggering a crisis of international proportions. “We knocked on every door for peace and followed every path for fraternal dialogue and understanding. ... But Iraq refused to listen to the voice of reason,” King Fahd explained after Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait.
In the following months, Saudi Arabia and the United States helped form an international coalition to confront Iraqi aggression. Faced with Iraqi intransigence and refusal to abide by United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of its forces from Kuwait, an allied coalition led by the United States and Saudi Arabia liberated Kuwait on February 27, 1991.
That same year, a new crisis was developing in the region. Famine caused by civil war and drought had resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and displacement of millions in Somalia. Despite the best efforts of Saudi Arabia and the UN to mediate a halt to the fighting, Somali factions continued to battle for power, oblivious to the sufferings of their people. In December 1992, King Fahd ordered a contingent of Saudi troops to Somalia, under the provisions of Security Council Resolution 794, to participate in the international effort to help secure the delivery and distribution of tens of thousands of tons of relief supplies from Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Saudi Arabia was also one of the first countries to condemn the Serbian aggression against the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. King Fahd worked ceaselessly to end the crisis by bringing international diplomatic, economic and military pressure on the Serb aggressors while relieving the suffering of civilians by organizing relief assistance. Throughout the crisis, he met repeatedly with Bosnian and world leaders to seek a resolution of the tragedy. On December 1, 1992, he hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah to discuss the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing diplomatic ventures for resolving other crises, such as the Palestinian problem, which is the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1991, Saudi Arabia participated as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) delegation in the Madrid peace talks co-sponsored by the United States and the former Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia welcomed the signing of the declaration of principles between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in Washington, DC, on September 13, 1993; the subsequent efforts to achieve a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338; and the Oslo Peace Treaty signed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in 1993.
As part of its policy of supporting efforts to safeguard peace and security, Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has urged elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or biological. In the Middle East, Israel's refusal to sign the treaty and allow inspections of its nuclear facilities is viewed by the Kingdom as a threat to regional security and stability, as well as to the peace process.
The spirit of cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes and outstanding issues between nations, as embodied in the actions of King Fahd and other Saudi leaders, is applied in other areas of Saudi foreign policy as well. Committed to the free market system worldwide, the Kingdom has actively worked to support the international economy. Whether through its moderating influence within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) or its functions at the World Bank and other international agencies, Saudi Arabia has consistently sought to ensure the stability of the global economy.
Outlining Saudi Arabia's global outlook, King Fahd once stated: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose principles derive from its compassionate Shari'ah (Islamic law) ... has forged for itself the path of peace originating from these concepts and the sublime values for which the United Nations was created. ... It will continue to work side-by-side with peace-loving states for the elimination of the shadows of war and for the development of friendly relations and fruitful cooperation, as well as for the establishment of an international society where justice and peace prevail.”The inhuman terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, pose a new challenge to the international community and peace-loving nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States (see following story)