Saudi Arabia: Securing interests, not making enemies

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

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In the past week, Riyadh has been visited by a number of leaders and politicians. The mere number might equal the total number of visitors to some capitals in a period of several months. There is presently intense political activity, significantly led by Saudi Arabia, which reveals the Saudi belief in a foreign policy of openness to everyone, in building common interests and not dwelling on the absence of similarities. No doubt, this week’s visits illustrate this. For example, there was an important visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just days after a visit by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad.

There has been an ongoing discussion in some Saudi circles that deals with the Pakistani attitude toward the Kingdom, particularly when the latter has provided both historic and strategic support to Pakistan. There are solid links between the two that go beyond the usual bilateral relations between nations.

Saudi Arabia has said many times that geography and history have established the presence of Iran in the region and so consequently, there is a necessity for good relations.

Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi

Most recently, it came as a surprise when the Pakistani Parliament voted unanimously against sending troops when the operation in Yemen began. The decision was surprising not because of a desperate need for troops, but because many expected that Pakistan might be the first to offer real support to Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two countries remained strong; the recent high-level visits reflect relations as they have always been. Pakistan has affirmed that Saudi security is Pakistani security and that Islamabad will not countenance any attack on Saudi Arabia or its territorial integrity.

Nawaz Sharif’s visit was perhaps a validation of the fundamental strategic relationship between the two countries that represents the essence of the Muslim world. Sharif’s visit to Tehran after Saudi Arabia is a confirmation of Pakistani mediation between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia wants action rather than words. Iran has intervened in Arab countries and therefore the situation is Arab-Iranian instead of Saudi-Iranian. What is required is a clear change in Iranian foreign policy which means that Iran should stop intervening in the internal affairs of other countries.

Concerning its approach, Saudi Arabia is not against reconciliation. It is, however, waiting for concrete steps. Saudi Arabia has said many times that geography and history have established the presence of Iran in the region and so consequently, there is a necessity for good relations. At the same time of course, good relations require effort and cooperation by both partners.

Xi in Riyadh

In addition, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Riyadh reveals the Saudi political approach in building upon interests despite differences. The visit gave rise to frequent speculation about Saudi Arabia’s political orientation moving to the East; it is clear that Riyadh believes it must go wherever the Kingdom’s best interests take it. China is a huge state and the economic relations between the two countries in 2015 amounted to something in excess of $71 billion. Chinese imports of Saudi oil amount to some 50 million tons per year and this represents only one aspect of the vast network of Saudi-Chinese relations.

China has developed into an economic power since its first engagement with the global economy in 1978. The relationship between the two countries has evolved and led to the signing of a strategic cooperation agreement in 1999. Differences naturally exist in some areas but these do not prevent pragmatic cooperation when it serves both countries’ interests.

Thus as a matter of political rationality, a Chinese-Saudi rapprochement remains important, not only for the two countries but also for the region, politically and economically. It is important that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) unify its foreign policies in order to earn more respect and influence in the capitals of the world. There is at present an economic agreement between the GCC and China for the establishment of a free trade zone between them.

The visitors to Riyadh have included foreign ministers, heads of parliaments and ministers of defense. The visits certainly suggest that intensive diplomatic movement is under way in the face of Iranian expansionism. The aim must always be to serve the best interests of the entire region. Saudi Arabia has a firm policy, but at the same time it is active diplomatically in order to achieve its strategic goals. In today’s world, power is not only arms and soldiers but includes economics, national benefits and political impact.

This article was first published in Arab News on Jan. 20, 2016.

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992. You can follow him on Twitter here: @mfalharthi

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