What is Saudi Arabia’s source of power? Oil, some say. That’s wrong, I say. It is instead the Kingdom’s unique cultural power and influence that are central to understanding its role in the world today. While countries have various sources of power, Saudi Arabia’s “soft power” is near unmatched. It has assets and a heritage that others do not.
But what is soft power and how does the Kingdom wield it?
Joseph Nye, an American political scientist and former official in Bill Clinton’s administration, distinguished between two kinds of power: hard power, which is “the ability to make others act in ways that contradict their initial preferences and strategies,” or in other words, the power to coerce through threats and temptations – known as “the carrot and the stick” – and soft power, meaning the ability to make “others want the results you want,” and more specifically “the ability to achieve goals through attraction and enticement rather than coercion.”
Citing historical examples, Nye believes that soft power is no less important than hard power; in fact, soft power is more influential when it comes to international relations. Through its simplicity, changing the behavior of others without struggle is possible.
Soft power as a concept theorized three decades ago, but in Saudi Arabia, it existed much earlier. The Kingdom occupies the largest area of the Arabian Peninsula with a strategic location that was historically between the civilizations of China, India, and Abyssinia, the coast of the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, Iraq, the Levant, and Egypt, which made it an important transit and convoys route.
But the Kingdom’s extensive soft power stems from more than just its location. There are four key reasons for it.
The Capital of Islam
The Kingdom’s status as home to Islam’s two holiest cities is the first source of its cultural power. Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, led by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). His followers restored the sacredness of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, removing the pagan idols it hosted, after which it became the holiest place for all Muslims. Following the construction of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the city became a sacred place that millions of Muslims visit every year to perform the Islamic pilgrimages of Hajj or Umrah, or even to pray and draw close to God in the land where the Prophet was sent.
Since 1924, the House of Saud has governed Mecca and recognized this honor as its prime responsibility, reflected in the king’s official title as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” The Vatican is holy, but does not control Italy not is it a site of prescribed religious pilgrimage. For 1.8 billion Muslims across the world, facing Mecca daily and visiting Saudi Arabia or having family friends who do so regularly, is a reality. Saudi Arabia captures the global Muslim imagination.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain: None of these countries have the Saudi Arabian soft power combination of language, religion, history and global reach.
The Capital of the Arabs
Even before the advent of Islam, Mecca had been a destination of pilgrimage from all parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Mecca’s Souq Okaz was also one of the largest markets and meeting places in the pre-Islamic Arab world. In this melting pot, Arab poetry – the media of the time and a form of soft power – spread among the people, helping form an Arab identity. It was from here that the Arabic language and its poetry was formed, sharpened, and then spread with Islam through the entire world. The Arabic language comes from Arabia, most of which is now the Kingdom.
This history, which has become a component of the contemporary Saudi identity, made the Kingdom the “capital of Arabs” and the cradle of their civilization. Saudi Arabia used this role to try to revive Arab solidarity. Thus, the Kingdom was among those who established the Arab League; always carried the banner of the Palestinian cause and other Arab issues; and mediated in the solution of many intractable Arab conflicts, especially the Lebanese civil war. To this day, it is still keen to keep its regional activities within the framework of the League, as it hopes that this organization will have a real role in championing Arab causes and solving their problems.
A weight in the balance of international relations
Today, Saudi Arabia is the center of four important “realms”: the Middle East, the Arab world, the Islamic world, and the world of energy production, making it one of the most important countries at both the regional and international level. This pivotal position provides the Kingdom with a solid base of influence, especially since its leaders have been skilled at balancing this power with the active pursuit of building a parallel soft power in their country's international relations.
Despite its cultural, economic, and military strengths, the Kingdom is committed to flexible leadership, enlightened intervention, and pluralism in its international relations. Saudi Arabia does not try to use force to impose its hegemony on other actors. It has also focused on building partnerships and regional and international cooperation to achieve collective goals: the Kingdom joined the United Nations in 1945; is a member of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization; a member of the Islamic Development Bank, and is the founder of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia has always declared its support for any form of Arab, Islamic, and international economic cooperation.
The crown prince is allied with the future
Given King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s support for youth issues, the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saw that the time has come to introduce major reforms and radical changes, even if they arouse panic among some – as change is never easy.
The Crown Prince understands the sources of hard and soft power, and knows that culture, arts, education, scientific research, and technology are also weapons whose influence may outweigh the power of aircraft. Cinema and film studies are being merged with gender equality. The winter at Tantora Festival are causing a sensation across the Middle East. Tourism and health care, both soft power tools, are being actively promoted to diversify the economy.
Through “Vision 2030,” the Crown Prince wants to add modernism, in which media and entertainment play a decisive role in changing the stereotypes. Gender equality and youth empowerment are central planks of a Saudi future that will shape the rest of the region.
If this region of the Middle East and religion of Islam is to reform and modernize, Saudi leadership and national contribution is absolutely indispensable. No other nation in the world matches Saudi soft and hard power, and none else can lead where 1.8 billion believers will follow.