As Saudi Arabia celebrates its 90th National Day, it is a time to reflect on how the Kingdom has transformed itself within a few decades from a desert to a thriving modern state.
The Kingdom’s geostrategic, economic, and religious significance make it a central power in the heart of the Gulf, Arab, and Islamic worlds.
However, states do not operate in isolation, and external factors and regional politics are influential, especially in a region with overlapping political identities such as the Middle East.
Ironically, the very same factors that make Saudi Arabia powerful also put it in the crosshairs of regional conflicts.
Today, the regional security challenges surrounding Saudi Arabia are overwhelmingly complex, but they are not greater than what the Kingdom has already overcome.
The Saudi Arabia that would one day be a founding member of the United Nations was not born oil-rich. In fact, the process of uniting the Kingdom and expanding it from a small emirate in 1902 to the largest state in the Arabian Peninsula by 1932 predated the discovery of oil. With limited resources and a small number of soldiers, founding King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdulrahman faced the well-equipped Ottoman Turks who attacked the emirate from all sides. King Abdul Aziz’s triumph against all odds has instilled in the Kingdom a sense of resilience – a trait that has characterized its approach to complex security challenges as well.
In its early years, the Kingdom faced ideological conflict in the region. The unstable post-colonial environment produced a number of competing ideologies and political identities in the Middle East. The ideological conflict between Arab nationalists, socialists, and conservatives permeated the 1950s and resulted in unrest throughout the region. Given its significant position in the Arab and the Islamic worlds, Saudi Arabia took a balanced stance. The Kingdom considered Arab and Islam as core components of its identity. In contrast to extremists from both sides, Saudi Arabia did not see a contradiction between the Arab collective cooperation and Islamic solidarity. Therefore, Saudi Arabia became a founding member of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. From early on, the Kingdom has taken a firm stance against the establishment of politico-religious groups and revolutionary parties. This stance would prove to be of great importance to the Kingdom’s fight against extremism decades later.
During the 1980s, religious extremism posed a threat to Saudi Arabia’s security, but it was not the only threat the country faced. Radical Arab nationalists, such as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, always perceived Saudi Arabia as an obstacle to their revolutionary ambitions in the region. According to the Financial Times, during a meeting in March 1982, Gaddafi launched a bitter attack on Saudi Arabia stating that “he had met Saudi revolutionaries who came to Libya,” seeking his support against the Saudi government. Gaddafi would continue plotting against Saudi Arabia until he was assassinated in 2011.
After Gaddafi’s death, recordings of his meetings started to surface, revealing new plots against the Kingdom. The recordings captured secret conversations between Gaddafi, former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa, and his former Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, as well as Kuwaiti Members of Parliament with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. In these conversations, which took place around 2008, they discussed plans for taking down the Saudi government and dividing the Kingdom. In a later interview with Qatar TV, former Prime Minister of Qatar Hamad bin Jassim admitted that “part of the recordings was true.”
Following these revelations, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain severed their diplomatic relations with Qatar.
In addition to the Gulf rift, the collapse of the Arab order in 2011 and the outbreak of the Arab Spring pitted Saudi Arabia against Iran and Turkey. Arab failed states became a major security concern as they became hotbeds for conflict and an easy battleground for Iran and Turkey to expand their sphere of influence. In Yemen, Iran’s proxy, the Houthis, has presented a direct threat to Saudi Arabian national security. In response to Houthi ballistic missile attacks, Saudi Arabia worked with the Arab and international communities to settle the problem.
When the Houthis ignored the UN resolutions, Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition supported initially by the US, the UK, and France. The coalition launched a 25-day air campaign to take out the ballistic missile sites, followed by Operation Restore Hope, which aims to integrate military, political, and humanitarian relief to restore order in Yemen.
Currently, Saudi Arabia stands as the only power capable of promoting collective security cooperation in the Arab world. And the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan is making a series of visits to Arab capitals meant to strengthen collective cooperation to deal with the security challenges facing the Arab world.
Over the last 90 years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has grown more resilient to security challenges. Despite the changing security environment, Saudi Arabia remains a status-quo power that strives to maintain regional and global stability. At the same time, the Kingdom is an active plyer on the international stage, supporting economic growth, limiting conflicts, and providing humanitarian assistance. It is moving into the future with a new vision to continue building “a thriving country in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes, and ambitions,” as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had said when he introduced Vision 2030.